If you've been following my communications for a while you'll be aware that I believe trying to control unintentional difficult thoughts (e.g., outcome thoughts, negative thinking) and emotions (anxiety, frustration) during matches is detrimental to long term mental toughness.
What we do want to do however is communicate (if you're a coach or parent), and reflect in ways that lead to more helpful mental experiences over time.
Here are 5 ways we can do this:
The most powerful way to improve internal experiences in a given performance situation when encountered in the future is to commit to desired actions now.
For example, when a player performs well while experiencing difficult internal states, this positive performance outcome will likely lead to more adaptive interpretations of that situation when experienced again.
The player will also implicitly learn from this experience that desirable internal states are not required for effective performance, therefore limiting concerns about the possibility of difficult experiences arising, as well as fostering acceptance when they actually show up.
We all have an incredibly social brain that is continually being powerfully changed by interactions with other people.Each interaction we have with players whom we coach physically impacts the structure of their brain, and brain structure drives the internal states that they experience in practice and competition.
This means that the messages we communicate are a powerful influencer of the way they come to automatically think about tennis situations. It’s therefore important that we are mindful of the messages we send.
‘Believe in yourself’ or ‘I believe in you’…
Consider these 2 coach responses to a player reporting that he/she is lacking confidence before a match. There may seem to be little difference between these 2 statements but it is in fact profound.
In the first case the coach is asking the player to explicitly change his/her internal experience. How this player interprets the situation, however, is largely based on his/her learning history in similar situations.
In effect, the coach is asking the player to do something that he/she probably can’t do (perceive the situation with confidence), and this statement may lead to an increase in difficult internal experiences for the player (“Why can’t I believe in myself”).
However, with the statement ‘I believe in you’, the coach is not asking the player to look at the situation differently, but assuming he/she respects the coach’s opinion, because of the social nature of our brains the player will likely have a little more belief in himself/herself automatically simply as a result of the coach communicating his/her own belief.
We can also help players consider situations from different perspectives, without telling them to actually try to control or change their internal experiences.
For example, consider the case that a player you coach reports before an event that he/she is extremely nervous.
How might you help him/her reflect in a way that likely implicitly decreases his/her nerves without actually telling him/her to do something explicitly designed to reduce nervousness?
What about asking the following question: ‘If you were to look back at the result of today’s match a year from now how important do you think it will be whether you win or lose’?
In this situation by simply helping the player reflect in this way he/she will likely experience a reduction in nerves.
Some years ago when I was coaching at the Australian Open tennis tournament I ran into a young player who was about to go on to play his first round. He told me that he was so nervous that he didn't know if he could go out and play.
I responded by asking him, “If you had the choice between watching the match from the stands or playing which would you choose, because I would love the opportunity to go out and play for you if you would rather watch”.
Although I didn’t think much of it at the time the player later told me that simple interaction changed his interpretation a little from a sense of pressure towards opportunity.
What’s important to remember here is that his change in perspective occurred without intention on his part. So as coaches, we are constantly influencing the way players think and feel by the way we help them reflect on their experiences.
4.) Role Modeling
Players’ brains are continually automatically influenced as they observe our coaching behaviors via specialist brain neurons called mirror neurons. In this way players’ brains are literally sponges that internalize our responses as they watch us react to coaching situations.
For example, if I lack self-awareness it is more likely that I will respond to a player who doesn’t meet my expectations by automatically becoming dominated by my own frustration and berating him/her.
But in most cases like this, it would be better for the player if I could become aware of the urge to act based on frustration and consider what is in his/her best interests before responding. Upon reflection, I might then decide to help the player by exploring the reasons for his/her behavior instead.
In this case, I would be modeling my own helpful responses to a difficult situation and this would be automatically transmitted to the player via the mirror neuron system.
If I repeat these interactions consistently, in some small way this changes the player’s brain and better equips him/her to respond with choice to the difficult internal experiences that continually show up during practice and competition.
5.) Reaching Out to Influential Others
While coaches powerfully shape how players automatically come to perceive tennis situations over time, there is no bigger influence than their parents.
if you are a coach, your ability to help parents interact successfully with their children regarding tennis will be the most powerful way you can impact a child’s tennis experience over time.
Tennis parenting is incredibly challenging, but sometimes as coaches we have little chance to assist parents.
When we do, it's generally time well spent to get to know parents and help them reflect on their own challenges, and introduce parents to ideas that can help them support their child’s healthy mental toughness development as well.
Have a great day,
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