Almost universally, coaches and parents report to me their advice to players regarding competing effectively includes the aim to control unintentional match related thoughts and feelings like nerves, frustration, and helplessness. For example, statements like: "Believe in yourself", "Stay calm", "Don't worry about the outcome", "Accept errors", Don't get frustrated at the wind", etc, etc.
While this is well-intentioned and sensible on the surface, a crucial question to reflect on in trying to help players improve is this:
How well does it work?
For example, I imagine that before their matches against Nadal and Kerber, Alex De Minaur and Kim Birrell's coaches advise included a combination of certain strategies to employ and also the message: "Believe In Yourself".
But as their respective matches unfolded, I wonder whether their dominant thoughts and feelings were more reflective of self-belief or helplessness.
I strongly suspect that no matter what their coaches did or said before the match, there was nothing their coaches could have done to prevent the reality of powerful helplessness feelings and the associated thoughts like: "there's nothing I can do" being a dominant part of their match experience with Nadal and Kerber playing so incredible.
This begs the question...
Should we be explicitly encouraging players to try to control difficult, unintentional match related thoughts and feelings like helplessness as they show up in matches?
In my view this is typically not the best way to help players.
What Works Better...
In advising a player to best respond to helplessness. for example, during matches, here's a simple version of what I suggest you include in pre-match chats:
Step 1.) Discuss and make a plan and encourage the player to commit to a helpful process (likely a strategy) that increases the chance of success.
Step 2.) Instead of following this with the usual advice to control unintentional thoughts and feelings, have a short discussion where you openly discuss and normalise the likely difficult thoughts and feelings that the player might experience during the match.
So in the case of Alex and Kim, for example, it might look something like: "We know Rafa/ Angelique are incredible players, and given the circumstances you'll likely experience helpless feelings at times during the match, and the thought "There's nothing I can do" might show up. If that happens, I want you to practice noticing and accepting the thoughts as normal based on the circumstances.
##An important note here is when we make this step a regular part of pre-match chats, we can begin to ask players to come up with the difficult thoughts and feelings they expect to experience themselves, and they will become much more open about the thoughts and feelings that they expect will realistically show up.
This is the key move and is helpful for 2 reasons:
First, it limits the avalanche of difficult self-judgments that players tend to experience when they believe that they should be able to control unintentional thoughts and feelings during matches e.g., "Why can't I believe in myself, you should be able to believe in yourself, you suck."
And second, noticing the helpless thought is absolutely a required step to having a chance to make a choice in what players do next with their attention and actions (as opposed to automatically acting based on the helplessness, which generally leads to a lessening of effort).
Step 3.) Next, as soon as our players recognise that they've started to act based on the helplessness, we want to ask them to bring attention back into the present moment and commit to the action/strategy that we have discussed before the match (in the case that your player is skilled at problem solving during matches, you might ask them to employ the strategy that they assess to increases the chance of success for just the next point.)
Once a player has recognised and accepted the helpless thoughts as normal they are better played to draw themselves out of the global, automatic helpless actions and commit to an action that actually helps.
So that's what we need to advise them to do....
I would say something like: "Ok once you've noticed that thought "there's nothing I can do", thank it for the comment like you might thank a passenger on the bus you are driving who is trying to get you to drive in the wrong direction, then commit to (agreed strategy) no matter what for just the next point. And continually practice this process of noticing when you are automatically acting based on the helpless thoughts, and committing for just one point to do something that increases your chance of success on the next one."
Why this Works Better...
The reason this works better than expecting that players will not experience helplessness or have the ability to control it is simple.
Players continually experience difficult match related thoughts and feelings as they compete, and it's much more practical and possible for players to notice difficult thoughts and feelings during matches and commit to a helpful action than it is for them to actually control the thought or feeling itself.
And importantly, if a player can actually achieve the process I suggest above, they will likely increase their chance of achieving a successful outcome, which in turn will reduce the intensity of the helplessness experience without trying.
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