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Is Your Mental Game Up To The Challenge

Is your training program out of balance? Many coaches and athletes devote a large percentage of their time to physical training for competition. Yet, coaches, players and parents often attribute non-performance mental factors as the culprit of why a player didn’t perform up to his/her capabilities.  This is illustrated by comments such as; “He didn’t want it badly enough,” “She doesn’t handle pressure well,” “He had a great warm up but couldn’t execute when it counted,” “She becomes so anxious she can’t think clearly,” “He was playing well until the opponent called that unnecessary time out,” “I don’t understand why I play so well in practice and don’t in the game.”

These comments are frequently heard in post-game analysis by coaches, players, parents, but rarely do you hear a coach, player or parent who says that the player has not been taught the proper psychological skills and strategies for emotional management and focus in competition. After a loss a large percentage of post-match recap is generally attributed to mental and emotional pieces of the game but almost no time is spent incorporating these tools into a regular mental training routine. More frequently a player returns to the coach and they continue to work on a new physical strategy or increase practice time. This isn’t without benefits but doesn’t address the bigger picture.

Why is Sport Psychology neglected as part of a training routine? The answer is that most coaches are not trained in essential psychological skills, so may not pause to explore if mental training skills could be taught to players to strengthen their physical/mental connection of competition. A one hour or one day seminar will not develop these skills. A coach saying to a player, “breathe” or “focus,” is not mental skills training. Some coaching philosophies are that athletes either have innate psychological capabilities or will develop them as their physical skills improve.

At the elite professional and collegiate level of performance there has been a significant movement to incorporate psychological training for competition. The elite athlete knows that having highly developed physical skills is not enough as most opponents at that level are equally physically prepared. The elite athlete is aware that the winner will most likely be the player who is more mentally prepared.

Do you perform up to your potential in competition? Is your mental game up to the demands of your physical game? Sport Psychology is a process of training players to develop an effective mind set well before they enter the competitive arena. Improved competitive performance is achieved through connecting mind/body awareness and providing techniques and strategies to help a player address all the elements that allow him/her to have a successful athletic performance when it matters.

Paula Smith - PTTPA

Paula Smith played on the WTA for over ten years, starting in 1977. After her first year on tour she gave her dad back his credit card and said, “If I am going to make it I have to do it myself.” She says it was close at one time but she made it. Smith played 100 tour singles matches and 300 doubles matches, in 1981 winning the Italian Open with Candy Reynolds and reaching the doubles finals of the French Open. In 1985 Francisco Gonzales and Smith reached the finals of the French Open Mixed. Other career highlights include, reaching the finals of the Colgate & Toyota end of year series Championships in 1980 and 1981. She won the U.S. Clay Courts doubles in Indianapolis twice. There were no doubles rankings until 1984 when she was ranked twenty-three, but in 1983 she was number one in the bonus pool at Wimbledon. Her highest singles ranking peaked at number forty-eight.

Since leaving the tour Smith spent some time coaching at U.C. Berkeley for two seasons, then moved to Los Angles and taught at a few clubs before acquiring a tennis concession at Westwood Park when she coached for over ten years. Aside from tennis Smith got into horse racing while celebrating her 50th birthday at Santa Anita race track. She and her partner bought into a horse and were racing until 2012 with five wins.

Smith’s current project is heading up Pro Tour Tennis Professionals (PTTPA) website. PTTPA is an online International Tennis Community of current and former WTA and ATP ranked Pro Tour players which provides opportunities in coaching and business networking as well as a forum for the exchange of information for and between ranked professionals.

SZ: When did you begin playing tennis and who introduced you to the sport?

PS: My mother Polly loved tennis and played on a dirt court in Macon, Georgia where she grew up. Her first three children from her first marriage all played tennis. Twenty years later she married my dad, Colonel, Vernon Smith, a famous college football player, when my brother and I were 8 & 6 when the family moved to Hawaii. I was in second grade when I started to play tennis twice a week on public courts with about 15-20 other kids. Needless to say there was not much tennis being played with that many kids on the courts. I went to John Gardner’s Tennis Camp at age 10 and the next year to Dennis Van De Meer’s. By the time I was 12 I traveled with a team from Hawaii to play tournaments in California. At 16 years old my high school (Maui High) won the State Championship’s in tennis. The highlight for me was winning the singles. The following year we moved to La Jolla, California. I was so mad because I thought my mom had us move so I would play more tennis, so I quit playing. I swam instead and had no friends. I started playing again when I met Suzie Hagey and Terry Holladay. In my senior year of high school I asked myself, “Do you want to swim laps everyday to make it to the Olympics or do you want to play professional tennis.”

SZ: Who was the biggest influence on your game physically and mentally?

PS: I started playing tennis everyday but was not a top junior player. My mother sent me to Harry Hopman’s in New York and I trained there for two weeks engaging in the hardest physical training of my life. He pushed me to the limit on the court and then even more with off court training. The schedule was two and a half hours of tennis in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon finishing the days work out with another half hour off court training and a mile jog. Mentally Karen Hantze Susman started working with me my senior year and that is when I really started playing well. She taught me to think on the court. She taught me where to hit the ball and when to take the right shot. I finished the year top five in Southern California and went on to play #1 at UCLA. My experiences at UCLA helped me mature as a person.

SZ: How high do you rate the importance of the mental game?

PS: I rate the importance of the mental game a 10, this being the top. Everyone can play tennis on the professional tour but it is the mental skills that push and drive you to the top level of play. Without the mental game you can not reach the professional level in any sport. Some player’s are more adept at the mental game than others but the top player’s are exceptional. Young player’s display it at an early age, Chrissie Evert, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal. But you also have some extremely talented late bloomers like Martina Navratilova and Andre Agassi who began to got focused when they were a little older, but with big results as both became number one in the world.  There were many times in a tough match when I was playing that it became all mental. I just said to myself, “I am not going to  miss this ball.” But I did not win them all. In doubles when all four player’s are at that high level of playing it is won by total focus and hitting the right shot at the right time. On the flip side making that one mistake, hurts the most!

SZ: How important do you feel that mental game is during practices?

PS: It’s a different mental state in practice. It’s NOT a total focus on winning. Practices may be  to tune up your game, work on something special, or just keep your timing up so you are ready to compete. You cannot focus 100% of the time. Your brain needs to rest, refresh and it’s a balance.

SZ: Which current junior or tour player(s) do you feel have great mental focus?

PS: I picked Jejena Ostapenko to win this years French Open. I saw the focus in her play right away. I like her game, it’s a go-for-it style of play and nothing bothered her. She just kept focused on what she wanted to do and did it. I haven’t seen that in awhile in the women’s game. Many in the last few years have reached #1, but drop very quickly. They don’t or aren’t able to keep that high level of focus to stay at the top for a long period of time. Ostapenko appears to want it  and she is not afraid.

SZ: What prompted you to start the PTTPA website? What do you hope to provide to reader’s?

PS: I had been working on organizing a pension for former tour player’s for over a year and while conducting research and talking with former tour players who had successfully transitioned into new careers I thought why not create a website that will support these great individuals? If I wanted to be a professional tennis player today I would be looking for a coach who had professional experience. Tour player’s know what it takes and can provide a higher level of coaching. I also see the website as a way to help player’s who come off the tour and are in the process of figuring out what they want to professionally transition into during the next phase of their life. I originally thought I would pursue being a Marine Biologist, but after ten years on the professional tour that career seemed to pass. Former tour player’s have successfully entered the careers of tennis coaches, financiers, lawyers, sport agents, club owners etc. I developed PTTPA as a resource for player’s coming off the tour to see and connect with former player’s and possibly connect with them to explore career options. The vision of the PTTPA website is to support former and current player’s businesses. I am in the process of creating a tennis community and network which I believe will help player’s by providing jobs, and valuable client information to the public that has followed the career of these amazing former tennis professionals.

SZ: Paula thank you for taking time out of your busy day for this interview. I look forward to watching PTTPA grow.

Susan Zaro ~

Take Aways From Stan Wawrinka's U.S. Open Win

Stan Wawrinka beat the world’s number one player Novak Djokovic this year at the U.S. Open. During his post match interview he said, “I was shaking in the locker room. When we start five minutes before the match talking last few things with Magnus Norman (his coach), I start to cry. I was completely shaking. But the only thing I was convinced with myself was that my game was there. I didn’t want to come to the court to lose a final. I need to be ready I need to be focused and go for it.”

One of the take aways for the competitive junior and social recreational player is that even the best player’s in the world get scared before a match. They also become nervous and experience self-doubt during the course of a match.

When a junior player is playing out of his/her age division or a U.S.T.A. 3.0 plays a 3.5 or higher level player these are low stress situations and are less likely to produce the nerves and anxiety that accompany the expectations of a high pressure match situation. When a player is playing someone they expect to beat or if the player isn’t playing as well as they expect to play and begin to lose, it’s not uncommon to experience feelings of frustration and even a sense of panic and self-critical thoughts as the opponent catches up or pulls ahead. It can be helpful to look at this from a brain perspective.  The brain interprets this type of high stakes emotion in matches as a survival situation. Under these conditions the brain and the central nervous system shifts into “fight or flight” reactivity which can inhibit optimal focusing and the ability to adapt to the challenges of the match.

Regardless of how many times coaches, parents, team-mates say, “Don’t be nervous. Just play and have fun”. Or, “Just think positive thoughts.” Neither of these techniques have been shown to alleviate a player’s nerves. Negative thoughts and feelings are going to pop up in situations that matter to a player. Roger Federer sums up this state of anxiousness by saying, “Your mind is always wondering what if, what if I win, what will that mean? You can’t help it, you tell yourself not to think about these things but they keep coming back.” (Roger Federer quoted on his mental state during his 2009 French Open win).

Serena Williams also talks about this, “At that point I was just so nervous, and as you could see, I wasn’t able to hit a forehand, a backhand, or any other shot for that matter.” (Serena Williams quoted during 2013 French Open win).

So how do the professionals manage to muddle through their self-doubt and nerves? They do two things: They embrace the moment and regulate their physiological reaction of stress in their bodies through breath.

Novak Djokovic talks about embracing the moment in his book, “Serve to Win” that instead of trying to control unintentional difficult thoughts, feelings and reactions during matches he acknowledges them and allows them to be present. “Instead of trying to silence your mind and find inner peace you allow and accept your thoughts as they come without judging them. Your job is to let them come and go. So now when I blow or shank a backhand I still get those flashes of self-doubt but I know how to handle them. I acknowledge the negative thoughts and let them slide by focusing on the moment.”

The second step that the professionals take to manage their nerves is to pair being in the moment with diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the relaxation response by supplying an excess of oxygen to the blood. This creates a reserve of oxygen rich fuel for the body and contributes to balancing your emotions. Managing your breath turns off the “fight or flight” circuit of the brain.

Being in the moment and diaphragmatic breathing are two simple but important techniques the pro’s use to help them through the challenges they face on the court. These techniques are deceptively simple but incredibly powerful mental tools that need practice. Competitive juniors and social recreational league players can practice these skills on a regular basis through their practice matches. Once or twice a week organize a practice match where the outcome matters to you. Play two sets and if you split sets play a tie breaker for the third set if you don’t have time to play a third. Finish the match. This will give you a safe environment to allow yourself to be in a potentially uncomfortable position and work on the skill of staying in the moment and working through the challenges.  This practice will carry over into the matches you play competitively in tournaments and league. You may win you may lose but at least you will have the tools to go into the match mentally competitive.