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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.

Robert Reiner, Ph.D. ~ Uses of V.R.

Robert Reiner, Ph.D., BCN, BCB, is the Executive Director and founder of Behavioral Associates and has been practicing psychology since 1981. Dr. Reiner is well known for his work in treating anxiety and phobias through biofeedback and virtual reality therapy. He has had great success in treating clients who have a fear of flying which was documented on an episode of the National Geographic Show. Dr. Reiner can frequently be seen in the news and media and is often makes appearances on major news networks for his expert opinion. He currently serves on the faculty for the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Medical Center and is a guest lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania psychology department.

SZ: You’ve been a practicing psychologist for thirty-five years. When did you begin to incorporate Virtual Reality into your practice and why?

RR: When I was a psychology graduate student I remember when the curriculum turned to Joseph Wolpe and Systematic Desensitization it seemed like a great theory and made complete sense from a Behavioral and Learning Theory perspective. I also thought very few clients would develop vivid imagery or sufficient imagery around something they fear because it’s something they have spent their whole life avoiding. For example, if you have a fear of flying you’re not going to generate good imagery about being in an airplane. This was in the 70’s and I remember thinking that if something like Virtual Reality ever became available it would not only confirm Wolpe’s theory but also revolutionize the profession because the process forces the client to confront what they are afraid of.

In 1999 I was watching CNN and sure enough it had happened. The technology had finally become available. I started making a lot of phone calls and as luck would have it there was a big conference two weeks away on Virtual Reality. I attended the conference and met the major player’s and I was trying to find out what system to buy. There was an American Company called Virtually Better that cost 15k in 1999 money. There was also a company out of Spain called, Previ, that was piggy backing on the Virtually Better research. They were selling their system for 2k. I initially bought the Previ but tech support was a challenge. I sold it back to them and bought the Virtually Better system which I have used until recently.

SZ: You foresaw the future and got on board.

RR: Yeah, I always knew it would work. I suspected that the use of V.R. would force the client to face what they are afraid of and it turned out the quality of the V.R. didn’t have to be that good for it to work. You just had to activate part of the clients autonomic system, not the whole thing. The early graphics were very cartoonish. But we were getting success rates of about sixty percent which is respectable. I’ve always been a biofeedback person. I was doing biofeedback as a graduate student. I tore my left trapezious muscle and someone turned me on to EMG biofeedback and I was hooked.

When I interned at NYU Medical Facility, Bellevue Hospital, they built a lab for me. I had all these stand alone machines, we didn’t have the computers that are available today. I combined Heart Rate Variability, (HRV) and Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) and our success rate became over ninety percent. It made sense because the very nature of HRV is that it disables the bodies Fight or Flight response. The goal is to pair something like fear of flying with something that’s so relaxing it can put you to sleep. This process has been a major game changer in my career.

SZ: A client comes to see you for treatment of fear of flying. What would be the treatment steps?

It begins with breath

RR: At Behavioral Associates we see about six to one clients who have a fear of flying. That’s what we are known for but we work with clients with all sorts of phobias. Basically a client comes in and during the first session I will hook them up to a bunch of biofeedback sensors and I will show them the V.R. equipment and program only because one, the client wants to see it and what we will be doing, and two, I want to see if their body registers a response to the GSR device. It they don’t register a reaction then there’s a problem, V.R. isn’t going to work.

Client is hooked up to sensors and V.R. to see if they are candidates for treatment

People think they have to get really immersed in V.R. for it to be effective but that’s not true. All that has to happen is that the autonomic system fires and you measure that with GSR or Electrodermal activity (EDR). We also collect baseline data on their breathing habits. Almost all these clients hyperventilate when they become anxious.

SZ: If someone is on medication it can dampen their systems response.

RR: Even if someone is taking tranquilizers they can still have a panic attack. Medication for the most part will not block a panic attack unless you are unconscious. If the client is just a nervous flyer but not a phobic person medication can make them less uncomfortable but nothing is going to block a panic attack. It’s like a tsunami and will roar right through.

The first session informs me and the client whether they are a candidate for V.R. The next step is teaching the client HRV and that usually takes about 3-4 weeks on average.

SZ: With assignments at home?

RR: Yes. I can have them use a metronome or even a harmonica is good. I play the blues harmonica and I have them pull out their smart phone and use the voice recorder of me playing the harmonica at their optimal breath rate. Ninety-five percent of the populations optimal breath rate is six breaths per minute. I make it clear to the client they need to practice everyday. It is easy to spot how much a person has practiced and that is a big motivator. I ask the client to e-mail me each day and let me know their experience, when they practiced, and for how long which helps them feel like they are on top of things. I reinforce that the more they practice the exercise the more they will get out of it and the quicker they will be flying.  If they aren’t practicing it will be obvious.

Usually within 3-4 weeks they get it. I know they have gotten it when I can turn off the monitors and the client is able to self regulate. That’s a critical step. After the client has a grasp on HRV we start pairing the breathing with V.R., fear of flying. One of the early V.R. scenes is of them being at the airport gate waiting to board. Some of the programs go much further back having the client packing for the trip at home. During this process I make it very clear to the client how important it is that they do not behave protectively. This means to the extent that a person acts like a phobic person which is in actions like calling turbulence.com a website for the weather.

Turbulence is probably the thing people fear the most. It doesn’t matter if I explain to them that turbulence cannot bring a plane down anymore than if there is a hurricane and you have a wine cork floating in the ocean, the cork will not sink to the bottom of the ocean. It may get rocked around quite a bit but it’s not going anywhere.

SZ: Preconceived fears of what’s going to happen in the absence of reality?

RR: Not necessarily because some of these people actually do fly but they are just miserable when they fly. Most of them had a bad flight. The plane hit an air pocket and dropped a thousand feet and they were nervous to begin with. So they just stop flying. I explain to them that when they do fly they have to work at a muscular skeletal level on acting as if they are relaxed even if their stomach is turning somersaults. Staying relaxed at a muscular skeletal level is really important because the brain is monitoring muscular skeletal activity. The brain notices if the client is acting nervous then it must be dangerous. That’s why phobias become progressively worse over time.

But at this stage of treatment which is usually session five I expose them to V.R. and pairing the V.R. with breath. That’s usually a challenge because the client gets really anxious as our systems are pretty realistic. When the client is wearing the V.R. goggles they can’t see their breath rate. The early V.R. screens are easy and gradually becomes tougher. After the fifth session it takes about twenty more sessions before the client is ready to fly. It will then be another five to ten more sessions before treatment is complete.

The biggest issue we have that I still am working on the solution to is I know when the client is ready to fly but they have no successful experience to draw upon and they can’t possibly be aware of the affect of the counter-conditioning. They have to take my word for it. Most people get through it, but some people just run off the plane they are that scared. But I warn them. So I tell them I’m not insulted. I know it’s terrifying for them and they have no positive experiences yet to draw upon, but when they do the breathing it typically works out.

SZ: But they are not yet able to sit long enough to get through the experience?

V.R. brings realistic experiences to client

RR: Right, it’s tough because they are most afraid of fear of flying and they are also afraid that they’ve wasted all this money. There is an article written by a client who came to see me to overcome her fear of flying. The article gives a snapshot of her experience.

There are two kinds of reinforcement, positive and negative. Negative reinforcement is a tough sell because it’s the termination of an averse stimulus. Where as positive reinforcement is getting something really good like a great dessert or a vacation something that’s an easy sell. Telling someone they are going to come here and I am going to make them miserable but then I’m going to stop it is not an easy sell. It’s like hitting myself in the head with a hammer because it feels good to stop.

SZ: A lot of this is about your relationship with the client. Trust in you overrides some of the unknown fears. That’s a huge part of the gap between the treatment and the client making it through the journey.

RR: I agree with you. I think you need all your therapy skills.

SZ: Also personality, possessing the interpersonal skills so the client believes what you  taught them and can walk that unknown path drawing on that training.

RR: You know those classes where people go to the airport and they explain the physics of flying? This is not talk therapy. It’s not the system that you are working with. It’s the unconscious stuff that you can’t control. It all happens below the radar. We are working with the limbic system.

SZ: How do your clients describe their experience using V.R. as part of their treatment for fear of flying?

RR: They like it. It works and they know it’s realistic. They feel immersed in it and think it’s cool.

Specializes in helping clients overcome fear of flying with biofeedback and V.R.

SZ: Dr. Reiner thanks so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to talk with me about V.R. and it’s uses.