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What me worry?

Everyone worries. It’s a part of being human. Our brains naturally watch for danger and prepare to assess and quickly solve problems. There is great benefit to identifying potential problems and threats in our environment so we can respond effectively. Excessive worry, however, can take this adaptive brain response and exaggerate it into a repetitive and uncontrollable negative anxiety loop.

In some sports, there is a real life threat of danger each time an athlete participates. Some of these sports include, race car driving, cage fighting, boxing, ice hockey, free solo rock climbing  and a host of other sports. But in sport environments such as baseball, basketball, swimming, soccer, tennis, golf there is a much lower chance of day to day physical danger. Yet frequently athletes in these latter sports express that the level of intensity of their worry gets in the way of their performance potential. Worry frequently shifts into anxiety. If we were to listen to an athletes’ thought processes, it often involves a heavy dialogue of “what if’s”. For example:

What if I play poorly?
What if I don’t win?
What if I I don’t play well and the coach benches me?
What if my worries overcome me and all these people are watching?
What if I mentally freeze up and forget the plays?
What if I can’t coordinate my arm rhythm and double fault or can’t throw the ball?
What if all the people that doubt me were right and I am not as good an athlete as I thought?

The list can go on and on and you can add your own “what if” thoughts.

Once the “what if” worries get going they are usually accompanied by physical symptoms and behaviors. This list often includes:

Feelings of restlessness.
Startle response in which sounds or interruptions can be upsetting.
Muscular tension, headaches.
Feeling sluggish.
Difficulty getting to sleep or restless sleep leading up to the athletic event.
Upset stomach.
Feeling fatigued easily.

Each person has their own unique symptoms that accompanying their level of anticipatory worry and it is helpful to identify how worry affects you.

During excessive worry the internal mental dialogue ends up being a mental push and pull battle ground that can sound like:

I am so terrible.
Think positive.
I let everyone down.
I have to play to hold up the team.
I can’t believe I am losing.
Be positive.

Worry is the anticipatory preparation of future problems and feelings of uncertainty of whether the player can meet the demands of the challenge. The downside of worry is that it can maximize all the negative thoughts while minimizing all the positive thoughts about a situation. It can pull a player’s attention away from the present and instead make one focus on all of the myriad of possible negative outcomes of the future.

For example, a tennis player playing on a team may be worried about her next match and start to say things to herself like, “If I don’t play well then I may lose my place on the team. The coach is going to be disappointed. I won’t be able to face my teammates and they may talk behind my back about me not being as good a player as I used to be.” This worry focus on the possible negative aspects of the future prevent the player from staying in the present and playing with a “go for it attitude”.

Worrying does not alert the player to present problems that need solving on the court—worrying actually interferes with problem solving on the court. The path to having less trouble with worry on the court involves changing your relationship with worry instead of trying to change the worries themselves.

The following are some cognitive coping strategies and habits that are effective in reducing and redirecting worry:

*Take time ahead of any situation that you know causes worry to write down all the possible worries that may come up for you. Putting your worries on paper ahead of time allows for review and problem solving and also can alleviate much of the power those worries have. For example, in tennis, a player may be very worried about playing a particular opponent, but writing down these worries can help the player actually review the strengths and weakness of the upcoming opponent and decide how to play more effectively. Worry then becomes a reasonable problem solving task. The player may not be successful in their outing but they redirect their worries to a specific task, versus feeling like they don’t have any control.

*Allow yourself to know that you will not fully banish all worried thoughts. This is different from trying to ignore the worries, and/or control, or push away your thoughts and feelings. When you have worries, acknowledge them. Know that they will be there and instead of focusing your thoughts on your worries, redirect your time and energy to focus on your game plan. It’s useful to have a flexible game plan. Creating a game plan allows you to focus on what can be adjusted as the match/game goes on.

*Adapt self-regulation skills. Successful performance at a high level is a balanced blend of mental and physical training. There are an abundance of simple and useful self-regulation tools available for athletes. Diaphragmatic breathing, progressive relaxation, visualization skills and meditation are all skills that can help with managing anxiety and worry. There are many apps that can be used to help develop competency in these techniques. Consistency, repetition and practice are essential and allow these techniques to be an automatic part of the athlete’s abilities. When an athlete has developed a mental/physical worry cycle around competition, those thoughts and actions will potentially reactivate every time they are competing. When a tennis player switches from a semi-western grip to a full western grip it takes time and multiple stages of practice to make the adjustment to the point where the new grip is a natural fit under all conditions. The same applies to taking on a mental skills program. It takes awareness and ongoing practice and training to make the shift from an automatic worry cycle to more present awareness.

Worry is a part of the human condition and it will always be with us. The brain is a problem solving organ but too much worry promotes a way of thinking and acting that isn’t in the best interest of your athletic goals. Don’t expect worry to go away but by taking steps to respond differently it is less likely to limit an athlete’s goals and potential. This takes training, awareness and action.

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 ~