Sam Stosur and Nick Kyrgios have some new friends in Naomi Osaka (French Open) and gymnast Simone Biles (Olympics). Athletes who think that they have failed to live up to expectations—whether it be parents, peer group, coach or media.
Regrettably media these days have jumped on the band wagon wanting to label it as “mental illness”. It’s not, it never was.
Competitive sports put athletes under pressure to perform. And any major championship increases the pressure exponentially.
My good Scottish friend, Johnson Brown, put it succinctly: “you’ve got to ask the question”. What Johnson meant was to give your opposition a chance to miss. Equally, you are often asking the same question of yourself.
On a personal note I well remember scouting an opponent with my coach before a major championship final. Says the well meaning coach — “The guy can’t play, you’ll have no problem…”. Fast forward to next day’s final. There’s a big crowd. It’s 5 all in the third set! Enter my demon: “the guy can’t play” — not a subtle message demon —clearly I can’t play either!! And I, and the crowd, know it! Or that’s what my demon wants me to believe.
Choking, jitters, twisties and baulks in major competitions are part of the game. It happens to all athletes from time to time. We all succumb at some point, under pressure — and particularly when the competition is beyond our level of experience. It’s very difficult to win a Grand Slam and particularly at your first go. Closer to home recall Bosko playing Rimmo in the club singles final. Bosko confided he knew what to do but couldn’t execute on the day against a more experienced player.
Quoting Olympic gold medal-winning rower Kim Brennan: “Everyone has their angel and demon sitting on their shoulder,” she says. “The demon is always going to be there. You train yourself to accept that everyone’s got them. I bet Ariarne Titmus has her demons. But you get comfortable with it. You say, “Hi old friend, I knew you were coming. That’s nice. But I’m going to keep doing what I’ve trained myself to do’.”
Therein lies part of the answer (training/process) about how to handle competitive pressure.
Research shows us that our minds contain two systems. The first acts instinctively and requires little effort — it’s based on our evolutionary fight or flight tendencies—and easily fueled by our demon. The second (our angel) is more deliberate and requires much more of our attention.
Our thoughts and actions vary depending on which of the two systems is in control of our brain at the time. The key question then is how to ‘reset’ Mildred to Angel mode when competing. By the way, part of the solution is to ‘name’ your fears and move the goal posts. Mildred is the name I give to my mind, really the first brain that ‘runs the system’.
Another personal note: “I’ve never beaten Jimmy Parker” says my dubs partner before we have to play a USTA dubs championship final. Parker has just won the World singles championship for the age group. You mean ‘Jimmy Buffet’ says Pam, using humour to diminish the power of his name before we take to the court. It was a hard match but we managed a win.
You’re more creative and intuitive when you’re in a better mood. When you’re in a better mood (Angel), the part of the mind that is alert and analytical tends to relax. That cedes control of Mildred to her more intuitive and quicker thinking capacity — key to competitive tennis!
So how do you reset Mildred under pressure. You’ve got 25 seconds between points, 90 seconds when changing ends.
Rhythm is the key here. Normal sinus rhythm is 60 beats a minute. This is the rate when your breathing and heart rate are in sync. Under stress, this can change dramatically — eg shortness of breath in panic mode.
Most players have a natural playing rhythm. Agassi played very fast, Djokovic and Nadal much slower than Federer. Barty plays fast.
Serving is the one time you actually have control of the point — witness Djokovic’s 12 plus ball bounces during a tie breaker. He is trying to sync his rhythm. So apart from ‘buying time’ by bouncing the ball, what are some other ways to reset Mildred.
Several years ago, we had the ‘Russian Ritual’. Recall Sharapova turning her back to the court/opponent and adjusting her strings for a few seconds. Or more recently Nadal’s approach which is to adjust his gear and brush his ear before serving.
A better way is to monitor/relax your breathing. Recall from above that you’re trying to keep your heart and head (no pun intended) in sync.
I teach a basic 4/7/8 breath schedule to calm Mildred down when players feel under pressure. Breathe in to a long count of 4, hold for 7 and breath out, stretching your diaphragm for a count of 8. Repeat as often as necessary.
Lastly, you have to learn to ‘play’ rather than to ‘hit strokes’. Recall our Olympic rower Kim Brennan’s comment above about ‘training yourself’. Perfection is to learn to ‘play on the other side of the net’ which few achieve.
Too often we are so focused on our own game (and particularly strokes) that we forget that we are competing against other players. Hence the old adage: ‘a good player will always beat a good hitter’. But that’s a much bigger topic for another day.