Head Games: A Look at the Mental Side of Tennis (Part 1)

Published in On the Baseline Tennis News 

Have you ever wondered why some tennis players can’t handle the pressure in a high-stakes match, while others seem to rise to the challenge? Call it a lack of confidence, or just plain nerves. No matter how good a player is physically, the mind is often a player’s toughest opponent.

I set out to find answers from experts who know exactly how the mind of a tennis player works. Dr. Allen Fox, Ph.D, a sports psychologist and former Wimbledon quarterfinalist has worked with his fair share of WTA players over the years, including Dinara Safina and Ashley Harkleroad.

OTB: What percentage of tennis is mental?
Dr. Fox: The answer is somewhat unknowable. Someone can get by with a medium head and a great body, or a great head and a medium body. They’ll end up the same. The great mind is much more rare than the physical.

OTB: How common is it for pro tennis players to seek out the help from a sports psychologist?
Dr. Fox: Maybe 15-20%, but lower down, usually. Those that are higher ranked are less likely to seek help. They don’t need it as much. That’s why they’re higher ranked.

OTB: What are some of the myths/misconceptions about sports psychology?
Dr. Fox: A sports psychologist does not do things like get you on a couch and shrink you. It’s more practical stuff. Sports psychologists don’t tell someone something they don’t already know, in general. The sports psychologist is more of a motivator than an information supplier.

OTB: What are some of the mental issues that can cause a player to tighten up physically during a match?
Dr. Fox: The essential cause of it is uncertainty of outcome and a powerful motivation to win. Some people will want to win so much and the fact that it’s uncertain whether they’re going to or not causes them to tighten up. They’re trying to control a situation that isn’t controllable.

OTB: How can fluctuations in self confidence impact a player physically?
Dr. Fox: Confidence is probably the biggest factor in making results go way up or way down. Confidence swings can affect results by 20-25 percent. It’s a large percentage of your ability to perform. Which is one of the confusing things for players. For instance, what players will do is practice, work on shots, and work on their game for months, and then they play worse. It’s confusing to them, because they then don’t think that all the work was doing them any good. What happens is several months of work may only move your game up a small percentage. So the confidence overpowers small improvements in technical stuff.

OTB: Why do some players seem more confident than others?
Dr. Fox: Some people are genetically born that way. Their nervous system is made like that. So they have an edge. But no matter how your nervous system is made, it comes from winning. No matter how confident you are by nature, you go out and lose enough matches, and you will lose confidence. It’s an expectation. You expect to win, or you expect to lose, which is determined, in part, by past history. You lose enough three set matches, and you get to that third set, and you remember.

OTB: What are some of the mental challenges players face when they are up 5-2 in a set vs. down 2-5?
Dr. Fox: I questioned a bunch of pros many years ago, and it turns out that most players get the most tight when they’re ahead and about to win. It’s almost counter intuitive. You should be more fearful when you are down and about to lose. You lose the next point or two or next game or two, and you lose. It doesn’t make any particular sense that you would be more nervous when you’re ahead. The closer you get to finishing off an opponent, the stress tends to grow.

OTB: How can a fear of re-injury actually cause another injury?
Dr. Fox: You can have a small injury that hinders you but doesn’t debilitate you. You have to play around the injury. So you compensate with other muscles, or other part of the body to make the move, so you’re putting extra stress on something else, trying to play around the injury. It’s not uncommon to get re-injured somewhere else.

OTB: Can dwelling on past mistakes in a match cause more of the same?
Dr. Fox: It is somewhat of a fear response. When you double fault, or lose big points, that’s a very unpleasant, painful experience. It’s very natural to stiffen up when you feel this pain coming. What you do is multiply the problem. The trick when you are double-faulting is to forget it as quickly as possible. Your conscious mind has to tell you that the game is probabilistic. You accept and move on quickly. If you dwell, you will make it more indelible in your memory.

OTB: We’ve seen players who win their first set 6-0 or 6-1, only to lose the second set. What is going on there?
Dr. Fox: When someone wins the first set, they’re not quite ready to get down to business. They want to take a little breather. They’re actually trying to avoid the stress of finishing someone off. They don’t think that consciously, but they do have a little leeway. They lose a slight amount of intensity. Meanwhile, the opponent who has lost the first set, if they don’t quit, they are strong and they’re in there 120 percent. One person goes down 10 percent, and the other person goes up 10 percent. That’s a bad mixture.

OTB: Do players become more mentally stable as they age?
Dr. Fox: You’ve got two factors working against each other as they age. A player’s nervous system tends to get even more reactive as they get older, but they get smarter about controlling it. They understand more and they know how to handle it. [Dr. Fox admitted as a player, he choked more in his 20’s than he did in his teens.]

OTB: When it comes to Dinara Safina, would you say she has pushed herself too hard, physically?
Dr. Fox: All of them do that to a certain extent. Not just Dinara. What I can say about Dinara is that she’s very smart. Motivation is a double-edged sword, and she’s got plenty of it. She’s not terribly different from a number of top players. You can’t be an ordinary person and reach the level that these people reach.

OTB: What are some strategies you have used to help players gain a mental edge?
Dr. Fox: Players need to overpower emotional issues with a conscious plan. You try to change the player’s outlook on it. You try to get the player to focus more narrowly on what they’re doing. You try to get rid of the focus on winning itself, which, of course, is uncontrollable. You try to get them to accept reality, in that they’ll probably lose half of the points against a good player. So you try to get past the idea that every point you lose is painful. You try to give the player perspective on what’s going on. You try to focus on what you’re going to do in the next few seconds and set up a positive emotional state, and then your aim, hopefully, will follow.

Allen Fox, Ph.D. is the author of The Winner’s Mind: A Competitor’s Guide to Sports and Business Success . For more information, visit www.allenfoxtennis.net.

John Isner to Play for the Boston Lobsters

April 27, 2010

No. 22 ranked John Isner has signed on to play for the Boston Lobsters World TeamTennis league on July 13, when the Lobsters take on the Springfield Lasers in Middleton, MA.

Isner, who is making his World TeamTennis debut, joins an all-American team of legends and current Tour players, including James Blake, Jan-Michael Gambill, Eric Butorac, Coco Vandeweghe, and Raquel Kops-Jones.

“I am excited about playing in the July 13th match for Boston and hope I can help them to a victory over Springfield,” says Isner. He is also thrilled to be teaming up with friend James Blake, who will be playing for the Lobsters on July 7 and 8.

As the second highest ranked American, Isner’ six-foot-nine inch frame and huge serve have made him a force to be reckoned with on the ATP Tour. Isner, who recently celebrated his 25th birthday, has made huge strides in his game over the past year, jumping from No. 139 to No. 22, capturing his first ATP Tour title in Auckland, and making his Davis Cup debut this past March.

"This is indeed a major addition to the Lobsters,” says Bahar Uttam, CEO of the Boston Lobsters. “We are particularly pleased to present such a talented team to New England. We're going to be quite competitive this year with these top players." The Lobsters have made the playoffs twice in five seasons.

Founded by Billie Jean King, the WTT Pro League celebrates its 35th season this July.

Has Increased Prize Money Cheapened Grand Slams?

Money. We all know it can talk. And in tennis, money can be as much of a motivating factor as winning. Recently, Wimbledon announced that its 2010 men's and women's singles champions will pocket $1.54 million--up from $1.25 million in 2009. For the men, that's more than double the prize money from 10 years ago, and double for the women from eight years ago.

In 2009, Roland Garros had a 3.05% increase in prize money for the singles champions, which amounted to  €1,060,000 in euros (approximately $1.4 million). The US Open increased it's prize money in 2009 for the third straight year to $1.6 million (a 5.8% increase from 2008). For the 2010 Australian Open, prize money for the winners topped out at approximately $1,885,600 in US dollars--up 4.12% from 2009.

We also know that stakes are much higher at Grand Slams than any other tournament. And most would argue that the quality of tennis is much better. Tournament attendance is higher. ESPN and network television provide thousands more hours of live television coverage. Advertisers and sponsors shell out big wads of cash to plaster their brand on everything the human eye can see. Note to advertisers: We get it.

But what types of messages are being communicated to the public, as well as the players when they see Grand Slam organizers promoting "record breaking" prize money each year? It's almost become an expected news item, and practically forces a prize money competition among Grand Slam tournament organizers. Tim Phillips, chairman of the All England Club was recently quoted in Reuters as saying: "It is important we offer a level of prize money which is both appropriate to the prestige of the event and which gives the players full and fair reward." Now that's an interesting message. How do you put a $ amount on prestige?

If you were to ask players who won a Grand Slam 20 years ago about prize money, they might say that it was the icing on the cake. If you were to ask players who won a Grand Slam 30 or 40 years ago, they'd probably say, "What prize money?" In fact, the first prize money check awarded at Wimbledon was in 1968, and didn't amount to much: £2,000 for the men, and £750 for the women.

Without question, increases in Grand Slam prize money since 1968  have brought the game of tennis to greater heights. But in this day and age, are players getting their "full and fair reward" or have Grand Slams tipped the money scale so far in the other direction that it's cheapening the sport?

Uttam has Passion for Tennis, Boston Lobsters

by Paula Vergara
Published in www.newengland.usta.com

         (Pictured L-R: Bahar Uttam, Jan-Michael Gambill, Andre Agassi)

When Bahar Uttam purchased the Boston Lobsters seven years ago, most people thought he was in the seafood business. He’s come a long way in building the team’s brand since then.

You could say Bahar Uttam’s foray in to the tennis world was never anticipated. As a young man growing up in England, tennis was the farthest thing from his mind. In fact, he had his heart set on becoming an electrical engineer, and came to the United States to further his studies. Uttam had only planned to stay in the U.S. for two years, and just finished up his third degree at Northeastern University (a PhD in Electrical Engineering). But he loved the Boston area so much, he decided to stay.

With his education complete, Uttam’s entrepreneurial bent led him to start his own company in 1984, called Synetics Corporation, a systems engineering and information technology firm. After 17 years on the job, all seemed to be going as planned. That is, until fate stepped in.

In 2001, Uttam’s son, who happened to be in boarding school at the time, needed to take up a sport. Tennis, he thought. He asked his father if he would consider taking up tennis too, so they could play together. He agreed. His son went on to play in college. And that was it. Tennis had taken hold of Uttam and ignited his next career move. In 2002, he sold his multi-million-dollar company, and decided to follow his passion: tennis.

"It became a religion with me", says Uttam. "Back in 2001, when I was still working, the USTA named me the ‘Tennis Nut of New England’. I’ve been to every tournament in the world. I’ve been to all the Davis Cup tournaments around the world. I have probably every cufflink that has a tennis emblem on it." Uttam also serves as a member of the Davis Cup Committee.

Transitioning from the corporate world into the tennis world was not an easy task for Uttam. He didn’t want to start another business. But as an entrepreneur, he was inspired by new ideas. He considered forming a tennis tour in Boston, based on a suggestion from close friend, Bud Collins. But Uttam had reservations about the idea.

After doing some research, Uttam learned about the Boston Lobsters, which had previously been owned by New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft. "He gave it up in the early ‘80s, and it was dormant as far as Boston was concerned, but the league was still flourishing," says Uttam. He then contacted Billy Jean King, who started World Team Tennis 35 years ago, about buying the Lobsters franchise. She told him if he could find sponsors and get a venue, she’d let him buy the franchise. And that he did.

"I was interested in it because it was a team," said Uttam. "It’s a community thing. It’s like the Red Sox, or the Patriots. I thought if I can build a following, this is what I want to do."

From Uttam’s perspective, running the Boston Lobsters WTT franchise is a far cry from his former job, working with GPS and navigation systems. "It's the 9 million moving parts that keep me up at night," he said. "Everything from the sponsors, the promotions, events…and you don’t have the luxury of time."

One of the biggest challenges Uttam faces as CEO of the Boston Lobsters is spreading the word about the team as much as he can. "This is very different from what I did in the technology world, where most of my work was for the federal government, and I stayed under the radar", he says. Here, I have to make so much noise, that everyone knows about us." Uttam is making lots of "noise" on social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, as a way to promote his team and connect with the tennis community.

Despite the enormous differences from his former job, Uttam has been able to take his passion for tennis and turn it into a very successful business. "I think the product we have is absolutely wonderful. Everyone who comes to a match loves it" he says.

This year will be Uttam’s sixth season as CEO of the Boston Lobsters and the team’s third year playing at The Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton, Mass. The Lobsters have made the playoffs twice in five seasons.

The 2010 Boston Lobsters season kicks off July 6 and the team roster includes James Blake, Jan Michael-Gambill, Coco Vandeweghe, Eric Butorac, and Raquel Kops-Jones. The Lobsters will also be hosting Martina Hingis when she comes to play for the NY Buzz against the Lobsters on July 11. Anna Kournikova will also be in town on July 19, when the St. Louis Aces take on the Lobsters.

For tickets, visit www.bostonlobsters.net.