Head Games: A Look at the Mental Side of Tennis (Part 2)

On the Baseline Tennis News
May 6, 2010

Relationships are never easy. Especially the one you have with yourself. In tennis, a player’s inner voice doesn’t always provide support during the crucial points of a match, which can take its toll mentally and physically.

I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Jim Loehr, Ed.D., CEO of the Human Performance Institute, to get his input about the various dysfunctions that can occur within a tennis player’s mindset. Dr. Loehr has worked with some of the greatest legends in tennis, including Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Mary Pierce, and Jana Novotná. He continues to work with many of today’s top players.

OTB: How would you describe mental toughness?
Dr. Loehr: The ability to access one’s talent and skills across a wide variety of competitive situations, regardless of the brutality of the environment. In other words, you can do it on demand. It is an ability to withstand the forces that are generated in competition and to be able to do that on a consistent basis. You can bring your best out when it matters most, regardless of the circumstance. The idea of mental toughness is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s mental, physical and emotional.

OTB: What types of things can hinder a player’s performance during a match?
Dr. Loehr: People can perform very badly for any number of reasons. One of them could be simply physical, but you don’t really recognize it. We know that if a person hasn’t eaten sufficiently, and glucose levels drop below a certain point, the brain just doesn’t fire as well. When people get really tired because they don’t have the fitness, their whole system starts to break down. If a person starts to overheat, has a lack of sleep, or has been traveling, that can affect them too.

OTB: Can nerves actually slow a player down?
Dr. Loehr: When you’re nervous, fearful, or anxious, that chemistry is not designed to get you to move at lightning speed, and to bring out all those remarkable motor-neuro connections that are critical to success.

OTB: Can you talk about how stress can impact a player physically?
Dr. Loehr: What happens when you perceive something as threatening, a very powerful hormone called cortisol begins to rise. Your muscles become tense. They [players] get a very inflexible view of things. Their view of what’s happening begins to change. They get very uncomfortable inside themselves, and they start feeling nervous. And with cortisol rising, this gets worse and worse. When you’re in a match, cortisol levels don’t necessary go down simply because you’re moving a lot. You can see an athlete at ad-in–they’re tight and nervous, and it actually changes at deuce. They’re more comfortable and relaxed. In just a few seconds, the levels of tension, the ability to execute and access all that talent can literally change in seconds.

OTB: Some players succumb to the pressure of perfection, and end up pushing themselves too hard. What are some ways to avoid this?
Dr. Loehr: We do a lot of work trying to understand the importance of an athlete’s inner voice. We refer to it as an “Internal Terrorist.” What we’ve learned is that at a very young age, athletes often begin to adopt the voice of a parent or a very powerful authority figure in their life. That parent may have been a very demanding taskmaster. You are never quite meeting the standards, and you set a very high bar. Early in your adult life, you kind of take on that voice, because you want to be responsible, you want to be an adult. So that voice becomes more and more embedded in your head. If that voice is not a constructive voice–if it’s over the edge in terms of being punitive, sarcastic, demeaning, and very critical, it really takes a toll. So we spend a lot of time helping athletes to unearth that to see what that voice is, and to think about changing the content and tone of that voice. When that’s all flushed out, it’s quite an awakening for players.

OTB: It seems as though players are often battling two opponents during a match. Is this true?
Dr. Loehr: Players are attacking themselves all the time for being idiots, and waging war with their opponent on the other side. The war that they have to win to ultimately be a great competitor is the inner war–the one where they are on the same side and have developed a relationship with themselves that they’re proud of, rather than using themselves as a whipping post every time something doesn’t happen the way they’d like.

OTB: Can players gain control over performance anxiety?
Dr. Loehr: It is possible to control it, but that’s where mental training is so crucial–visualization, rehearsal, having rituals, having routines of eating and sleeping, and managing mistakes.

OTB: Many players seem to have trouble shaking off a loss. Are they placing too much importance on a match?
Dr. Loehr: If you’ve somehow gotten to the point where your value as a person is strictly defined in terms of the score, your winning and losing, there are going to be some serious issues that emerge. We try to help people understand this: you are not your scores. You are so much more than a tennis player. You have to find balance. It’s a very big thing for players to strike that balance. It isn’t very easy because they live, sleep, and eat tennis. Their definition of who they are is completely defined by their ability to perform in a match. When that happens, trouble is not far behind. Now you’re fighting for psychological survival—your self-esteem is on the line every time you play. So a mistake is magnified. A loss is like the end of the world, because there is so much of YOU at stake.

OTB: Can a losing streak perpetuate itself?
Dr. Loehr: The brain is very interesting. Every night it has to decide what to purge and what to keep. If you get terribly upset about losing and you punish yourself for days, the brain actually starts fearing losing, and retains all these images of you losing. When you get to those situations again, the thing that keeps popping up is this catastrophic loss, and sure enough it happens again. You begin to get this sense that you’re destined to lose. What has to happen is an understanding of how the brain works. You have to see the progress you’re making inside the envelope of losing.

OTB: Is there a difference between playing to win vs. playing not to lose?
Dr. Loehr: Players who are playing not to lose are trying to stay away from something—they are defensive in their play. They are trying to avoid the pain of losing. That is a very different psychological place to be than when you are out there charging forward. It even happens with players in the lead and they are trying to not lose the lead. That’s when reversals come very quickly. It’s a very dangerous place to be when you are trying to prevent something from happening by just holding the ground you have, as opposed to continuing to do what you have been doing, and still thinking assertively that this is something that I’m going to continue with intensity. Without the forward thinking, the whole physiology changes, and before you know it, you are in a defensive posture.

OTB: Can you give an example of a player who demonstrates mental toughness?
Dr. Loehr: I really admire players who are able to go through a lot of adversity, and show great class and model to the world and to young juniors a great sense of perspective. Maria Sharapova — you look at the kind of things that she has been through and the remarkable poise she shows through good times and bad times. I think she deserves a lot of credit. She’s had so many disappointments, so many injuries that it’s been mind-boggling. For me, she’s just a great ambassador for the sport. She models toughness.

For more information about the Human Performance Institute, visit http://hpinstitute.com or email Dr. Jim Loehr at jloehr@hpinstitute.com.

To read the first installment of Head Games: A Look at the Mental Side of Tennis, click here.

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