Tennis is a marathon, definitely not a sprint.  With the length of some matches, the victor may not be the one who is more physically gifted or technically sound.  The winner of grueling tennis matches often is the player who is tougher… MENTALLY!

There are a lot of similarities between tennis matches and marathons.

Dr. Alistair McCormick, an exercise psychologist, co-authored a new study published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology about the physiological experience of “hitting the wall” for marathon runners.

When distance runners “hit the wall” during races (feeling exhausted), negative thoughts become so overpowering they make it difficult to focus and keep up their pace.  There is an urge to mentally quit.

McCormick identified the psychological challenges experienced by marathoners which can easily be applied to tennis players, “A marathon becomes a real mental battle when runners ‘hit the wall.’”

The same is true for tennis players… late in the match, you feel mentally and physically exhausted… You can’t seem to get to balls that you could return early in the match… Your first serve has less pace and you are making more unforced errors… All these factors can make you give in a bit, fill your head with negative thoughts and cause you to just play to finish the match instead of fighting for every point.  This type of mental block dramatically alters how you play the game and takes you out of the game mentally.

You should understand that “exhausted feeling” is most likely being experienced by your opponent at the same time whether they show it or not.  Finding a way to move past that feeling can have a major benefit to your overall performance on the court.

There is an old expression, “Never let them see you sweat.”  If you can win the mental game but not show your opponent outwardly what you feel inwardly, you can win the mental battle which will cause you to feel more invigorated… A win-win scenario for you.  Advantage YOU!

Strategies to break through the mental block of late-match exhaustion:

McCormick provided a solution to the “hit the wall” dilemma, “Planning what to do if you encounter various problems can also be very valuable.”

A good plan can prepare you before “hitting the wall.”  Try these tried-and-true techniques to beat late-match exhaustion.

  1. Use a motivational phrase– Repeating a personally significant phrase can help distract you from what you feel physically and help push you through a tough match.
  2. Beat your opponent mentally – Knowing your opponent is feeling the same, commit to letting them break. This gives you a significant mental edge.
  3. Visualize achieving your goal – By seeing yourself finishing strong, you increase your chances of a successful outcome.
  4. Try “attention narrowing” – Focus on some object in the competitive arena. Focusing on something external distracts you from your internal thoughts and feelings.

With these helpful strategies, you can win the mental game and keep you head in the game!

All athletes must conquer fear. If fear swells inside an athlete’s mind, it will block the path to success and interfere with their ability to achieve their goals.

The daunting aspect of fear is that it presents itself in many forms:
• Fear of embarrassing yourself on the big stage
• Fear of losing
• Fear of falling apart under pressure
• Fear of not meeting the expectations of others
• Fear of injury or re-injury
• Fear of not accomplishing your goals
• Fear of panicking at critical moments of competition
• Fear of success and raised expectations
• Fear of being benched or losing playing time
• Fear of falling out of favor with your coach
• Fear of failing
• Fear of being the reason your team lost
• Fear of not getting a scholarship

You can probably identify with a few of these fears and, most likely, can detail how these fears have held you back from your potential.

If you think of fear in sports, rock climbing is fraught with mental and physical danger. Rock climbers need to deal with fear quickly at a moment’s notice before dangling off a cliff by their fingers hundreds of feet from the ground. Though rock climbing is perilous, your sport also has its own unique physical and mental challenges. If you are to ascend to greater heights in your sport, then you must, like a rock climber, learn to manage your fears.

Since, fear is the result of reliving past mistakes or focusing on future expectations, the most effective method of managing fear is to be present in the present. Karen Lo, sport psychologist and former competitive swimmer, instructs rock climbers and athletes from other sports to immerse themselves to win the battle over their fears.

LO: “Therefore the climber’s concentration is not in the present moment [when afraid]. Focusing on the task at hand will help direct the climber’s attention back to the ‘now’.”

Imagine how high you could climb in your sport if you learned to win the battle over fear.

Effective Strategy for Managing your Athletic Fears:

Avoiding fear is never a good option. Avoiding fear tends to foster and increase the amount of fear you are experiencing.

To manage fear, it is best to acknowledge your fear, question the validity of the fear, then use specific strategies to relax your body and calm your mind.

For example, a golfer may fear missing an easy putt, “I always miss these 5-foot putts. It is embarrassing to choke all the time. I will be the laughing stock of the team.”

After you identify the fear, ask yourself, “Is this true in every case? Do I always miss these putts? Remember that time when I sunk that putt on the 18th hole to break my previous score?”

Now, it’s time to go into action mode and move into a more composed state. You can switch your focus from your internal thoughts to multisensory stimuli such as the feel of the putter in your hand or taking deep breaths and noticing your lungs filling with oxygen and your diaphragm relaxing as you exhale.

Try this strategy in practice. Soon after, you will notice that your previous fears aren’t as overwhelming as they once were.

“You have to stop listening to naysayers. You have to believe in what you believe in, and you
have to be mentally tough.”

This quote is from Kristin Armstrong, a four-time Olympic cyclist, and three-time gold medalist.
Armstrong was 31 years old when she made her First Olympic team in 2004 and finished out of
medal contention in 8th place.

It would be easy to give into the naysayers… “You are too old,” “You started the sport too late”
or “You only finished 8th. Why continue?” Armstrong stayed positive, won the gold medal in the
next three Olympic individual time trials and made Olympic history becoming the first cyclist
ever to win three gold medals in the Olympic cycling event.

You have probably heard the negativity from naysayers in your athletic career too. Out of all the
naysayers, there is always one voice that screams loudest… one voice that has the biggest
negative impact… and one voice that you probably buy into the most. That negative voice is the
naysayer that resides in your mind.

Your internal naysayer is the biggest negative influence on your sporting career and life. But
somehow, we often believe every word our internal naysayer blurts out, no matter if it’s true or
false.

You can probably remember a time when some person told you that you weren’t tall enough,
strong enough or talented enough to succeed in your sport. You probably thought, “Not good
enough? I will show you. I will prove you wrong!” You discarded what that person said as
rubbish and set out to do whatever it took to prove them wrong.

Somehow, things change when our internal naysayer tells us we are not good enough. Our
internal response is often, “You know, you’re right. I’m not good enough.” You then seek to
prove your internal naysayer right.

If you wouldn’t accept a negative judgment from someone else, why would you blindly accept
that negativity from within? What if you were to tell yourself, “Okay naysayer. Just because
that negativity pops up doesn’t make it fact. So, I will show you what I’m truly made of. I will
prove that I can.”

Just because you think something doesn’t make it true. Some statements are just wrong. Just
like the shape of the earth didn’t change no matter how many times people in the distant past
thought the world was flat. Pythagoras challenged the once-accepted worldview. If you can
learn to challenge those once accepted negative self-statements, you can quiet your internal
naysayer and open yourself up to uncovering your vast athletic potential.

Tip for Quieting your Internal Naysayer:

When you notice a negative self-judgment, don’t buy into that statement. Instead, ask
yourself 3 questions:
          •     “What evidence is there to support this statement?”
          •     “Is this statement true in every situation?”
          •     “What evidence is there to counter this argument?”
If you make an argument for yourself, your internal naysayer slowly relinquishes its grip
on your mind.

Mental toughness is a hot topic in the sporting world. Great victories and individual achievements are often attributed to mental toughness and many successful athletes (Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps, Lydia Ko…) are held in high regard due to their mental toughness.

What exactly is mental toughness? There are so many definitions of mental toughness that the term can become quite murky. Confident, optimistic, poised, persistent, fortitudinous, determined are some of the terms used to describe mentally tough athletes. While all these descriptors are true of mental toughness, there is one characteristic that is the hallmark of mental toughness and that is… RESILIENCE!

Resilience is the ability to adapt, recover, adjust or change in order to achieve some end. The resilient athlete can, not only handle injury, misfortune, mistakes and losses more effectively, but can also use these instances as learning lessons and fuel to fan their desire to succeed.

Former NFL coach Dan Reeves best highlighted the mentality of resilient people, “Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.”

For example, the resilient athlete looks at an injury as opportunity to strengthen a body part or another aspect of their game during their competition layoff…

The resilient athlete looks for a way to maintain composure after succumbing to pressure in a critical part of a game…

The resilient athlete looks for a way to pull out a victory when they do not have their “A” game.

Let’s be clear, the resilient athlete still gets upset after an injury or a loss but their focus quickly turns to how they can bounce back. Resilient athletes look for solutions rather than dwelling on problems.

You may be wondering, “Where does resiliency come from?” Resilience is not a genetic trait. Resilience is an attitude that requires your attention and effort to develop and grow. How you look at adversity and your ability to bounce back from tough circumstances are 100% within your control. Everyonehas equal opportunity to grow their resiliency. With training, you can grow your resiliency and accomplish more within your sport.

BUT WAIT… THERE’S MORE… Growing your resiliency is like a two-for-one infomercial deal. Not only will resiliency benefit your athletic career, resiliency will have an even more profound impact on your life outside of sport. Let’s face it, life is challenging and when you arm yourself with resiliency, you are better prepared to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns.

Maintain a sense of perspective – Instead of catastrophizing your situation, take an objective look at your circumstances. Ask yourself, “Is this really a dire issue?” “Can I do something to make my situation better?”

Recognize that your attitude is your choice – You may have no control over what happens to you but you have a choice in how view those challenges and how you respond to adversity.

Look for solutions – Don’t dwell on the problem. Become adept at finding solutions. The more you get into the habit of being a solution-seeker, the better prepared you will be to handle the unexpected.

Take action – The way to better your situation is by taking action. Positive forward momentum starts with a step.

If you want to achieve brilliance, you must first develop resilience!

Finding Confidence: The Resilient Athlete

3 Effective Strategies to Be Confident in the Face of Obstacles

When it comes to confidence and sport, there is a common misconception, just as in life, there is a misconception about what it means to be brave.  Let’s first uncover what it means to be brave.  Many people erroneously think bravery is the absence of fear.  Not True!  Fear is a natural response to new experiences.  Bravery is facing a new experience such as; a interviewing for a new job, buying a house, starting a new relationship or undergoing surgery.  Bravery is feeling the fear but still moving forward.

Likewise, confidence is not the absence of fear or anxiety.  All athletes experience some degree of nervousness when facing a top-ranked opponent, trying a new routine in competition, playing in the post-season or learning a new skill.  Confidence is trusting that you can meet the challenge or not backing down.  There is a book by Susan Jeffers, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.”  That is confidence… moving forward knowing you can be successful even in spite of challenges, obstacles and setbacks.

The defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs are experiencing a dip in confidence during the first half of the 2017 season.  The Cubs are just under .500 with a record of 31-32.  In the previous year, the Cubs lost only 58 games the entire season.

Cub manager Joe Maddon talked about the issue of the Cubs’ confidence level and their recent struggles.

MADDON:  “They’re missing their confidence more than anything.  Confidence is such a fragile component of human existence, especially when it comes to sports. [When your confidence slumps] whatever you did in the past, it’s easy to forget that.”

Maddon absolutely hits the nail on the head in regards to confidence.  When you forget or dismiss your past successes, you can get wrapped up in the obstacles in front of you and doubt your ability to move forward.  Instead of moving forward, when you are overwhelmed by doubt, the anxiety and fear stop you in your tracks.

For example, the tennis player who has lost the first set and no longer tries to return balls that are at the far end of his range… Or the golfer who plays it safe due to a few missed putts… Or the gymnast who refuses to perform an element of her routine because she fell the last time she attempted that skill in a meet.

It’s all about confidence… It’s about continually trying… It’s about knowing there is a breakthrough in the near future.

3 Effective Strategies to Be Confident in the Face of Obstacles

  1. Instead of replaying a mistake over in your head, mentally watch your personal highlight reel of your past successes.
  2. Acknowledge your fear and anxiety. Call it what it is, “Okay, I’m afraid I will fall again. I’m going to push forward anyway.”
  3. Recall times when you faced a challenge and overcame that obstacle.

FOCUS!!!  Every athlete has been told this countless times throughout the year.  Listen to practically any post-game interview and you will hear someone talk about focus in some manner, “We need to overcome distractions,”  “We can only control what we can control,”  “We gotta focus on our game,” “You can’t pay attention to what others say about your chances of winning,” and the list goes on…

If focus is so crucial to athletic success and athletes know the need to focus, why do athletes continue to lose focus when games are on the line?

Well, the answer to this million dollar question is three-fold:

First, distractions come in many forms and are constantly present.  In fact, it is probably impossible to list every potential distraction that you may encounter in a competition.  Distractions include thoughts, emotions, feelings, physical sensations, weather, course or arena conditions, spectators, parents, coaches, referees, opponents, and so many more.  It is difficult to focus when your mind is constantly bombarded by a barrage of distractions.

Secondly, it is impossible to focus 100% of the time and it is actually counter-productive to be over-focused.  Over-focus creates anxiety which caused a decrement in athletic production.

Thirdly, most athletes were never taught how to focus or how to minimize distractions.  Normally, coaches have the expectation that all athletes know how to focus.

In order to focus effectively during a game, you need to know fours things:

  1. What to focus on – To play your best, you should focus on what you need to do in the present moment (for example, your game plan or strategy for the current situation).
  2. When to focus – To avoid over-focusing, you should take a mental break when breaks in action occur. Then, prior to play resuming, you should resume focusing to ready yourself for the next play.
  3. How to focus – Learning how to immerse yourself in the moment and narrow your focus on what you need to do.
  4. More importantly, how to regain focus, or re-focus, when distractions occur – Learning cues to help snap you back to the play at hand.

LPGA pro Lexi Thompson experienced a huge distraction during the final round of the 2017 ANA Inspiration.  Thompson was advised that she was being assessed a four-stroke penalty midway through the final round, after a TV viewer notified officials of a ball placement error made by her on the 17th green in the third round.  Thompson was tearful but finished the round with a bogey and three birdies to force a sudden death playoff with So Yeon Ryu.  Even though Thompson lost the playoff hole, she showed an amazing ability to re-focus and gather herself to close out the round strong.

THOMPSON:  “Just [had to] regroup myself. My caddie helped me out tremendously. We have a great relationship and he just said, ‘Stay with it. You can still win and we can birdie this hole.’ I just tried to gather myself before I hit that tee shot. Made a great putt there.

Focus gives you the power to put distractions to the side, immerse yourself in the moment and accomplish what you need to do in the NOW.

Strategy for Improving Focus:

Let’s work on a strategy to re-focus when distractions barrel into your mind.  The first step is to quickly become aware of when your focus breaks down.  The quicker you notice yourself losing focus, the easier it is to rectify the situation. 

Next, have a re-focus cue in place that gets your attention back to the task at hand.  Your cue could be a word, “Focus” or “Now,” an action such as snapping your fingers several times or even an object such as something on your uniform or in your pocket that you can grasp.

Your ability to focus and re-focus is your greatest antidote to distractions.

The Mentally Resilient Athlete: The How-To of Managing On-Court Emotions

Are you able to manage your emotions in the heat of battle?   Have your runaway negative emotions cost you a set or even a match?

It is not uncommon to see a tennis player act out or internally implode after things don’t go their way during a match.  There are a number of incidents that can push a player to the mental breaking point during a match such as: a bad line call, unforced errors, double fault, losing a set to a lower-ranked opponent, having an off day, or personal issues outside of sport.  Most of the time, it is not just one thing that causes a player to self-combust but rather a combination or buildup of incidences.

Just so you understand, emotions are normal and not necessarily bad for performance.  For example, anger after hitting a ball long can be motivating for some players and an impetus for better effort in later points.  Emotions detract from performance when they pull your focus from your game or when intense emotion morphs into frustration.  Frustration, without a doubt, is the most counter-productive emotion for a tennis player.  Frustration is a strong negative emotion coupled with a belief that you are incapable of changing your current circumstances.

Emotional management is a core component to mental resiliency or mental toughness.

Suppressing or bottling up emotions is not an effective strategy because you become an emotional powder keg ready to explode.  The key is to learn to manage emotions in an effective manner during a match so your focus and effort can be applied towards playing at your peak.

One tennis player who has received much attention for his inability to manage on-court emotions is the very talented Nick Kyrgios.  Kyrgios has been working on managing his emotions in a more effective manner.

Kyrgios talked about how he is in a better place mentally this year and how he has been working on managing his emotions

KYRGIOS:  “I think it’s starting in practice. Every time I go on the practice court, I try and be positive, try and have fun, not being too hard on myself. I was in a pretty dark place [last year]. Even [though I was ranked] 13 last year, but I wasn’t in a good place mentally at all.

In the 3rd Round at the Miami Open, Kyrgios had a couple of outbursts; reprimanding a ball boy for a bad throw (which he apologized to the ball boy afterwards) and throwing his racquet to the ground in the third set (which he rebounded from to win the match in straight sets).

The reason for using Kyrgios as an example is to demonstrate that managing emotions is a skill that requires attention.  The more you can learn to be in charge of your emotions, the better prepared you will be to play consistent tennis through the ups and downs of each competitive match.

Strategy for Managing your On-Court Emotions:

  1. Be aware of which situations set you off emotionally.
  2. Identify the early warning signs of your performance-detracting emotions.
  3. Have a re-focusing plan for when your emotions start to get the better of you. For example, “If ‘X’ happens, I will do ‘Y’.”
  4. Implement this strategy in practice. Managing your emotions is a skill requiring practice.

In sport, some top athletes are heralded for their high level of sport intelligence. For example, Tom Brady is said to have a high “football IQ” and Lebron James is seen as a floor general due to his deep understanding of basketball.

A high sport IQ is a great asset for athletes but emotional intelligence is a better predictor of athletic success. Emotional intelligence refers to an athlete’s ability to recognize, utilize, understand, and manage their emotions during competition.

Successful athletes:

  • Understand how emotions fuel performance.
  • Understand that different emotions are useful in different circumstances
  • Understand which emotions optimize their performance
  • Have the ability to consciously move themselves into an optimal emotional state depending upon the competitive circumstances.

It is emotional intelligence that is the key to overcoming challenges, managing distractions, optimizing performance, accomplishing goals and realizing potential. In fact, when we label athletes as poised, composed, clutch or mentally tough, we are citing their high level of emotional intelligence.

Think of a personal example in your athletic career where your emotions got the best of you…You probably saw your performance unravel before your very eyes. You probably even felt helpless to stop it. Most likely, your emotions were still running wild hours after the competition ended.

Success in sport requires a significant degree of emotional control. Emotionally intelligent athletes can move themselves into the optimal emotional states necessary to meet the demands of the competitive situation. If the situation requires high energy, emotionally intelligent athletes can get themselves psyched up and ready to go. If the situation is pressure-packed, emotionally intelligent athletes can stay calm and focused.

Ultimately, the trick is to know how to move into a different emotional state and what is the most productive emotion at a particular time.

Let’s explore some effective strategies to switch emotional gears.

Effective Tools to Regulate Emotions
The key to emotional intelligence in sports is the ability to control your emotions and create peak performance on demand. You do not have to be a victim of your emotions. You can learn to be the master of your emotions by practicing and utilizing proven techniques.

Self-Talk – Words have a powerful impact on our emotions. Thus, you can change your emotions by steering your inner dialogue in a certain direction.

Imagery Rehearsal – Another way we communicate with ourselves and change emotions is through images. Imagery is a great way to elicit the emotions needed to play at your peak at any given time.

Music – Music has a dramatic impact on mood. Simply singing a song in your head can elicit a certain mood.

Kinesthetic Techniques – Physical relaxation techniques or pump up body movements (jumping up and down, cheering, screaming) can change your physiology and affect your emotions.

Tip for Regulating Emotion

Knowing how to regulate emotion is useless if you don’t know when or what emotion is optimal at a particular time. For that reason, it is critical to develop some degree of self-awareness. Mentally review past performances and find trends when your emotions detracted from your performance. What triggered those emotions? What were you thinking? What was happening at that particular time?

Recognize your personal triggers that precede self-defeated emotions. These triggers will be cues to implement your regulation strategies.

Get smart about your performance, raise your emotional intelligence.

Communication is a necessary skill to succeed in any endeavor in this world. In order to get what you want, you must be able to communicate in positive terms.

Imagine walking into a coffee shop to get your morning caffeine fix and yelling at the barista, “Make my darn coffee now, you worthless piece of humanity.”

Chances are, if you do get your coffee, it will be thrown at you.

You will always fall short in getting what you want if your language is negative and demeaning.

I guess you are thinking, “How does this apply to golf ? I don’t need coffee to golf.”

Correct, coffee is not necessary to play your best golf, but positive self-talk is essential. When your internal dialogue is negative, you start to focus on the worst that can happen. Negative self-talk leads to anxiety, negative images and strong negative emotions. No golfer can play a productive round of golf when their internal voice is constantly berating them.

No. 5 ranked golfer Jordan Spieth admitted he can get mentally trapped by negative thoughts and points to negative self-talk as the reason for his performance dip in 2016.

Spieth stated that he tends to over-analyze and over-think his shots and acknowledges that he is too self-critical.

Heading into 2017, Spieth is focused on improving his performance by not buying into the negative mental chatter.

SPIETH: “I told (caddie) Michael (Greller) before the round [at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational] that I’m going to start for the rest of the year to be a lot stronger mentally than I’ve been and not dwell in conversation on each shot.”

Spieth’s strategy to combat his negative self-talk is to speed up his play.

SPIETH: “The quicker part actually helps me because then I just get up there and fire away. The more I can do that, actually I think the better off kind of gun slinging mentality, just to go up and hit the way I always have played.”

Spieth’s conscious attempt to improve his self-talk provides evidence that you can direct your inner dialogue to enhance your play on the golf course. And that’s not all… Your positive self-talk will seep into other areas in your life. What an added bonus!

Try these 4 proven strategies to improve YOUR self-talk:

Strategy #1: Challenge your self-talk through reality testing. Ask yourself, “What is my evidence for and against my thinking?” By consciously challenging your negative thoughts, you can expose those thoughts as being irrational.

Strategy #2: Find the positive. Is there another way to look at this situation? Can I rebound from this or use this situation as a learning experience for the future?

Strategy #3: Be a friend. What advice would you give your friend who is in a similar situation? How can you apply that advice to your experience?

Strategy #4: Flip the script. Instead of fretting over worst-case scenarios, ask yourself, “What is the best thing that can happen?” This positive approach will squelch the negative voices and allow you to focus on your current shot.

Recognizing that you have the power to change you self-talk can motivate you to look at things from a different perspective.