Tennis Mental Edge Blog Home

Monday, November 28, 2011

Federer Still Motivated After Many Years

For the doubters Roger Federer just proved again that he is not going anywhere just yet. Federer's dominant effort at the season-ending world championships is proof that Roger is planning to compete and have a good look at another Slam in 2012. So, why do people write him off? Didn't they learn from Agassi, Connors, Navratilova? I would not be surprised if he won a Slam in 2012. I think the more interesting question is what keeps him motivated to play brilliant tennis at the highest levels at age 30?

Federer has been talking about the importance of winning a singles Olympic gold. With Wimbledon hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics tennis tournament he has seen this as a great opportunity to win the Golden Slam. This has been a consistent theme throughout Federer's career; finding the next record to achieve. And, while he admitted not really knowing sometimes when he sets a record, you know that the 2012 Olympics have been circled in red pen for many years.

Maintaining the motivation to train, compete, and travel is not easy. Roger, though, seems to be able to find the carrot that keeps him going. A big part of that motivation has to be the rivalries with Nadal and Djokovic. When the veteran champion is being pushed he can either go away or dig in and battle. And, Roger has dug in. During his dominant years no one could challenge Federer on anywhere near to a consistent basis. Now, Federer is the underdog in the semis and finals of the Slams. This has to be motivating!

The importance of family support for a veteran player is often understated. While a young player needs the encouragement of his or her family, a married with children touring player has more conflictions about being away from home. Roger may have less of these conflictions however. Mirka seems to travel to most of his tournaments. Being a competitive player herself, Mirka understands what it takes to play at a world-class level and is willing to accept the lifestyle needed to win Slams. When Agassi was having his great run in his 30's Steffi was supportive and allowed Andre to train, travel, and compete without guilt. This helped Andre to play with less stress and burden. When your family understands, accepts, and supports the efforts needed to be a world-class player it helps to keep the player motivated. Federer seems to have this kind of support.

To develop the long-lasting motivation that Federer has demonstrated you should:

1. Think about your long term dream goals and find the next great challenge.
2. When you are challenged look at it as an opportunity to grow and enjoy the battle.
3. Find a balance between training as a competitive player and fulfilling other important needs like relationships with family and friends.

For Parents and Coaches: The intrinsic (internal) motivation that Federer demonstrates is highly related to his experiences as an athlete and tennis player as a young boy. Research on talent development has been clear that lasting motivation first comes from developing a love of the game. A player must establish an emotional investment in tennis that is based on their own goals and desires, not on those of the parents or rewards (extrinsic motivation). If you want a player to reach his or her potential at age 17 or 21 then the parents must do everything they can to help the child realize that the sport is their own which includes choosing to play or not to play. They must also facilitate but not force the child's love of the game in the fun and fundamental years (approximately ages 4-11). How? Take your child to play tennis - I mean play and have fun, not turning it into a lesson. The enjoyment they have of spending time with you learning the game as they have fun will fill the tank of full of motivation to, if they decide to pursue it, excel in tennis for a long time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Switching from Analyzing to Reacting

One of the hardest mental game issues that players need to learn to reach their potential is the ability to analyze what is happening to them in a match, and then turn off the "analyzer" and just react when starting the point.

Best selling author Daniel Coyle on his talent code blog shared what professional golfer Annika Sorenstam does to quiet her mind and just swing the club.

I think this column creates several great discussion points for players and coaches. First, you don't want to overthink things when you are performing. Second, you do want to analyze things at times; you have to play smart and adapt to the changing situation in a match. Third, players need a strategy for switching from analyzing to reacting and back to analyzing.

The practice and performance zones are a great way of thinking about this abstract concept. Coaches must teach players how to think in both situations. While performing thinking simple thoughts that are task-focused, motivational, and tactical allow players to play their game. In the practice thinking zone the player is analyzing, strategizing, and planning. This is very important for learning the game.

Coaches must teach players when to be in each thinking mode - in tennis obviously during the point you want the player reacting. But, what about between points? How much analysis do you want? I think the answer is based on how good the player is at switching back to the simple, performance-type thinking.

An issue here is that I don't think many young players are good at switching from analyzing to reacting. This is certainly the case when they are nervous, under pressure, feeling panicked... So, I recommend three things:
1. Have players keep it simple between points and use the changeover for more analysis. Players should think simply what happened on the last point, and what they will do on the current point.
2. Many players are visual so have them visualize what happened and then replace it with visualization of how they will start the next point (usually the first two shots).
3. Teach players how to trigger an external focus (reacting). Where to focus the eyes, maybe bouncing on their toes and committing to their plan, and taking a deep breath and exhaling.

How do you teach players to analyze in the practice zone? Ask them questions when you have them in practice situations. Also, ask what the options are and the consequences for each.

How do you teach players to quiet their mind and just react, and at the same time play smart and follow a game plan? Much repetition! Automate the patterns and styles of play you want. Once the plan is mastered the player can focus on just hitting versus overthinking things.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State Scandal: We Owe it to our Children to Carefully Select and Train Coaches

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete in Western Pennsylvania one thing was always clear - football is king. And Penn State football was at the heart of our love for football. Penn State was something to be proud of, pound your chest about, wear the Nittany Lion logo with swagger. Back in 1987 Penn State beat big, bad Miami as a huge underdog to win the national championship. Penn State won the Big 10 in its second year and went undefeated. Coach Joe Paterno's "Grand Experiment" to win in Division 1 football and be successful academically was, well, successful. Joe Pa was someone who was above the cheating and scandals that are commonplace today. You put your faith in Joe Pa and Penn State that things were being done the right way.

Now we have been rocked by the child abuse scandal and the institution's alleged lack of reporting an incident to the authorities. I don't know how this has affected you, if at all, since this is not a football blog, and certainly not a Nittany Lion football blog, but it has shaken my belief. For you it should serve as a serious reminder that what looks good on the surface may not always be the case.

I am not going to pile on Joe Paterno or others at Penn State. In my heart I believe Coach Paterno is a good man that made a mistake. One that cost him his legacy and his deserved right to retire on his own timetable when he was ready.

I love sport. Sport, and the people who coached me and that I competed and coached with, have shaped who I am today. But, as a parent, a coach, and a sport psychology consultant I realize that youth sport is an environment that may draw those people that would abuse others.

Let's be clear about two things. Mr. Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty. The media does not get to decide if he goes to prison. Furthermore, he was not coaching at the time the 2002 alleged incident occurred. Nonetheless, the scandal at Penn State is a reminder that we owe it to our children to make sure we select coaches that are positive role models. We do this by using background checks. But, this is not enough. We must also educate coaches about appropriate methods for interacting with children. And, finally, we must monitor our coaches to make sure they are "doing no harm".

Policies related to the selection and training of coaches in the US are largely ignored. We have no mandate to educate coaches because we do not treat it like a profession. And, we assume a background check eliminates any chance of abuse occurring. These are big mistakes.

Sport in our country also must do a better job of creating avenues for children to understand what is inappropriate and create reporting systems that are confidential and respectful of the victim. We need to empower children to say "no", get out of the situation, and know what do about it.

While Penn State and Western Pa. has been scarred by the scandal they will recover eventually. I hope the same for the victims in the case, but I cannot imagine the pain that the victims and their families feel. All we can do is pledge to not let it happen in our community. It is time to do everything in power to keep these things from occurring. How? Parents here are a few things to do right away:

1. Ask for your coach to be certified and know their qualifications
2. Get to know the coach on and off the court
3. Monitor the situation, but don't be a helicopter parent
4. Always communicate with your child and listen to them
5. Avoid situations where the coach and the child are spending too much time together alone (both for the child and being fair to the coach)
6. Request your organization to look in to the CDC's educational materials on abuse and violence (or at least make yourself knowledgeable)

Coaches ask for your certifying organization, club, etc. to provide education because it is the right thing to do. It will protect your community from what happened at Penn State.

This is a tragic story. Start taking steps now to make sure it does not happen in your community.