What if a tournament player could play relaxed and anxiety-free while taking risks? What if they temporarily lost focus, but could get back on track and stay emotionally balanced? My sense is that they would perform their personal best because they would not be limiting themselves. So, what’s stopping a player from playing like that? Perhaps fear of losing, anxiety about the unknown, unease about not being able to live up to expectations, uncertainty about returning from an injury, and any number of other things.
Certainly, many obstacles can be worked through with mental skill techniques like visualization, goal-setting, rituals and self-talk. Other challenges can be worked though with present moment awareness skills, such as mindfulness, where the player can learn how to stay present in a match through re-focusing, anchors and breathing techniques.
However, there is often an underlying emotional and physiological component related to an athlete losing control mentally. When an athlete experiences stress, and the underlying reasons are beyond the performer’s recognition, this can cause more stress! The athlete then typically expends more energy, tries harder, struggles more, gets tighter, and spirals into overwhelming themselves before completely shutting down.
All athletes “get tight” at some point or another. Picture this: On-the-court and off-the-court stress accumulates like tennis balls in a bucket. Then, when a high pressure situation occurs, the balls metaphorically tip out of the bucket. What may have looked like an easy missed shot really has nothing to do with the shot, but relates back to an accumulation of emotional stress going through the athlete (tightness).
Oftentimes, to remedy a missed shot, the player/coach goes back to the drawing board and practices thousands of shots. However, when coming from a place of overwhelming conditions, nothing is going to change by hitting more practice balls. The problem is not the missed shots, those are symptoms of something else. In reality, the missed shots are really a symptom and an accumulation of on- and off-court stresses the athlete is holding.
So, how do we remedy this? The key is to look at the situation through the athlete’s experience. Only by starting with the person within the athlete can you hope to non-judgmentally recognize where they are. As a mental training coach, I have identified five emotional playing states:
1. Inside the Zone
5. Shut Down
Each of these states has different characteristics in regards to the emotional energy a player experiences. For example, if a player is in the over-charge state, which is characterized by rushing and pushing too hard, an intervention can be used to help them refocus back to one thing they can control, for instance, their shot choices. Conversely, if they are in a state of under-charge, the key is to help them go from “disconnected” to “connected” by adding some movement, for instance, adjustment steps or feeling their feet on the ground.
Only by looking through a players’ eyes can you understand what they may be experiencing and feeling. Then, from here, can a coach or a parent best help them get back on track. Additionally, this is the best way a player can help themselves. Anytime a player, coach or parent knows what that player is emotionally experiencing, can they understand what the player needs. Awareness is the first step to change.