Even the most confident of champions can experience a loss of confidence and self-defeat, and this occurs far more often than you may think. In the world of golf, we recently saw the possibility of self-sabotage show up at the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale in England. The world’s newest superstar, 23-year-old American Jordan Spieth, was cruising to victory until the last day of play. On the final day of play, he bogeyed three of the first four holes and appeared to fall into a lethargic despair as he walked along. It took his caddy, Michael Geller, a former school teacher, to remind him of his talent when he stepped off the seventh tee box. That well-timed comment allowed Spieth to snap out of his funk, start believing in himself again and go on to win the Open in dramatic fashion. During the trophy ceremony, Spieth publicly thanked his caddy for the help on the seventh tee.
Tennis players are not as lucky as golfers. They are on their own when they play their matches and must deal with changes in mood without the support of others. And when they begin to fail, it is often difficult for them to right the ship. Here is the process which leads to self-defeat and what you can do to change this.
The first trigger to self-defeat occurs based upon heightened tension. Tension may be felt at the beginning or at the end of big matches.
2. A series of mistakes
A player may double-fault once or twice, get a bad call or lose some points they should have won. This series of mistakes will then break the player’s confidence and they begin to sink into anger, self-doubt and anxiety.
3. Loss of confidence
When negative emotions are not held in check, they will shatter the feeling of confidence and overwhelm the player. When confidence goes, the player is now on shaky ground.
4. Despair and loss of focus
When confidence disappears, the players’ will to win and focus is lost, and with it, they lose energy and aggression. If this is not checked, it is inevitable that they will lose the match. All of this can occur within a very short period of time. It may only take five minutes for this transition to occur and the player will be left all alone in shame and humiliation in front of the crowd. This is truly “The agony of defeat.”
The player cannot turn to an understanding coach during a match. They must be able to make attitude adjustments on their own. Here is the best way to do so …
Tension in big matches is inevitable. You will also make unforced errors based upon this anxiety. So be it. This is not unusual. But if you begin to feel self-doubt or shame, you must have an internal check at this point. I usually talk to my players about the concept of belief and toughness. This is your go-to psychological position when things go wrong. It’s good to rehearse this beforehand and have a believable script to recite to yourself. It should include a phrase about how good you really are and also how tough you need to be. You are on the court all by yourself, so you must have a script in your mind to go to when bad calls, bad luck and bad mistakes happen. You need to learn how to be your own very best friend rather than your worst enemy. This occurs unconsciously, and as a psychoanalyst, I know how important it is to help guide the athlete through that murky place and back to the light.
Hold onto your toughness and believe in your talent. If you need some help in doing this, do not be afraid to give me a call.
Dr. Tom Ferraro
For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.