I was playing golf recently with a friend who also happens to be an avid tennis player. As we walked down the seventh fairway and approached our drives, he asked me a seemingly simple question: “Tom, how do you teach tennis players to finish off their opponent and go on to win?”
Indeed that does seem like a simple enough question and certainly one of the most common problems in sports.
Frequently, you will see subtle momentum changes occur as one player starts to advance and dominate his or her opponent. All of a sudden, they start to make more mistakes, double fault or hit a series of unforced errors, whereas up until then, they couldn’t miss a shot.
I explained to my friend that the answer to that seemingly simple question has stumped players, coaches and sport psychologists for many years, and if someone tries to tell you that they found this most precious of all secrets, you can rest assured that they are lying to you.
I have worked in the field of sport psychology for more than 25 years, having researched this issue, published in the area and having treated hundreds of players and if I know anything at all, it’s that this answer is tough to find. The reason for this is relatively easy to explain.
Choking, giving up leads, failing to play to your fullest potential, getting beaten by weaker players or developing the yips are all signs of anxiety and stem from a variety of underlying issues.
The cause of failure to finish
1. The inability to manage tension and anxiety: Some players have never developed adequate defenses in order to ignore or minimize the enormous anxiety felt in sports. Actually experiencing anxiety and overcoming it is one of the primary reasons we all compete. Outside of going to war, sports remains the last arena whereby we can become heroic. But it takes very strong defenses to cope with this level of anxiety. The ability to defend against anxiety is usually the thing that separates a champion from all the rest. I explained to my friend that I recently was on a panel where an audience member asked a player ranked 50th in the world what it was like to play against Roger Federer.
He responded: “It is tough to beat Roger because he seems to have an aura about him.”
The mind of a champion contains remarkably strong defenses against anxiety. (Credit photo to Sidney Beal III/Clique Photography)
I think the reality is that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all have far better psychological defenses, which enable them to remain calm and cool when finishing off a match. Defenses are things that need to be developed over time so that the athlete remains both calm and focused when coming down the homestretch of a match. Defenses allow a player to stay in the moment, rather than getting into fantasies about how it will feel when you win the match.
2. An underlying weak self-image: We will always achieve exactly what we feel we deserve to achieve in life. All that is determined by our underlying self-image which is usually developed in childhood and then again as a teenager when interacting with peers and coaches.
Sigmund Freud was famous for saying that your personality is largely determined by the age of six. Ones self-image is mostly unconscious and the pain it holds will allow us to strive in order to overcome it. Alfred Adler was the psychoanalyst who first discussed this issue and he was the man who coined the term “inferiority complex” and the idea of compensating for this problem. Players like the Williams Sisters are perfect examples of this issue. They were born amidst poverty and violence on the streets of Compton, Calif. and their dad used this horror to motivate them to better their lives through the sport of tennis.
But what happens very often is that the low self-image from the past will remain in the unconscious and dictate surprising losses. Tiger Woods may be the best example of this, as he fell from grace based upon reckless and self-defeating decisions probably dictated by a low self-image buried deep within. If you find that you also tend to self-defeat by giving up leads, it may be time to seek some help in order to look within and resolve the weak self-image that is holding you back.
These are just two reasons that one gives up leads and fails to finish off opponents. Other reasons may include fear of separation from your peers group, fear of jealous reactions from others or guilt about seeming to be too aggressive. My next column will address these three areas. Let me summarize by returning to my friends question of why people can’t finish off their opponents. He did seem somewhat disappointed when I remarked that it does take some time to cure these issues. Rome was not built in a day and a new psyche takes time to build as well. And that of course is the right answer. Strong psychological defenses and a new self-image must both be built over time with diligence, and trust and patience and focused effort. A serious athlete does not expect to become a world-class tennis player overnight. And it is exactly the same with the mind. In order to develop a world-class championship mind, one should understand that it too must be built up over time. Little psychological tips like taking a deep breath or someone giving you a little pep talk just won’t do the trick.
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.