I sat next to a crying woman in church last Sunday. She was unkempt, her face blotchy and pimpled, her eyes blindly staring. Huge tears rolled down her cheeks. She seemed lost in her own world, her sadness painful and acute. It was all a bit unseemly. There was about her a sense of not caring that she was on display, gripped as she was by the kind of unmuted grieving that makes people uncomfortable, that makes them want to hug and shake you at the same time.
She reminded me of Vera Zvonareva, and of her unseemly display of frustration at the 2009 US Open. It was not the first time that Vera has mentally collapsed in a tennis match. But I think that it is safe to say that this was the worst. There was little separating her from the people who get locked up in mental institutions. She was in her own world of psychological torment.
Dinara’s collapses do not have the same quality of public unseemliness. But she collapses no less. Place her in any lower level tournament, and she performs like a star, battling strongly to the finish. But in a Grand Slam, a frightened, self-critical, self-humiliating Dinara shows up. She beats herself long before she even faces her opponent. Her problem may be psychological.
Mental fragility is not something you’re born with; neither is resilience. Both are learned. I don’t know what life experiences resulted in Zvonareva being such a fragile individual. But for a while there earlier this year, it looked as if she had found a cure. And then New York happened. The good news is that PST, applied as directed, is a prescription that can save her career.
PST stands for Psychological Skills Training. It comes from the world of applied sports psychology, and refers to the constellation of psychological skills that produce optimal sports performance. PST has no reference to the technical or functional aspects of a person’s game. So if Safina keeps missing first serves – which she does in all events, not just Slams – that is a technical flaw that can only be corrected through proper coaching and repetitive practice. But if she wants to start winning Slams, she will have to fix her head along with her serve.
More and more coaches are realizing that what distinguishes say, Tiger Woods, from other excellent golfers is not his level of technical expertise but an ability to enter the zone, to reach a state of flow in which nothing can go wrong, and usually nothing does. I have a friend who believes that he has the potential to be the next Tiger Woods – that’s how good his game is. When he enters a golf tournament, he plays superbly on the first day, and may end up even being the leader by the end of day one. By day two, his level starts to drop. By day three he is a quivering mess and can’t putt to save his life. At first he thought that the problem was his fitness level so he started doing Crossfit. I have finally managed to convince him that the problem lies between his ears and that no amount of repetitive Crossfit pull-ups will change the nature and impact of his negative self-talk in the middle of a tournament.
Players who enter the zone have certain psychological characteristics in common. For a start, they have a high level of self-confidence and a genuine expectation of success. It always used to crack me up whenever Steffi Graf would offer the bullshit line about going out and just having fun on the courts. Back then, Graf wouldn’t recognize fun if it hit her with a two-by-four. She was always about the business of winning, and when she walked on to a tennis court, you never got the sense that she was ever not in emotional control.
Players in the zone feel that sense of control. Their concentration is total and they remain completely focused on the present task. They become one with the tennis racket and their eyes remain glued to the ball. If there are other problems in their lives, these get set aside until the game or tournament is over. In a state of flow, a player views a match against a higher-ranked opponent as an exciting challenge. She remains productively perfectionistic, which means that she holds high standards for her own performance but also maintains the flexibility to bounce back from mistakes and to learn from them.
(Part 1 of 3)