Thursday, September 24, 2009

Beyond the barriers, or how to stay in the zone

Psychological Skills Training (PST) is the process by which the conditions that produce optimal performance are broken down into requisite skills. These can be taught to players like Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina who have the potential to succeed but whose heads keep getting in the way.

But in order for PST to work, players have first to be able to identify their personal barriers to optimal performance. From the point of view of PST, these barriers do not include any deficits in the physical or technical ability to play a sport. These barriers are purely psychological.

For example, one of the biggest barriers to optimal performance is the tendency to self-doubt. A player who goes on to a tennis court doubting her ability to beat an opponent will very likely not beat that opponent. Her self-doubt will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the hardest tasks I have ever faced as a psychologist is getting some individuals to buy into the notion of changing their negative self-talk. Some see this request as somehow emotionally invalidating. Sometimes I get around this by asking the person to try it my way for six months. I say that if after six months of faithful practice nothing changes, then they can go back to telling themselves what crappy persons they are. And then I keep my fingers crossed that we can effect such a beautiful change within the six month window that the person will find that they do not want to go back to self-flagellation.

Self-doubt is a success killer. But so too is acting contrary to your normal routine. When Lleyton Hewitt wore the same sweat-encrusted cap for two weeks during one Australian Open season, I commended him. It was his routine for success and he stuck to it. It is important not to suddenly come up with a new repertoire, especially when you are winning. If you like playing tennis in shorts, don't decide to wear a fancy dress on the day of a big match. That would be like those 11-plus parents who feed their children a massive breakfast on the morning of the exam after the kids had gotten used to eating cold cereal daily. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Stick to the routine that is part of your body memory and comfort zone.

Another barrier to optimal performance is allowing yourself not just to get distracted but to become focused on these distractions. Sure it's impolite of the crowd to get up and walk around in the middle of point. But guess what, it's always going to happen. And when players like Andy Roddick start flipping out over the crowd's behavior, or worse yet, losing his cool when the scoreline is not in his favor, he may unwittingly be signaling that he has become beatable. In fact, Roddick's proclivity for focusing on distractions may be a tell that his opponents can exploit.

A further barrier to optimal performance is the tendency to become too concerned about outcome. The Robin Söderling who lost the first ten times he faced Federer is not the Söderling who battled him in Paris and New York this year. This recent Söderling is a player who believes that he can beat Federer. Despite his jokes about the lop-sided scoreline, one no longer gets the impression that he believes that a loss to Federer is a preordained conclusion. On the contrary their match-ups have been becoming so close that a breakthrough seems inevitable.

One's level of arousal can also become a barrier to optimal performance. Serena lost to Kim in New York in part because she became too aroused. Kim on the other hand was so completely in the zone that she remained clueless that there was drama going on on the other side of the net.

At the same time, underarousal can also be a killer. Andy Murray was so completely flat in the match against Marin Cilic at the 2009 US Open that he made Cilic look better than he actually was. Arousal has to do with one's management of mental energy. Too much or too little can be equally debilitating.

Finally, a lack of concentration can serve as a barrier to performance. Dinara Safina has a bad habit of taking mental walkabouts in the middle of matches. It's like she bores herself, and then wakes up just as her goose is about to be cooked. You can get away with such concentration lapses in lesser events. You'll get slaughtered for them in a Grand Slam.

(Part 2 of 3)

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