Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How do you solve a problem like Safina?

How do you solve a problem like Dinara?
How to get inside her head and build her up?
What are the words today that mean Safina?
An insecure player? An embarrassment? A flop?

The last time I wrote about Dinara Safina, another blogger commented that Safina was having a hard enough time and that comments like mine – that essentially amounted to suggestions for fixing her head – did not help. I’ve taken this feedback to heart and since then have not commented on Safina or her game.

Of course at the time I hoped out loud that whatever treatment program she was involved in for healing her back would also include a component of psychological skills training (PST) so that she could repair her head. Because the truth is that that is what she still needs. My problem is finding a way to say this without seeming to be further destructive of this young woman’s psyche.
Indeed, that is the problem that psychologists face every day. How to tell someone that they’re f**ked in the head without coming across as if you’re saying that the person is f**ked in the head. How to tell someone that they need to fix their mental game without coming across as if you’re telling the person that they’re kinda f**ked in the head.
Part of the problem may be that we persist in putting mental health in a different and special category. The solution, I believe, comes not from me finding an alternative way of making this point, but from all of us collectively changing our perspective and seeing mental health interventions as no different or special from physical health recommendations.
So that when a tennis player who was a former #1, ends up getting herself blown off the court 6-0 6-0 by a woman who went off and had a baby before returning to the tour, it should be very easy and OK to say to that player that maybe it’s time she went off and fixed her head. Because my problem today is not with the fact that Safina lost. It’s with how badly she lost. And when you end up with your opponent expressing pity over how badly she beat you, seriously, it’s time to introspect.
But my problem with Safina’s version of introspecting is that all she does is put herself down. She said that her performance was embarrassing. While this is true, it was not for her to say. I read a lovely piece in the New York Times today on the problem with insight and introspection. For people who are naturally self-downing, insight becomes simply another way of beating themselves up. What they need to learn how to do is to make effective changes, to include changes in these negative and harmful cognitions.
My point is this: If Safina had the talent to get to #1 in the world, then she should not need much technical help to improve her tennis. And to the criticism that the Big Babes were either injured or absent at the time, my response is that you don’t get to # 1 if you lack the talent to get there. And yes, Safina clearly needs to get fitter and stronger, improve her serve, reduce unforced errors, and play better strategically. But perhaps she also needs to become aware of any negative internal chatter that may be interfering with her ability to re-connect with whatever talent she used to have.
As a psychologist, I would ask Safina such questions as: What were your thoughts when you found out that you were playing Kim Clijsters in the first round? Did you think that you had no chance against her? How did you prepare mentally for that game? Is it possible that you simply went through the motions of preparing but really had given up before you even stepped onto the court? What were your thoughts when you first got broken? Did you collapse inside, convinced that that was the beginning of the end?
These are important questions for Safina to answer, to herself, with brutal honesty. And then she will have to learn how to change these thoughts and gain and hold on to self-confidence no matter who her opponent may be. But you can’t fix anything unless you first acknowledge that it is broken. And you can’t repair something if you perceive it as occupying a special and different and sensitive category of injury, such that everyone is expected to just tiptoe around it but never directly call it what it is.


Erik G. said...

Great post! I'd be curious to read your thoughts on Ivanovic's return to the top 20 since her recent slide was, IMO, all mental, rather than physical/mental as Safina has dealt with. As Safina said last night, she is more or less healthy again, so she's still dealing with the demons she faced when she became No.1. I do wish her the best, but as you said, I can't see her returning to the top without some deep introspect.

Also, any thoughts on Serena's recent "tweets" that read, at least to me, as signs of depression? I know I would be if I had to wear a medical boot for 6 months plus.

Like the new new redesign too!

tennischick said...

Thanks for commenting Erik. I need to give the Ivanovic situation a bit more thought before I write about it/her.

Off the cuff, Makarova is a very talented lefty, which I think may have been a challenge for Ivanovic. Also, Ana is injured. The combination of these two factors may have been too much.

OK, enough with the excuses. Ana should have won this match if she was healthy enough not to withdraw from the tourny altogether. Let me give some thought as to why she did not and I will write about it.

TennisAce said...

Safina's problem begin and end with her childhood. I am not sure if you have ever seen any articles about Dinara growing up in Russia. She got into tennis to gain acceptance from her family. I got the impression that the family dynamic was all about Marat and little sis just went along for the ride.

Dinara has struggled for most of her career. She has been ignored by family and fans of the sport and it was not until she went on a tear in 2008 that people started to take notice. Since then her results have dropped off as a result of a back injury as well as the fact that her confidence was repeatedly shattered when she started losing matches. I think also the loss of her demented coach affected her negatively as well.

I am not sure where she goes from here. A sports pscyhologist maybe able to help and I do recall a certain other player who actually went to seek therapy before returning to the tour (see Serena).

However, at the end of the day, an athlete has to have that innate belief in their abilities and clearly Dinara does not have that or if she did it has gone into the Black Hole of Calcutta

tennischick said...

I am always proud of players who don't make it a big deal that they saw a therapist. Really, it is no big deal. Good for Serena.

I hope Dinara gets the help she needs. Even if she came to tennis for the wrong reason, there is no denying her talent. But when you're inclined to put yourself down anyway, it's easy to form attachments to coaches that seem to walk a fine line between coaching and abuse.

Thanks for all the comments! :-)