There are moments when Djokovic can be seen mumbling to himself during a match. These moments generally occur after he misses a shot. Of course many players do this as well. And for some players you can see the negativity of the self-chatter. You can detect the intensity with which they start berating themselves for having erred. But studies on the impact of self-talk on performance have reliably shown that kind that of negative self-talk can be very destructive of one’s self-confidence. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, actually enhances performance.
Much of this research is based on the work of Albert Bandura whose theory of self-efficacy has been translated into the notion of sport confidence. Self-efficacy refers to your belief in your personal capability. Self-efficacy beliefs influence how we think, feel, and act; these internal beliefs have a profound effect on our motivation and confidence. Individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy will take on challenges – such as beating the #1 player in the world twice in a row – which they will remain motivated to master.
Like others with a strong sense of self-efficacy, in those moments when Djokovic can be seen muttering to himself, he is likely not putting himself down at all, but reminding himself that he knows exactly what to do. In the early stages of her career during moments when matches got difficult, Serena Williams could be seen reading her personal cheat sheets – positive messages to herself about her abilities.
Self-talk is a specific type of confidence building technique. It involves the use of certain cognitive strategies (e.g., Serena’s positive cue words or Rafa’s knack for mental re-framing) to help athletes to think more positively and focus on the task at hand. It is a psychological tool that has been shown to have a strong effect on performance.
Arousal control is the final psychological skill that great athletes master. Arousal control has to do with the management of your energy level. Decades of research have shown that there is an optimal arousal level that results in great performance. Too hyped-up or too relaxed and your performance will suffer. There is, in other words, a Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). That zone may differ from one person to another, but what the great athletes have in common is that they tend to be skilled energy managers.
Because each individual has his or her unique optimal zone, PST psychologists will work with athletes to help them find their own Individual Affective Performance Zone (IAPZ). This is the zone in which the athlete’s level of personal arousal is calibrated to match her anxiety level and her emotional preferences. This is one of the reasons why, while I cannot bear listening to it, I understand that Maria Sharapova needs to scream.
It is also one of the reasons why there can be an emotional mismatch between a coach and an athlete. I adore Todd Martin but his influence on Novak Djokovic was nothing short of disastrous. Todd Martin had one of the best serves in men’s tennis, but he was not the right person to tinker with Djokovic’s serving motion.
From the perspective of PST, their problems may not only have been mechanical but also emotional. There has to be an emotional fit between coach and student such that the coach can be a part of the positive energy management system that the student needs. When the athlete looks to his box – and Djokovic probably leads everyone else in the frequency with which he does this – the emotional feedback must be both soothing and confidence-boosting.
Some coaches include the use of techniques of biofeedback or neurofeedback to help their athletes learn how to regulate their energy. But learning techniques of breathing retraining and the like is easy in a psychologist’s office. The real test comes when you’re on court at Delray Beach, in front of thousands of screaming fans, playing a tie-break in the third set, with the score at 6-4, and you’re serving for the match a second time, knowing that if you miss this point it will be 6-5 and your opponent’s turn to serve.
And when your opponent has the intensity and aggressiveness of a Rafael Nadal, you know that you have to win this point, this match, right now. So you dig deep, give yourself some positive reminders of how well you can serve, visualize where you intend to place the ball, plan out the play if it is returned, breathe deeply, and execute.
(Part 3 of 3)