Friday, April 1, 2011

Setting your sight on greatness (II)

A friend asked me if I would still develop this mini-series of articles if Djokovic ended up losing in Miami. My response was that of course I would. The fact of a loss does not detract from the greatness of a player. Or, as I responded to her, chica, into every life some loss must eventually fall. Even the best have an off-day.
But what the great ones have in common is that they deliberately, consciously, and intentionally set their sights on being the best. And then they go about accomplishing this. I’m speaking of goal-setting of course. And it’s a necessary psychological skill in the pursuit of greatness.
The research on goal-setting is not plentiful, but what data exists suggests that goal-setting is the most effective mental training tool in sport psychology. Research also shows that certain types of goals work best in certain situations. The best goals are those that are task as well as process-related, moderately difficult, and specific to the anticipated outcome. Let me explain.
To clarify, the best goals are ones where the focus is not only on getting there but also on the process of getting there. Not just the end-point but also the journey. Second, it’s also important not to bite off more than you can chew. Effective goal-setting for a tennis player will involve not deciding the minute you turn pro that you want to be the #1 player in the world. Like Raonic, it may make more sense to aspire to be Top 50. Once that goal is achieved, you set your sights on being Top 25. And so on. And finally, it is critical that your efforts bear some relation to your desired outcome (e.g., practicing split steps for 30 minutes a day will make more sense than bench-pressing 500 pounds in the gym if your goal is to become an excellent tennis player).
The great ones also know how to use effective mental visualization in order to achieve their defined goals. There have been over 200 studies conducted on the effects of using imagery in sport. The majority of these studies show that effective imagers perform significantly better than their counterparts. In other words, imagery has a positive effect on performance.
I believe that I’ve written before about a former coach whom I observed teaching his young students to visualize every aspect of their form. He only allowed them to hit the topspin forehand when they could visually see themselves doing so. When they lost a match, he would have them visually reconstruct where they may have gone wrong.
But one of the big debates in this area is whether imagery is any more effective than simple physical practice, modeling, or other concrete methods of learning. The response is that you need to do all of the above. It is the combination of imagery with physical practice as well as observing the masters, that produces the best tennis results. In other words, being able to use mental imagery will enhance performance when combined with observation and practice. Some sport psychologists believe that this use of imagery is an effective neuroscientific tool.
So, do I have any evidence that Djokovic is an effective goal-setter or visualizer? No I don’t. I’m simply arguing for my belief that there is no way he could get to where he is today without being able to effectively use both of these psychological tools.
In addition, I’d like to believe that Djokovic perhaps simply got tired of being shut out of the conversation about tennis dominance. For several years almost all of the focus has been on Federer and Nadal. Djokovic found himself treated like a third wheel, a performer who was not really invited to the party. 

It did not help his situation when, some years ago, he and his mother started crowing about the death of the king when he finally managed to beat Federer. That was a serious misstep. Not only did Fed succeed in crushing him after that, but Nadal also made him his petting boy. I suspect that Djokovic’s inspiration for his current greatness may have had its roots in that experience of being completely overlooked. 
(Part 2 of 3)

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