Remember the last time you turned on the lights? It’s a mindless activity, we do it all the time. When the lights go on, we don’t give it another thought. But, what about when the lights don’t go on? Usually, we may flip the switch a few times, trying to “will” the lights on. Let’s also assume it’s a new bulb. What we do know is that, we cannot see the problem; it’s behind the wall, below the surface, and having something to do with the wiring.
So what do lights have to do with the mental game? Actually, a lot! What allows a player to manage the ups and downs of competition is usually not at the surface level (technique, skills or talent); but below the surface, behind the wall pertaining to the player’s mental game and their emotional range of resiliency. That is, their ability to manage their range of emotions during the turbulence of a match without getting overwhelmed.
All players have their own emotional energy that is based on previous experiences and their unique story. Players also have their own triggers that can stress them. When emotion meets stress, things get interesting, and this all happens below the surface. Imagine these three scenarios: In your first round of a tournament, you’re playing in control, seeing the court well with a calm awareness of what’s happening. You’re feeling relaxed, balanced and can be described as playing “Inside the Zone.”
Now, in the second round, you realize your opponent is the number one seed! You might be a bit tentative, even feeling a bit slow and sluggish. To get back to a place of balance, you will need to energize yourself, maybe shuffle your feet, shake your arms, and even reframe things so you look at the match as a challenge. Now, let’s assume you pulled off the upset. Great job!
In the next round after beating the top seed, you’re expected to win—lots of pressure on you. The match is very close, and the score is 5-5 in the third set. Your opponent hits three straight lines and then closes the game out with a bad call. Emotionally, you’re in rage mode, barely able to control yourself as you walk over to the chair during the change-over, now down 5-6.
So, what’s the trick to insuring a player doesn’t go into overwhelm and/or shutdown mode under pressure? How can they hang in there, reset and continue to play through adversity, ultimately regaining that place of balance? We have all seen players bounce back in the face of adversity, while other players seem to spiral out of control. Why is this? Going back to the light switch metaphor, the key is the player’s ability to ride the wave and manage their emotional energy without getting too charged or discharged before short-circuiting (overwhelm/shutdown).
Players of all levels know that tennis matches can be emotional and akin to riding the waves in an ocean. I often tell my clients to expect a match to be difficult, expect adversity, and momentum shifts, this way it is not a surprise and they can spend their energy competing, problem solving, and focusing on what they can control versus being angry that the score is not how they expected. Clearly, focusing on what you cannot control like the weather, opponent, fans and outcome can trigger a player and take them out of their comfort zone.
Now, seasoned players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and top juniors alike usually put errors behind them, absorb uncontrollable situations, and regain their refocus on the next point or shortly thereafter. While players like Nick Kyrgios, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, and the next level of juniors usually don’t do as well. The top players show us that it’s key to be aware of emotional energy and how certain triggers impact the ability to stay balanced. When players non-judgmentally view challenge as just that, they can choose how to best channel their energy for the next point. Wins and losses tell us that in an evenly skilled match, the player that stays within their emotional range of resiliency will have the adaptability to absorb the “momentum waves” of a match.
When a player demonstrates a range of emotional resiliency, they don’t get overwhelmed. They can be okay with being on edge, especially when it counts the most under pressure. In turn, this gives them the best chance to make high percentage choices and compete. I remember watching a documentary about Roger Federer. His coach said, “What makes Roger so great is that he always knows where he is and then subsequently knows what he needs.” I believe this takes great awareness and allows Roger to channel his energy and play within his emotional range of resiliency. Essentially, “riding the waves of the match.”