During professional matches or junior tournaments, everyone in the stands can see the score. But what about what’s below the score? What can’t we see? More times than not, that’s going to be the predictor in what happens next? I’m referring to a player’s emotional energy. Are they calm, aware and in a balanced state? Are they over or under stimulated? Or are they in the dreaded fight, flight or freeze? Why is this so important to know? Because if the player, his/her coach or even the parent is attuned to the player’s emotional energy, they can help themselves stay in this balanced place, or make adjustments to stay within their range of resiliency and manage adversity, challenges and opportunities.
We’ve all seen a match where an unseeded player is playing the number one seed. Maybe they are up 5-2 in the decisive set. According to the score, everything looks good. However, the keen observer may be able to sense that the unseeded player is starting to get frustrated, over-trying, perhaps beginning to rush. At some point, everything starts to melt down. The most recent example of this is the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. During the second half, the momentum shifted, and the Falcons self-destructed. In tennis, top seeds have saved match points and turned the match around. Stan Wawrinka did it against Dan Evans at the 2016 U.S. Open and then won the tournament.
Imagine you had a graph or scale that could illustrate the emotional state of any player during the course of a match. This graph would be able to highlight how a player is dealing with adversity, challenges, and opportunities in the match. It would illustrate how the player experiences a progression of nerves, tension, or calmness during a match. It would also show where the focus was and how it changed during specific times in a match. Lastly it would show what they could do to regain their focus, come back to a place of calm awareness and stay within their range of resiliency. This scale would be a sane voice of reason whenever you needed to get back on track.
To get a sense of how helpful this might be, remember a time when you were getting crushed, your coach was offering suggestions that you could barely hear. What you needed was a voice of calm, one thing to execute to get you back on track, rather than a loud voice barking instructions that made you more tense. This would be a game changer! You could then make the appropriate mental adjustments like the top players do, instead of spiraling further out of control. A coach or parent who understands this scale, could intervene with advice based on where the player was and what the player was experiencing, rather than trying to offer suggestions that the player may be in no state to hear because they are so overwhelmed or shutdown.
In fact a scale like this does exist! It’s called The Emotional Energy Scale. Essentially this is a scale, which illustrates where a player is emotionally, and based on that, what they need to move forward. The good news is that it is easy to access and free. Bad news is that it takes awareness and courage to subjectively know where you are and make appropriate adjustments to reboot, recharge and rebound in an empowered way to try to turn things around in a match.
Below are key components in the scale. Future articles will go in depth into the many layers and action points.
Each of the five emotional states are color-coded. This makes it easy to describe, based on a color or a word, what the player is experiencing. For example, when a player is calm, relaxed, playing inside the zone, they are in the green-balanced state. When they are frustrated, trying too hard or rushing, they are in the orange over-stimulated state. When they are feeling flat, disinterested and disconnected, they are in the yellow state of under-stimulation. When they are feeling out of control, helpless and threatened, they are in the red overwhelmed state. Lastly, when they have that hopeless, shocked, and deer in a headlights look, this is the grey shutdown state.
Emotional range of resiliency
While it would be great to play balanced all the time, this is just not realistic. The key is to stay within your emotional range of resiliency. During matches a player’s emotional energy will fluctuate. What’s key is to stay with your capacity. As a player manages difficult situations, their future capacity to deal with adversity and recover will increase and become more tolerant.
The chart answers three questions:
►What is a player experiencing?
►What “zone” is the player in?
►What can they do to shift out of that zone if need be? In other words: What are the symptoms? What’s the diagnosis? And what is the prescription to prescribe?
Again, the key to the scale is to understand that, during different parts of a match, a player’s emotional energy will fluctuate. However, the player that can harness their energy and use it to their advantage will be able to adapt and adjust and make the best decisions under pressure.
If you’re a player get comfortable with the scale. In your last match what progressions did you experience? What could you have done to stay better balanced? Or within the range of resiliency? If you are a coach, how do you see your students on this scale during key points in a match? Based on this, how could it help them? If you’re a parent, remember back to the time you tried to tell your child something after a big loss? Maybe they were in shutdown mode? That may have been a time to just allow them to settle and re-connect.
The Emotional Energy Scale is a great way to conceptualize and understand how to play in the zone, adapt and adjust to situations, and recalibrate when you begin shutting down. It can help you toward (and finally achieving!) sustained peak performance.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder and director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes and teams at the middle school, high school, national, collegiate and professional levels. His work focuses on helping athletes and teams gain the mental edge, often the difference between winning and losing. Rob has spoken to athletes, coaches, parents both nationally at USTA, USPTA, ITA conferences, and has conducted international workshops and has worked with top-ranked juniors in India, Israel, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He was awarded the 2008 USPTA-Eastern Division High School Coach of the Year Award. He may be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.insidethezone.com.