Sometimes, as a tennis player, you exist on an island. Alone, solo, under the lights of your local club or drenched in the sun, there you are ... between the lines, either gaining the accolades of glory hitting the winning shot or facing the weight of defeat. There are no teammates to pass to; no backup in case you throw a bad pitch or have a bad shift; no defense to pick you up after the offense turned the ball over...it’s just you who must deal with the adversity of this individual sport. Mental toughness is what gives top players a competitive leg up over the opposition. Training one’s mind to deal with nerves, anxiety and quickly move onward past mistakes can be the difference between being crowned “champion” and “finalist.”
These individuals help players focus, find their groove and enter the zone to success. It’s the ability of the player to quickly get back on track once rattled that can make the difference between bowing out in the first round of a tournament or hoisting the trophy at the end of the day.
New York Tennis Magazine was fortunate enough to sit down and chat with experts in the field of sports psychology to pick their brains and gain insight into their role as one of the most vital members of a tennis player’s support staff.
Dr. Tom Ferraro is a sport psychologist with a Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook, with more than 25 years of experience working with professional teams, coaches and Olympic athletes across a broad range of sports. Dr. Ferraro is a board-certified psychoanalyst, which allows him to properly diagnose and treat the symptoms an athlete may bring to his him and help them understand any underlying reasons for self-defeat. He has been published internationally and has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, and is a regular contributor to this publication.
As a mental training coach, Rob Polishook works with athletes and teams in all sports and at all levels, from middle school to professional athletes, teaching cutting-edge mental training skills and techniques, and providing the tools necessary for athletes to compete in high level pressure situations. Polishook has earned a Master’s Degree in Psychological Studies with a concentration in Sport & Exercise Psychology at Seton Hall University, and has completed his Certification in Sport Psychology from Seton Hall. Polishook is a Certified Professional Coach from IPEC, an International Federation Coaching Affiliate.
How would you handle a player who is down on their game because of a few recent losses?
Ferraro: This is one of the most important issues in sports because many athletes are perfectionists. As a result, when they lose a few matches they begin to feel like a failure and get down, lose focus, become controlled by anger and make inappropriate changes. I always let them vent their frustration, give some reality testing (i.e. no one wins all the time) and explore the roots of their perfectionism while and providing some verbal messages to use when losing.
Polishook: First off, it must be acknowledged that it hurts to lose, and with losing comes disappointment. In my book, Tennis Inside the Zone, I have a specific chapter on this. So what to do? I would encourage the player to look at their performance beyond the result and over a longer time period like three to six months, and not just a few recent losses. Failure provides feedback, a top player will break down their game and identify aspects which need work such as serve, returns, patterns, patience, and the ability to bounce back, to name a few. This reflection will enable them to see what is breaking down and create a specific practice plan to work on these aspects of their game. Without proper self-reflection a player will generalize and say, “I suck!” This is not helpful in re-tooling what needs to improve. The player must keep the focus on what they can control such as their attitude, resilience, preparation, and the intention to play their game. Then let go of things they cannot, such as the outcome.
What is the best mental preparation a player can do before a match?
Ferraro: Pre-game preparation to help them enter the zone. I recommend: reduced socializing about three days before a big match; make sure they get at least eight hours of sleep per night; if they do not have a nutritionist I review dietary intake, and reduce alcohol and drug intake. Often, athletes are social and also anxious and will tend to use drugs to facilitate their social life and reduce anxiety as well. Overall strategies against opponents are established, as well as how they will handle mechanics and deal with setbacks.
Polishook: There is not a one size fits all to this question, all players respond to different things. Most players, be it the favorite or the underdog, are nervous prior to a match. Therefore, pressure release practices such as breathing exercises, meditation, walking and physical warm-up are all great. A player may want to refer to their own match notes or strategies prior to a match. It’s important not to make a match bigger than it is, each match is another match and should not be built it up into anything more. Players want to begin a match respecting their opponent.
What’s the best advice you can give to someone who has a strong temper that they can’t control on court?
Ferraro: We discuss their anger at length. I let them vent frustrations and also explore unresolved anger from the recent and distant past. They may be too demanding on themselves (perfectionist) and we explore the benefits and drawbacks of this personality trait. Finally we develop coping statements and/or behavioral strategies to release the anger more effectively.
Polishook: The good news is that a strong temper indicates a lot of passion, caring and energy. However, the bad news is that this energy is not helpful and usually leads to a continuous negative downward spiral. The challenge for this player is to maintain the energy but channel it in a way that will be helpful to their performance. All players want to WIN, but they need to stop to reflect that W.I.N stands for What’s. Important. Now? This simple acronym can help bring a player back to the present and focus on strategies for the next point.
In today’s day-and-age, there have never been more distractions for kids to be occupied with, especially with social media. How can coaches/parents help their kids remain focused?
Ferraro: The addictive nature of social media is a big problem for the entire society and kids are no exception. It helps to have a long discussion about the cost of wasting time with social media and the hours spent using these things are very high. After a thorough discussion of the cost and benefits of using social media, one needs to use what is called “response cost” which is a method to allow some use, but where penalties are incurred for overuse.
Polishook: In order to connect, you must disconnect! And this means with your phone and social media accounts. I highly recommend kids staying off their cell phones and social media a few hours before their match. This time can be spent settling down, relaxing, and charging their energy (instead of their phone!). The focus should be on the match, not what others are saying about them
What are some of the mental challenges/obstacles that you have found tennis players face as opposed to athletes in other sports?
Ferraro: Tennis is unique in the amount of shame that the player is exposed to during a match, given the fact that he/she plays in front of an audience and does not have a helmet that disguises their face. He is alone in front of the world and golfers also must handle these kinds of shame-inducing moments. I teach a method of physical posturing with shoulders back and head held high no matter what is happening on court. It is a method of maintaining pride and good attitude, no matter what is occurring on the court. You “fake it till you make it’ when it comes to pride.
Polishook: I work with athletes in all sports, levels and ages. Interestingly enough, the challenges are actually very similar, whether it be soccer, basketball, softball, baseball, etc.. Most athletes get nervous, scared, and anxious because they are focusing on things which they cannot control, such as the outcome, expectations, and how the match will affect their UTR rating or college prospects. Again, all these things are future-based and uncontrollable. What’s important now is focusing on what you can control, what’s directly in front of you, maybe the current point or match. I highly advise a player to look at only one match at a time; that’s the most important match. Not to project who they might play. Break the draw up into singular pieces, one match at a time. The next match doesn’t matter until you finish the last one.