This article is Part Two in a 10-part series from Dr. Tom Ferraro. Click Here to read Part One.
Over the years I have learned a key intervention that helps tennis players in their effort to win is anticipating any and all problems that will occur during an event and preparing a reaction to it. This common sense approach is surprisingly neglected by all but the most elite players.
In 1971, Carly Simon wrote her most famous song “Anticipation” which begins with the line “We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway”. She intuitively outlined one of the most mature and crucial defenses that athletes need in order to win
The realistic anticipation of future inner discomfort and surprise problems is one of the central keys to winning in any sport. This is commonly referred to as “Murphy’s Law” or that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray so you had better be prepared for any and all problems. The bigger the event, the more likely that strange and unexpected discomfort will happen.
Most tennis players do not anticipate most things and go into events blindly and naively. Tennis tournaments are like war and as in war, you had better have a carefully prepared plan or you will soon be dead.
You may have noticed that in post-game interviews, the winners of the event will often express appreciation to their team of doctors, trainers, physio guys, coaches and spouses. The team that surrounds the athlete is responsible for anticipating any and all problems and prepared the athlete to be ready.
A few years ago I ran a conference and one of the guest speakers I invited was Gary Wadler, M.D., the sport medicine guru. He told a story of working with Martina Navratilova the year she won the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows. They had anticipated very high temperatures and the possibility of heat stroke on the last weekend and so intravenous fluids were used to prevent dehydration. That is a good example of anticipation.
The list of problems that might occur during a tournament includes both external and internal issues. There may be traffic on the way to the event, there may be a sudden rainstorm which makes the court wet or the wind may not be to your liking. You may be paired against someone who upsets you or who has a big rep or who bores you. Maybe the opponent is a pusher and you dislike that kind of game. Perhaps the referee or your opponent makes a bad call. It might be that you are on the verge of burnout, are exhausted or got only four hours sleep the night before. Maybe you suddenly feel nausea, have back pain or you’re coming down with a cold or just coming back from an injury.
Maybe there are inner demons at work like being too tense, in a slump, depressed, distracted by some recent social problem or over thinking your stroke or yipping.
Any and all of these things happen to players on a regular basis and so how does one talk about them and plan ways to cope. If one does not anticipate these events then when they hit you by surprise. You will enter the event blindly and in denial of what is to come. And the chances are you will be unprepared and the problems will inevitably distract you, overwhelm you and defeat you.
Anticipation takes work. This strategy is not just a magic work. Let me give you an example of how we develop anticipation. I work with many younger players who are rising stars and not accustomed to the cameras, the interviews and the crowds that inevitably are a part of stardom. To keep them from imploding this is what we do.
1. The first thing is to help them to describe the triggers and what happens to them, their feelings and their game. What they will often say is that they become distracted, lose focus, get anxious, get tight and when this starts they fall down the rabbit hole of doubt and despair and will lose matches that they should have won.
2. The next step is tracing this problem backwards and we explore various aspects of their past that contribute to their distractibility, anxiety and lack of defense. The answers vary in these cases and the insights gained repair the athlete a great deal and this process of real insight is what differentiates depth sport psychology for standard sport psychology.
3. After this we embark on the process of building up better defenses to cope with the crowds or the fame or the pressure. We rehearse body language, visual focus, tricks like the use of silence and a variety of self-talk strategies. Anticipation is a mature and very high level defense because it allows one to prepare for any discomfort that is sure to arise in the course of winning matches. It is not surprising that most athletes do not do this because no one was there to teach them. If a parent happened to be a professional tennis player then their youngster will be taught this strategy. But more often the player needs to learn this from a professional coach or sport psychologist.
To paraphrase Carly Simon “we can never know about the days or the matches to come but we need to think about them anyway.”
Next month we will talk about the third secret all top players use to win.