In order to win on the courts, there are many skills one must have. After working with professional athletes and coaches for thirty five years in the fields of tennis, golf, soccer, football, baseball and more, I’ve learned that there are ten secret ingredients to winning in tennis.
Over the next year, I will spell out these ten secrets in detail and explain what you must do to learn them. Subjects will include mastering the emotions of anxiety, anger, and despair, understanding the importance of body language and gamesmanship, how to establish the right psychological defenses such as suppression, anticipation and humor, gathering the right team and assets around you, practicing the right balance of fun and work, developing the traits of confidence, perseverance and focus and, finally, how to see the value of your education.
For the first part of this series, we will be talking about anxiety, the number one psychological issue affecting performance.
Symptoms of anxiety include worry, the yips, jitteriness, tension, fatigue, nausea, feelings of weakness or light headedness, quirky compulsions like racket twirling and more. When anxiety becomes overwhelming, it can have a devastating effect on performance and prevent a player from playing to their full potential. It also leads to irritability, discouragement and even depression in some cases.
The cause of anxiety is multi-determined and is triggered by external events, but its actual cause usually exists internally. Players frequently get anxious when facing a more highly-ranked opponent, when they are playing in front of big crowds, after making a few mistakes, when trying out for a team or when watched by scouts or coaches at showcases. Internally, the roots of anxiety will either stem from having low self-esteem, having guilt about winning, a fear of separation from others if they win, having weak defenses, or if they have conflicts with their own aggression. In addition, the player may feel extreme pressure from parents, coaches, fans or sponsors to always perform well.
As a psychoanalyst, I believe that insight into the causes of your anxiety is crucial to establishing any lasting cure. This means coming into a sports psychologist’s office and being afforded the time to explore the actual causes of one’s anxiety. Over time, the issues are revealed and ego strength begins to develop. It is only after this insight is gained and ego strength develops that one can usefully apply the variety of suppressive techniques that most of the top athletes are familiar with. These techniques will include deep breathing, positive self- talk, and goal-setting and visualization tips.
Tennis is one of the most interesting games ever invented with an aura of refinement, beauty and gentility deriving from its roots. It was started as a game played by Monastics in cloisters in the 12th century, but eventually made its way out of France to England where it was enjoyed by the royals and by the highly-educated in Cambridge and Oxford. However, the modern game now requires great fitness, cat-like agility, and refined skill sets which takes years to develop. And despite it being a genteel game based on a code of sportsmanship, it also requires aggression and a cocky attitude which then produces internal conflicts expressed as anxiety.
The great joy of tennis is felt as one learns to face and overcome these anxieties and it is certainly no crime to get some help along the way. Anxiety is a nasty, scary feeling and why Sigmund Freud called anxiety “unpleasure”. Indeed, there is nothing quite like it when you’re able to face up to your inner demons and win. That victory is more noteworthy then beating Roger Federer or Serena Williams.
In the next issue, we will talk about anger and how to use it to your benefit.