To become a champion, you must have talent, fitness, good coaching, money, supportive parents, access to courts, discipline and patience. The sport psychologist is usually called upon when a player is having trouble with anxiety, anger, confidence, focus or pain tolerance. Any coach and athlete will admit that the ability to stay focused, confident and having the ability to transcend pain are the primary ingredients in any match.
But beyond all of this, I recently learned something else about winning by interviewing an ex-NFL player who remarked that football games are usually won or lost within the first two or three plays. As we explored this interesting remark, he told me that what happens almost immediately is that during the first few plays, the lineman are sizing each other up to see which has more speed and power. After these first few plays, one linesman realizes that he will be able to dominate his opponent and his focus, determination, confidence and willpower become enhanced. Conversely, if he senses that his opponent is stronger and faster than his willpower, focus, determination and confidence will be seriously diminished and he is well on his way to a loss. This football player said that in nearly every game this occurs and the outcome is predicated by this moment.
The best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell once wrote Blink where he explained how humans have an instinct capacity to size up situations in the blink of an eye. I agree with him. The determination of the winner and loser of a tennis match often occurs within the first few points of game one.
Billy Edwards was a nationally-ranked amateur golfer who would always say all matches in golf are won or lost on the first tee. He was referring to the same issue of first impressions.
This amazing ability to assess the opponent’s strength and/or weakness is seen in horses as well. My family owned many thoroughbreds, and I learned early on that horses actually size each other up in the paddock and the alpha animal would be recognized by the other horses and they would relinquish their power to the alpha during the homestretch of the race.
This happens in tennis as well. Reputation carries weight as does the feel of the first few points in a game. Each player is trying to establish dominance and this this occurs very quickly. And when this takes place, the “weaker” player will subtly back off. This accounts for most of the poor play we observe in players who sometimes under perform and seem to give up leads.
I think it is crucial for my players to understand this biological/psychological process so they can avoid it. We do this by:
1. Talking to them about this experience both before a match and during the first few points and if they sense this process; and
2. Teaching them how to overcome it.
Teaching them about this domination/submission response allows them to have control over it by establishing a routine that they can always use to maintain focus, determination, pain tolerance and courage. They become aware that this dominant position can be achieved in any match, no matter who you are playing as long as you stay focused, resist the feeling and hold strong to self-belief.
Domination and submission is a biologically-determined tendency that can be overcome with insight into the process, and then by establishing willpower. This is one reason why I believe in the unconscious process in sports and why one must understand it in order to play consistently well.
I would never have imagined that I could learn so much about tennis by listening carefully to how a football linesman plays the game on the line of scrimmage.