Written by: Sue Wilson
***Sue Wilson has been a psychology consultant for teams and individuals since the 1970’s. Prior to that, she was an elite athlete at team sports before moving on to coach teams and individuals at a University level. A retired professor from York University, Sue taught sport psychology and relaxation while developing biofeedback/neurofeedback programs that are used around the world. She has published the first paper on the 1Hz “brain” of the elite athlete and continues to work with developing tennis players today.***
Why athletes need to learn to compete
It is our experience that many athletes learn how to play tennis very well, but many have difficulty achieving or do not achieve the next step, which is to systematically and efficiently learn ‘how to compete’. After learning how to compete, the player needs to learn the final step in elite performance which is learning ‘how to win’. The final stage will discuss in the next article.
Before presenting a model for coaches to consider when developing methods for teaching elite players ‘how to compete’ it is important to understand the concept of ‘states’ in learning and performing.
‘State” Learning and ‘State’ Competing
Research (ref) has shown that people learn in specific ‘states’. When these ‘states’ are experienced in the future, the person will tend to respond with the same actions and feelings as occurred during the learning. For example, if a tennis player learns to hit a terrific down the line forehand in ‘non-pressured, calm’ condition, then when the athlete feels non-pressured, calm conditions in tournaments, the same terrific shot will most likely be hit. This means that the player will not likely produce the same terrific shot if the conditions are high stress or pressure, or if the athlete’s perception of the conditions is high pressure. This leaves at least three choices for the coach/athlete.
- Create enough practice in ‘states’ that are more like competition such that when entering competition the athlete feels more at home. See (Williams for routines, pre competition preparation, etc )
- Develop an athlete who both does not perceive ‘stress/pressure’ and can treat each and every game as the same level. In our experience, this is almost impossible to do but there are a few athletes who have the correct genetics and experience. For example, Ivan Lendl always claimed that every point was important and there were no ‘big’ points in matches. And for most of the time, he played this way. If you don’t know it is an important point, you aren’t stressed
- Athlete learns to recognize their ‘state-body and mind’ before and during each match and is able to change the state as needed. Since we haven’t found a robotic infallible tennis player or coach, we suggest that formal training for recognizing and changing the states needs to be understood, evaluation and then practiced in progressive competitive settings
- Once the athlete has some control over his/her own state, they need awareness of the state of their opponent.
- The final step is deciding which strategy to use based upon the players own state and the opponents state.
This suggests that opportunities to fail/succeed at the critical moment are necessary experiences. We need to create the opportunities for tennis players to take the winning / losing shots. And create the mentality that they will be willing to take the shot. This is even more difficult for tennis player than it was for Michael Jordan as there is no one to share the load. In order for a player to be able to do this, we contend that the athlete needs to become aware of and able to control their own states as well as read those of the competitor.
Following is a model that may assist the coach/athlete to become aware of the common states that often occur in tournament tennis.
To view the model, please click here.
A coach and athlete can begin the awareness by simple question and answer periods. What stage am I in now? Where are my shots going? How am I feeling? Once the athlete becomes aware of the state, they can now choose to make changes
How to change states
The ideal preparation is to have the athlete come in with the correct professional stage. Following this, the athlete needs to work on maintaining the elite stage throughout the match. Then, and this is more difficult, the athlete needs to practice moving up a stage when they are not in the professional state if and when required.
- know which state
- know your best options
- Mechanics of making changes
Perception control body – breathing
Our experience has been that an athlete has a major difficulty to move up more than two states. Thus, the athlete should attempt to arrange practice, competition and their life to come into each situation with an opportunity to do well. From sport psychology, we know that creating, practicing and following routines prior to competition assists many athletes to perform at their best. There are a few who can ‘just pop in’ and still compete well. ‘Know thyself’ is as important today as it was when written on the wall of the community commode in Turkey in 2000 BC.
Key to Michael Jordon’s success
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.
I’ve lost almost 300 games.
Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.
I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – M.J