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Allen Fox: “Mentally Dominate Opponents to Break their Will”

A closely fought tennis match is more than a physical battle. It is a struggle of wills, mental strength, and character. It is a pervasive personal and emotional contest in which you use every means you have, both physical and mental, to break down your opponent’s mind (while keeping your own intact and functional).

Written by: Allen Fox, Ph.D.

Excerpt from Tennis: Winning the Mental Match

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***Dr. Allen Fox, Ph.D. psychologist from UCLA, is a former NCAA singles champion, Canadian National champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Dr. Fox also coached the Pepperdine tennis teams to two NCAA finals, including team member Martin Laurendeau, captain of the Canadian Davis Cup team.

He has authored several books, his latest, “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match,” has been acclaimed as “the best book on tennis psychology ever written.” It can be purchased on Amazon or Tennis Warehouse, or electronically on Kindle or iTunes. For more information and articles visit allenfoxtennis.net. He is also an editor of TENNIS magazine, consults with players on mental issues, and lectures worldwide on sports psychology.***

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A closely fought tennis match is more than a physical battle. It is a struggle of wills, mental strength, and character. It is a pervasive personal and emotional contest in which you use every means you have, both physical and mental, to break down your opponent’s mind (while keeping your own intact and functional).

Establishing dominance is one way to help break down an opponent. What is meant by “dominance”? It is the inferior feeling that lesser players get when they face better players, and it makes them play worse. It is not limited to tennis. In chess, for example, Bobby Fischer, who was arguably the best of all time, had a debilitating effect on his opponents known as “Fischer fear.” It hurt their play and even manifested itself physically in debilitating headaches, weakness, and increased blood pressure. One of his great rivals, Boris Spassky, was once quoted as saying, “When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.” WOW!

This “superstar effect” was identified by Jennifer Brown at Northwestern University in a study on Tiger Woods, who was far and away the dominant golfer on the tour at the time of the study. She looked at golf because, unlike tennis, it is a sport where one player can not physically influence another’s performance directly. The effects can only be mental. In analyzing scores from all the other golfers in PGA events from 1999 to 2006, she found that when Tiger Woods was in a tournament, the other golfers scored an average of .8 strokes higher than when he wasn’t. This is highly significant since the average margin between first and second place in these tournaments was about one stroke. Interestingly, the magnitude of performance drop of the “superstar effect” varied with the other player’s position on the leader board. It was greater the closer the other player was to the lead, in which case he may have felt he was closer to facing Tiger directly and choked or overplayed accordingly.

In tennis one player can affect another’s performance both physically and mentally. In addition to their games, high ranking or successful players have a mental way of making their opponents feel weak and ineffectual. For example, in his prime Roger Federer’s simple presence across the net was intimidating. Federer did not just overpower opponents physically. He dominated them mentally, and as a consequence, they missed shots against him that they routinely made against other people. They were more likely than normal to become nervous against him or to become discouraged when they got behind. This psychological weaponry was a handy addition to his arsenal of shots when it came to conserving energy while winning lots of tournaments. It just made his job easier, as it can yours in competitive matches.

Your body language affects your opponent’s mind. How does one establish this dominance? You start by recognizing that all of your actions, not just your forehands and backhands, have a profound effect on your opponent’s mental state. Since human beings are a social species, they instinctively react emotionally to the way other people treat them.

For example, your own self-image is formed partially by the subtle messages other people give you. Consider the following devilish thought experiment. What if all your friends and associates got together to play a nasty trick on you? Suppose they all agreed that whenever they were with you they would ignore or quickly disagree with everything you said and cut you out of conversations by talking only among themselves? After a day or two of this what do you think would happen to your self-confidence? It would undoubtedly take a substantial hit, no matter how high it had been beforehand and would provide a graphic demonstration of the power other people have to control the way you feel about yourself.

Never show weakness. You can behave like Federer. If your opponent hits a great shot, appear to take no notice. Simply walk back into position as you always do – head up, steady stride, under control, and looking like you are confident, have a plan, and know exactly what you are doing. This is a dominant attitude. If you make an error, no matter how egregious, act as if nothing at all happened. Just go about your business and ready yourself to play the next point. Realize that displays of frustration, anger, or discouragement are signs of weakness that serve only to strengthen your opponents – the emotional equivalent of giving them backrubs on changeovers. If you are moaning and groaning when things are going against you, expect your opponents to fight you to the bitter end. These are submissive gestures, not actions of a dominant competitor, so lose them.

Never show weakness. You can behave like Federer. If your opponent hits a great shot, appear to take no notice. Simply walk back into position as you always do – head up, steady stride, under control, and looking like you are confident, have a plan, and know exactly what you are doing. This is a dominant attitude. If you make an error, no matter how egregious, act as if nothing at all happened. Just go about your business and ready yourself to play the next point. Realize that displays of frustration, anger, or discouragement are signs of weakness that serve only to strengthen your opponents – the emotional equivalent of giving them backrubs on changeovers. If you are moaning and groaning when things are going against you, expect your opponents to fight you to the bitter end. These are submissive gestures, not actions of a dominant competitor, so lose them.

Another method of establishing dominance is to control the pace of the match. Even if you are behind in the score, you can still dominate the match pace. Between points you deliberately walk into position at your own pace, taking no notice of your opponent. If it is slower than your opponents wish, make them wait; if it is faster, make them feel rushed. You don’t do this outside of any written or unwritten rules. You are not trying to be irritating. You are merely determined to play at your own, dominant pace.

You can even dominate with your match strategy. Having a clear game plan and purpose rather than opportunistically hitting balls into whatever opening appears to be at hand is intimidating. It indicates that you think you have found a weakness and intend to exploit it. Thoughtful, purposeful people frighten uncertain people (which are most people), and even an opponent’s better side can break down if you put purposeful pressure on it.

Never, if you can help it, let your opponents think that you fear any part of their game. For example, if you serve into your opponent’s forehand and he hits a great return, don’t be hesitant about immediately serving to it again, indicating that you were not impressed. (Later, after he misses one, you may decide that the shot is indeed dangerous and choose to serve elsewhere more often, but don’t let him feel like he has bullied you.) If you play a long baseline point, and he outsteadies you, don’t immediately begin to hit harder or rush the net. Go right back at him and force him to do it again (and, maybe, again). After you win one of these long points you can then decide to adjust your strategy, but you don’t want him to feel that you have conceded this part of the field to him. Dominant players move because they choose to move, not because their opponents make them.

Acting in these ways imposes your will and force of personality upon your opponents. It is an unpleasant and heavy burden, and your opponents, even though they may be technically better than you, will often falter under it.

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