Rowden July 2018

The prime goal of any athlete is to achieve maximum performance even under the extreme pressures of high level competition. You require your body to do what it’s capable of doing whether it’s a routine training session or the final of a world event.

Of course the major championships are where your performance really matters and this is the problem. Many of us have not devised a system to deal with this, or do not understand that what goes on in our mind has a direct effect on our body. The emotional, mental and physical components of performance are interlinked and cannot be separated.
In the 1980’s sports psychologist James Loehr sought answers to ’superior’ performance by studying the top tennis players and came up with a surprising observation – the best players, those able to perform nearest to perfection under pressure, used the time between points to maximum effect. They in fact utilized this short time frame to achieve the stability and emotional balance needed for high performance.
‘To maximize your performance on game day, you need to prepare physically and mentally for the between-point moments, those times when you’re not actually playing a point. Training and maximizing your between-point time will take you to an entirely different level of execution and competition. In going for peak performance, every second counts and needs to be trained.’ (Loehr, 1988)
Many players and most coaches spend all of their time working on skill development. This is of little or no value if you cannot execute these skills effectively at the moment of truth, under pressure, regardless of fear, nerves, anger, distraction or emotional upsets. Many young athletes experience high level competition as threatening even frightening, yet the top players respond with good focus, confidence, clear thinking and engagement, they relish the challenge. Of course they too have nerves, even doubts at times, but the great athletes learn to control their emotions. Any period of nervousness doesn’t last for long and they get back into ’the zone’ very quickly. Rather than focusing internally on their own fears they are more often observing the opponent and looking for any small signs of weakness.
Being in ‘the zone’ and performing at maximum is not just down to mental strength, it is a matter of balance and interaction between physical, mental and emotional factors. The physical side is not just what you do with your body, but how you look to your opponent; regardless of how the points go, maintaining a strong confident body language is vital. The mental side is concerned with thoughts, images, will and focus, above all working hard and assessing what needs to be done to cope with differing opposition. The emotional side represents feelings and you should be controlling fears and doubts and projecting energy, confidence, optimism and calmness.
What many athletes don’t fully appreciate is that what goes on in the mind has a direct effect on the body – fear and anxiety cause physical changes, muscle tension, faster heart rate, quicker breathing and reduced blood to the extremities. On the other hand positive thoughts lead to calmness, feelings of control, more focused energy and the anticipation of challenge. Even smiling helps your confidence as your brain produces chemicals which affect your mood, muscles and performance. When your body becomes more relaxed and comfortable, this leads to even more positive thoughts and adds to the circle of growth.
What we must all constantly bear in mind is that how we respond is in fact our choice. We have the choice to react negatively or positively in any situation. In our sport as we become more experienced we will face the same problems time and time again and coping should become easier. We will know what worked previously, will have confidence in coping and adapting and will be less stressed and calmer in ourselves, therefore leading to a higher level of performance.
What we should try to do is to control our emotions and react in a consistent manner. Do not let frustration linger on to the next one or two points, do not rush between points (this robs you of energy and recovery/thinking time) retain calm and the capability to assess what needs to be done, use physical strategies such as deep breathing, bouncing on the toes, using the towel, wiping the table etc. Also do not let outside distractions affect you, what you have no control over you have to ignore.
Do use the between-point breaks to refocus – think strong posture and body language, what is the game situation, what is the next priority, what serve or receive should you use, what response do you want, what doesn’t the opponent like? Remind yourself to watch your opponent for signs of weakness, either emotional, mental, physical or tactical/technical. Keep your focus external rather than internal. Take care with the seconds before you resume play – don’t over or under think, get ‘into the zone’ ready for action, take a deep breath and look at the opponent. And if you have made a bad mistake, or played stupidly, or missed an easy shot, don’t let this impact on the next two or three points. Refocus immediately. Have a system, a ritual to deal with this. Many top players smile to reduce tension and regain their emotional calm and balance. Others turn away from the table and focus on the crowd or a point in the hall while they collect their thoughts and re-stabilise. The purpose of any refocusing is to clear the mind so you are ready to concentrate on the next point.
The mental side of any sport is vital, the more so as you reach higher levels – unfortunately it’s often not given enough attention. Try to think of this aspect just as you would physical or technical development; the mental side just like other areas needs exercise and training!

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