Mental Toughness Issues
Part 2
What's Your Story?!

Words matter.  What we say to ourselves to describe our experience before, during and after a match shapes the way we anticipate competition, perform competitively and remember our experience.  And all of that informs our subsequent match, and the ones after that--assuming we don't talk ourselves out of playing by being negative.  The first important book on mental toughness, The Inner Game of Tennis, published over thirty years ago, focused on this theme, pointing out the inner dialogue of tennis players, their tendency to talk to themselves, and how negative much of it was.

When I watch myself and my students, I see this tendency to voice negative thoughts.  And it may be more true of tennis players than other athletes; after all, we have more opportunity to babble than most, except, perhaps, golfers.  I once read a statistic that out of every hour on court, tennis players spend forty-five minutes not playing.  They're picking up balls, taking their allotted time between points, sitting down on the changeovers.  That means we've got more than enough time to go to Mars and back with our concentration, and a good deal of that time is spent talking to ourselves about how crappy we're playing or exhorting ourselves not to blow it if we happen to have a lead.  All negative, and all deflating.  Bad.

A good deal of mental toughness success derives from nothing more complicated than positive thinking.  Of course, if you're getting your butt kicked and are playing beneath your capacity, it isn't exactly easy to be positive.  But it's possible!  And it's the only chance you have of pulling out the match with a win or at least walking off the court knowing you gave it your all.  You can help make real this possibility by changing your story, or narrative, how you talk about what's happening on the court.

Some Examples of Negative Talk

Following are statements that I hear every day on the lesson court when students are having a tough time.  See if you recognize yourself.

"Moron!"
"I've lost my forehand!"
"I can't get a first serve in to save my life."
"I don't get it.  Yesterday I was playing great."
"I'm hopeless!"
"I'm useless!"
"I hate my backhand!"

Allow me to translate:

"Moron!" means I really am quite smart but I'm playing stupidly and I don't know why.  Which means, if a smart person can't figure out why she's not performing well, who can?  I'm a lost cause.

"I've lost my forehand!" should be taken literally.  Somewhere, but not on this tennis court, a forehand has been lost.  Poof!  Just gone.  Which is sad, because having a forehand would be helpful in a match, but if it's lost, nothing can be done.

"I can't get a first serve in to save my life," means I'm in danger of losing my life because I'm losing this tennis match.  A serve would save me, but this is fate we're talking about, and we're not in charge of our fates.  I'm a goner.

"I don't get it.  Yesterday I was playing great," means the player is time travelling.  She's standing right in front of us but is actually in yesterday, a place that looks remarkably like today, except she happens to be absent from it.  Tough to win a match as an absentee.

"I'm hopeless!" and "I'm useless!" might seem like similar statements, but the former means that nothing in the entire universe can be found to resurrect my tennis game, while the latter means nothing positive in the entire universe could be said about my tennis game.  The statements are, however, equally devastating to the possibility of a win.

"I hate my backhand!" is a form of tennis schizophrenia.  All the player's good strokes are lovable, living in his body like good little pets, but the backhand is a bad pet, and he wishes he could just kick it out, even though, in a reasonable world, he might have use of it.

As we all know, this list could go on and on, and I admit, it was fun to write, but let's see if we can fix some of these issues.

Stay Specific

Studies show that optimistic people describe adversity or set backs as particular to a given experience and limited to its occasion.  Pessimists, on the other hand, see a given setback as typical of all of their experience and likely to go on and on.***  Even if your tendency is to be pessimistic in your life outside the tennis court, and even if your match is giving you ample evidence to be pessimistic about the outcome, keep your description of your problems specific.  It's your only chance of turning things around.

Let's say, for example, that you're forehand is spilling unforced errors like a sieve.  Our first--emotional--response to a stroke's failure is to describe it as a general disaster.  But if you say to yourself, "I've lost my forehand," well, you're screwed.  If the forehand is lost, you've got to finish the match without it, and that won't fly.  But, it's as certain that Nadal is going to yank on his underwear between points that your errors aren't a general disaster; instead, they form a pattern.  Be specific with your analysis and you'll see it.  Say, for example, you're hitting forehands long far more frequently than into the net.  Okay.  Now you can change things.  Cut back on your pace; aim more to the middle of the court; make sure your follow through is going all the way up and across your body, and that you're not using your wrist.  Do all this until you feel your steadiness get on track.  You're back in the match.

Or, say your first serve percentage has dropped below 50% and your opponent is killing your second serve.  If you're the player that says, "I can't get a first serve in to save my life," you've just given yourself a death sentence.  Where's the pattern of the errors?  Deep?  Okay, you can fix it.  Make sure your toss is adequately in front of your body; that you're reaching for the tallest contact you can manage; that you're actually seeing the ball long enough to witness your racquet snap over it's top.  Problem solved.

All players should know their tendencies, and this includes how each of their strokes tends to break down.  That, on a given day, one or more of your strokes goes into the toilet, shouldn't surprise you.  Welcome to tennis.  Good players win even on days when they're not playing well.  If you know your tendencies for errors, you should also know how to repair those problems, even right in the middle of a match.  The first step is to specifically identify the problem, then apply the fixes.

Keep Your Story Positive

I'd like to have a mental toughness guru confirm this, but my strong suspicion is that when we put ourselves down, we're preparing ourselves for failure, telling ourselves that we're going to lose so that when we do, it's no big surprise:  we saw it coming.  But we've all come back from the brink of death in a match, and we've seen pros do it a million times.  We know it can happen, and we know in our heart of hearts that the real fun is had on the court by laying it on the line--playing--not holding back.  So watch your mouth.

Practice putting positive spin on your mistakes.  Find something you can take away from a lost point that will lift you and make you ready for the next.  For example, you've got a sitter at net for break point and you hit it into the fence.  A mournful howl would not be inappropriate, a fist shaken at the heavens, grinding of teeth.  You've got a right to feel badly and disappointed. But if you say, "I'm a complete idiot!  I've just given up my chance to win the match!" well, guess what; that's likely to happen.  What about focusing on the good?  How about:  "I earned that short ball, and I hit a great approach.  I earned the putaway opportunity.  I can't wait for my next chance."  Optimists are talented with positive spin; pessimists have to work at it.  But the way you describe to yourself how you play has a profound effect on your performance. 

It takes practice.  For your first challenge, go two straight games without one negative thought or comment.  It's hard!  The second part of the challenge is to state your narrative so that you're finding something positive to take away from your mistakes.  There's always something; look for it.  Then say it to yourself.  Get good at being your own cheerleader; your opponent sure as hell isn't going to help.  Once you can go two straight games, try for four, then try for a full set.  The longer the match, the closer the contest, the more physically tired you become, your ability to maintain a positive narration will be sorely tested.  But go for it!

Act the Part

Actors communicate not only with their words but with their bodies.  So, it's not only your interior dialogue that needs to stay positive, but your posture, as well, and I'm not talking about the straight back your mom yelled at you about.  We see the posture of failure in the pros all the time.  Poor Safina, chin on her chest, shoulders slumped, desolation in her eyes!  But what about Chris Evert, steely-eyed, chin firm, shoulders back?  Or Serena, not showing a hint of emotion, at all.  What a difference!  Interestingly, in interviews, Evert confessed that she often didn't feel as confident as she looked.  How could she when Navaratolova was stomping on her week after week?  The point was, Evert refused to show her doubts and confusion.  Not only did she not want her opponents to see it, she didn't want to see it herself.  She acted like a winner because that's how you win. 

Someone once told me that the blood chemistry of an actress playing the role of a woman who'd just lost her best friend in a car accident would be the same as the blood chemistry of a woman suffering the real tragedy.  Even if that suggestion is only half-true, the point is well taken:  how we act affects how we feel.  If we act like we're confident, we'll feel confident.  Does that mean we should lie to ourselves when we're losing?  Should we tell ourselves we're going to win if we've lost the first set and are down a break 2-4 in the second?  No, we wouldn't believe ourselves.  But we can carry ourselves like winners.  We can choose not to show our doubt.  We can project confidence, even if it's only confidence that we're going to give our all to win the next point.  We stay on our toes, keep our heads high.  We fight.  Learning to wear a good game face may be the hardest part of maintaining a positive narrative.  So take the same challenge:  for two straight games, practice carrying yourself confidently, projecting a positive image.  It's okay to show disappointment if you blow a point, but keep it temporary and follow it with a positive change in your posture.  If you can make it through two games, go for four, then a set.  You'll be amazed how different you feel; your positive posture will create a positive mind, the kind of attitude that can win.

When we're actually playing a point, running crazed around the court, there isn't time for thought or words, and we're at our athletic, instinctive best.  But in between points, it sometimes seems that there's too much time for words, especially if they're negative or make us feel self-conscious.  Still, I think those players that say, "I don't want to think, I just want to play," miss the point.  First, with all the down time in a tennis match, you're going to think; there's no avoiding it.  Second, given that fact, why not learn to use your words and thoughts to shape a positive story, pump yourself up instead of bringing yourself down? 

And what about after your match?  Win or lose, you should take some time to glean something positive about your experience.  Even if you've been trounced, find one thing that you did well, that you can build on.  Find a way to create a positive image of yourself and your game.  It's this image that you want to remind yourself of prior to your next match, putting yourself in the position of anticipating success instead of failure.  Get good at being positive before, during and after your matches and, though I can't promise you'll win, I can promise more happy endings.

***These ideas are from Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, a great read, though it's not about tennis or sports, specifically.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Mental Toughness Part Three:
Managing the Down Time