Entries in mental skills (10)


The Mental Half Episode 3 is Up

In this episode, I talk about the pressures of test-taking with Annie Padnuk, who tutors high school students and helps them boost their SAT and ACT scores. We discuss how stress can often be the result of being unprepared, and how structure and preparation can help prevent students from making big mistakes. 

The episode can be found below, or by following this link to the podcast home page. Please subscribe if you'd like to hear more episodes in the future. You can do so by clicking the rss button on the podcast's page or by pasting this:


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The Mental Half Episode 2 Annie


Repost - Nick Bolletieri Article and Comments

Omnipresent tennis coach Nick Bolletieri has been writing articles for tennisrecruiting.net, a site used by college tennis coaches and junior players. I've enjoyed the articles quite a bit, despite harboring some long-held suspicions about Bolletieri's actual coaching (A lot of people have trained at his academy over the years, but I was never sure how much coaching he was responsible for.). At any rate, here's his latest:


Read it? OK, here are my comments.

I think the article gets off to a rocky start with his response to a question about keeping focus after "blowing" a big point. He says, "If I could figure out how to strengthen player's ability to handle adversity..." and makes a joke about not only being the most popular coach on tour, but being in demand to help everyone who gets frustrated solve their problems. He's not making himself out to be much of a coach here. He has no idea how to help players respond to adversity? That can't possibly be true. He says that working on "coping skills" is "untouchable." The only explanation I have is that he doesn't see this part of the game as his role (He has two Sport Psychologists and a Master's-level mental skills coach on staff at his academy.).

From there, I think his approach of using video to construct more detail about these "blown" points is constructive and a great place to start in conversation, with coaches and mental skills coaches, about how to approach these points. A lot of times, it's hard to develop objective information about what happened in a match, and video is by far the best tool we have. I think it's critically underutilized below the top levels of tennis.

I think it's a little odd that he ends that section by saying that "the most important thing" is to play every point like it's a big point. Well, if that's most important, shouldn't that be first? Shouldn't that concept be flushed out a little more? Isn't it exhausting to treat every point the same? Is it even possible? How do you train to do that? 

I really liked his treatment of the question about playing someone who is better than you. His advice isn't earth-shattering, but it conveys many of most important aspects of approaching these matches: being assertive on big points; adding a little chaos into the mix by playing some unexpected shots; carrying yourself with confidence. Overall, I think this is a nice summary of how to play well as the underdog, so I'll forgive the collection of coaching cliches that serves as the article's closer.


New Club, New Team

       Shortly after I landed my first full-time tennis pro gig, I made my debut for their open-level men’s team. The competition is generally pretty good, and even though I hadn’t played in this league for a couple of years, I thought I could definitely hang with these guys, and especially at #2 doubles, where the level isn’t quite as high. My partner was a guy who is more of a singles player overall (He has a big game off the forehand side, and doesn’t really like to come forward.). I’ll call him Randy.

       Randy and I started out fine. Our opponents were a solid team, and their club had been the league champions the year before, so I knew I had to be on my toes. What I didn’t know was that Randy had a bit of a reputation as a bad line-caller. He has a bit of a strong personality, and I think that plays into how a lot of people react to line calls. At any rate, the first set was bumping along, and we were at 3-all or so when my partner called a first serve out on his sideline. I didn’t see it well, but the opponents, apparently reacting to my partner's reputation, went a little ballistic. The server fired a ball into the net and said the call was BS. Here’s the thing: my partner had returned the serve anyway, it was a first serve, and the other team won the point on the second serve. Nonetheless, the server was a wreck for 20 minutes. They went up 40-30 on that point, but we broke them and the guy was steaming. We took the set, and I think it was largely because my partner called a first serve out on a point we lost.

       Another interesting dynamic was that in the second set, I started to miss a few returns. At some point, my partner started “coaching me” to “just get the ball in play, get it back and we’ll win the point, etc.” Sounds like good advice, and I started to try it. Dump. Frame. Way long. Easy volley. We lost the second. Nonetheless, his advice remained the same. Finally, I got so annoyed that I decided to hit the next return as hard as I could. Winner. Hmmm. Next return, aggressive, maybe not quite as good, but enough to win the point. At this point, I realized that "just getting the ball back," was part of the problem. Instead, I started to fire up my feet and try to rip a few. I didn’t play perfectly the rest of the way, but my percentage on returns went up, and the ones that were in were much more effective. I also recognized that my game in general came to life, and, not that this should be last thing I mention, I had a lot more fun.

       I took a couple of thing from this match. First, for myself as a player, I need to be sure that I don’t fear mistakes to the extent that it cripples my game. For me, and a lot of other players, trying to be careful is too inhibiting, and I tend to make more mistakes with this kind of mindset than an aggressive one. It also got me thinking about how to get on the same page as my doubles partner. In this case, what my partner was telling me was well intentioned, but it wasn’t helpful (until it made me really mad, which I don’t think was the intention). The annoyance I felt at my partner was enough to snap me out of my doldrums. At that point, I needed some kind of boost, and that turned out to be enough for me. Nowadays, I’m less likely to get mad while playing, mostly because I’ve gotten better at taking the necessary steps to avoid needing to get mad.

The other side of the coin is our opponent who lost his temper. In his case, however, he blew up at a very helpful time for us: while the match was close. I think when he exploded, after a relatively insignificant call, it was a signal that he was nervous and vulnerable. Someone who is confident about holding their serve is not going to worry about a close call on a first serve, especially if the serve was returnable, and especially especially if they end up winning the point. But that call, and losing the game a few points later stuck with this guy much longer than necessary, so there must have been more going on. To his credit, he recovered in the second set, but I think it cost them the first.

With evenly matched teams, momentum swings are often on something goofy: a lucky net cord, a ball that comes from another court, a broken string, or a bad call. You never can prepare for everything, but I think this guys mindset was more like, “He better not try to rip me off. I can’t beat him if he's cheating,” than, “He’s probably going to rip me off on a couple of calls today. If they’re really important, I’ll question them, but I’m not going to win any arguments, so it’s not worth losing my temper. I’ll just play my game, which is good enough, and I’ll probably hold serve all day.” I try to carry the second attitude against known cheaters or bad sports.


2010 Australian Open Men's Final 

      The Andy Murray camp has to feel let down in their gameplanning and/or his execution. He was tight and tentative for the first two sets. Brad Gilbert touted a conservative strategy early, and Darren Cahill said there was no way it would work. Cahill was right. I thought he looked good when he overloaded Federer on the backhand side. Yes, he had some success when he went to the forehand, but the only sustained pressure he put on Federer was when he hit him 75% backhands.There were numerous times that he could have moved in, especially to Fed’s backhand, where he didn’t pull the trigger. And he never serve-and-volleyed. Federer followed Andy Roddick’s lead from his victory over Murray in the Wimbledon semis last year by playing a lot of balls deep and to the center of the court, especially in the first few games. By doing this, he took away a lot of Murray’s counter-punching, quickness, and athleticism.
       Roger played like a front-runner all day. Nothing too flashy, very controlled emotionally. Extremely well done, I think. The first time I remember him expressing any emotion was when he went down 3-1 in the third-set tiebreak, when he gave a big “Come on!” after a mishit. He then ran off 4 or 5 points in a row. This is a great example of using emotional energy only in an emergency. Great points by both players down the stretch.
       Another cool moment was when Fed was leading 3-2, 40-30 in the second and hit an out of position drop shot that got caught by the top of the net. It was not very good shot selection, the kind of thing that he might get away with and win the game, but it was risky. Some well-respected coaches regard trying to get away with something as a very bad sign, like the player is trying to avoid the hard work needed to get though on their own merits. Interestingly, the commentator (I believe Patrick McEnroe) said, “He’s not going to make that mistake again,” which I think is a great insight into high level competitors. They know that one mistake like that is OK, but that they need to get right back to their “A” game. I didn’t see Roger play that kind of shot again for at least a set.


10,000 Hours

       I heard Johnny Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, on NPR a couple of days ago. She’s releasing a new album and was asked about performing in public for the corresponding tour. She responded (and I’m paraphrasing) that “Malcolm Gladwell talks about how you need to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert. I’ve probably put in my 10,000 hours, so I guess I’m starting to be comfortable.” Now, I love Gladwell and I think that it’s great that, through reading his book Outliers, more and more people are aware of the “10,000 hours” concept of expertise. I’m posting this note, though, because I’ve heard at least 3 or 4 times over the past year about this “great idea that Gladwell has about 10,000 hours,” and each time I hear it, I go a little nuts.

       The reason is that this idea originated with a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson who published his first book on theories of expertise in 1991. I believe that Gladwell properly credits Ericsson in Outliers, and I think that he does a good job of giving examples that a lot of people can understand. It’s just that I had been introduced to, and discussed in detail, Ericsson’s ideas more than a year before audiobooking (Reading? Listening to?) Outliers and I don’t want Dr. Ericsson to get swept under the rug.

       For those who are uninitiated, the “10K hours” theory is a rule of thumb that connects determined, dedicated practice for that length of time to expertise. It’s a cool theory because it applies to a wide variety of fields, and it actually works pretty well to remove some of the focus away from talent as the main determiner of success. Ten-thousand hours roughly translates to 20 hours per week for 10 years (so ten years is often a part of the description) of practice dedicated to getting better. An off-hand example: Mozart was composing at the age of 5, but none of his early pieces are widely performed today. His middle-period, where he starts to get into a creative groove, begins in his mid-teens. Without a written record of his practice habits, we don’t know precisely how many hours he was playing and composing, but the 10 year/10K hours guideline seems reasonable.

       Another interesting example that Gladwell uses is from a study of Masters-level music students who were asked to estimate the total practice time of their musical careers. While it might not be outlandish to suppose that students at the same level of study would have some similarity of practice time, the surprise was that there was only variation within a fairly tight range. They didn’t find any students who had either been so gifted that they didn’t need to practice much (i.e. less than 9,000 hours), or so untalented that they were able to get to where they were just by practicing much more than everyone else (i.e. more than 11 or 12,000 hours). Again, I think Gladwell's analysis is great: there is probably a basement level where a person has to be “talented enough” to not be annihilatingly frustrated, but beyond that, everyone has to work hard to keep progressing.


Coach Dicce and the Underdog Gameplan

I love soccer and have played it since I was 6, but, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t play on a team with an actual coach between elementary school and my senior year in college. In the spring of 1998, I started playing pickup games with some of my friends from the team, and one thing led to another. I ran and played soccer six days a week over the summer, tried out in the fall, and made the team, earning a decent chunk of playing time over the course of the season. The team was not particularly strong compared to past and present Swarthmore teams, and our opponents were generally much better than us. That’s why I remember our 11th game of the season so well.

We came into the game with one win in the 10 games we had played, and we had lost our last eight. Our 11th game was against Widener University, just a few miles away. It didn’t boost our confidence to know that several of our best players were going to arrive late because they had academic conflicts and that Widener was a solid team with a decent record.

We warmed up as usual, and when we circled up, our coach, Peter Dicce, told us what to expect, “I know their coach, and I was talking to him before the game. That team over there isn’t doing very well. They have some good players and they can score, but they’re not getting along very well. I think they’re right on the edge. If we can survive the first 10 minutes, they’ll get frustrated and start arguing with each other, then their level of play will drop.” It sounded good, and I think the team was in a mood to give it our all. Because of the absences, several players (including me) were getting our first starts of the season, and we had to expect to play more minutes than we were accustomed to.

The first couple of minutes were exactly as he had predicted: they controlled the ball and peppered our goal. I remember very distinctly one shot that whistled towards the upper right corner of the goal from about 30 yards out. I think our whole team held our breath, but the ball swung just a little wide, and I noted that the shooter acted much more frustrated than necessary. The next phase of the coach’s prediction started to play out as well: Widener started rushing, missing passes, getting frustrated, and started trying to make individual plays against numerous defenders. We responded pretty well, and started to keep the ball in their end of the field a little more. Soon, we actually started mounting a little offense, and earned what was for us a rarity: a corner kick.

The exact details of what transpired next are a little hazy, but I was standing at the near post for the corner and the ball came in to one of our mid-fielders, Tirian Mink. He flicked the ball towards the net and as it came towards me, I moved out of the way. The ball bounced near the goal-line and the
Widener goalie and a defender looked at each other as if they were expecting the other to get the ball. Instead, nobody touched it, the ball rolled into the net, and we had the lead. One of the best moments of the season was the amount of surprise on the faces of the starters when they showed up and saw that we were ahead. One of our captains told me he saw 1-0 on the scoreboard but didn’t look at it thinking that we’d possibly be ahead, so he was relieved because he thought we were only down 1-0. Good times. Widener never really got their groove back. We held the lead the rest of the way, and they got more and more frustrated.

Anyway, the result of the game was great for us, but since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my coach’s pre-game speech. Why did he tell us what he did? And how does that apply to other situations? A big component of his speech may have just been tactical: we were not a team that scored a lot of goals, so if we fell behind early, we were likely in a lot of trouble. We also knew that our starters would arrive at some point in the game, so we would get a boost at that point. If we could hold it even until then, we’d have a chance. Because of this, Coach did a great job of giving us a small task to accomplish early on: frustrate them and hold the fort. None of their shots quite found the mark in those first few minutes, which was a combination of our defensive pressure and a little luck.

There was also some interesting stuff happening with the two teams’ dynamics. Coach Dicce set up an interesting contrast: if we play together, we can get them to break apart. This helped us focus on working as a team. Teams that are not unified have a hard time being resilient. In this case, despite being shorthanded, we shut out a team that was much more talented than us. If we played them a hundred times, my guess is that they’d score in 99 of the games (In our 19 other games, we gave up 87 goals and only shut out one other team.). But on this day, our defense held early, and, after the first few minutes, their frustration crippled their attack more than anything we did.

This was a game where just about everything went right for us. The course of the game could have followed many paths, but the one that it did follow was exactly what our coach had laid out for us. There’s no way to know whether we could repeat that performance, but I do know that it was one of our best games of the year. We went on to win just one more game, and rarely were competitive for more than a few minutes at a time. But that day, our coach got the most out of us, and if there was ever a reason to keep playing hard when your team isn’t that strong, it is to play a game like this one.


The Physical Energy Spectrum

       For each of the wide variety of activities that we compete and perform in, there is an appropriate energy state.  Some activities require minimal physical energy, but lots of precision, analysis, and/or strategy. For example, games like chess and poker require only endurance on the physical side, but make large mental demands. On the other hand, some activities demand much less from the brain, but a total commitment with the body. A tug 'o war is a distillation of this, though more common activities, such as blocking in football or power-lifting are good examples that require a high power output mixed with some need for adjustment and strategy.

       The trick with any sport is to maintain the appropriate energy level. High energy (typically corresponding with a high heart rate and elevated muscle tension) leads to increased power, but less motor control and more commitment to each movement, so that adjusting to changing circumstances is more difficult. The chart below gives some estimates about how various sport activities compare. Many sports have varying requirements because they either combine quick, powerful movements with precise targeting (passing in football), or there are different elements in the given sports that require different energy levels at different times (The classic example of this is the Olympic Biathalon, which demands high energy for cross-country skiing, and extreme precision for rifle shooting.).

 Optimal Energy Chart

    This chart gives some rough ideas for comparing various activities and the energy required to perform each. With most sports, there is a wide variation from moment to moment, but the first chart can help us recognize which sport activities require the highest or lowest amount of energy. The chart on the second page gives a range of energy levels for tennis. Any sport can be broken down to show the variation within (The first chart has lines connecting some related activities.). In most cases, the upper left corner represents activities which are best performed with a high energy level, so elevating one's heart rate will aid one's performance. The lower right corner is populated by activities for which a performer should seek to reduce their energy level for maximum concentration and precision.


On Playing with Emotion

    Many successful athletes perform at an extremely high level without revealing much emotion until afterwards.
  • Pete Sampras and Roger Federer both were criticized early in their careers for being “boring.”
  • Tom Brady was almost scarily calm as he drove the Patriots downfield for their first Super Bowl win.
  • Fedor Emilianenko is often described as the top fighter in the world, but is just as often compared to a robot.

  • As a college tennis coach, I consistently encourage my players to work to minimize their emotional reactions to each point, and especially to things that are beyond their control, such as court conditions, their opponents’ personalities, and random bounces. Why discourage emotion? We’ve all seen pumped-up athletes do amazing things when their emotions hit a peak! Certainly this energy can be harnessed!
    My answer is that emotion is fickle. Inciting emotions in a sport like tennis must be done EXTREMELY carefully because once we are dependent on our emotions to carry us, we lose the ability to analyze and adjust with our normal sensitivity. And when things start to go wrong emotionally, it’s hard to swing them back. I recently saw a clip of the first time that Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams played at the US Open, back in 1999. Clijsters was, at the time, an unproven young player, vying for a huge win over the favored American. In the third set, she broke Williams to go up 5-2 in the final set. She punctuated the last point of that game with a big overhead, then pumped both fists in what could only be called a “pelvic thrust.” Then she did it again. 
    At that moment, I said to myself, “Wow. That’s over the top. Where’s her focus?” Clijsters was excited, on the precipice of her biggest win, and she was already mentally celebrating. She embraced the moment and did what felt great. Unfortunately, in terms of competition for the day, that was about it for Kim. In the next five games, she lost nearly every point, and she looked lost. Serena hit a couple of good shots, and Clijsters got swept away as the emotional wave came back the other way.

    One last thing: as with many aspects of sport, the optimal management of emotion varies a lot from sport-to-sport, and there is a gulf between individual sports and team sports. With a team sport, players can feed off of each others’ emotion positively, and work to help each other stay focused. However, even in team sports, emotion causes distraction at the same time it adds energy. Here’s what I wrote yesterday (October 18, 2009) while I was working on this piece:

    I’m watching Florida versus Arkansas even though I’m not a huge "big-time" college football fan. The Gators are heavily favored, but are struggling right now. Arkansas has put a lot of pressure on quarterback Tim Tebow and earlier forced him to fumble. Halfway through the second quarter, Tebow picked up a huge 4th and 2 at the Arkansas 10 and the Gators looked like they were going to tie the game at 7. After the play, Tebow got up and started yelling and pumping his fists. The crowd loved it! They started to cheer! But, wow, literally nine seconds later, the camera cut away and he was still yelling and pumping his fist. It’s a nice play Tim, but you haven’t scored yet! The next snap was a bad one, Tebow couldn’t get the ball into the running back’s hands, the back tried to scoop it up instead of falling on it, and Arkansas recovered the fumble. I predict the Gators start winning when they put more energy into their focus that their celebrations.

    Florida eventually got back in the game with a long pass play (aided by a total defensive breakdown). The game finished with a narrow Florida victory, and it cost them the #1 spot in the poll that determines national rankings. I’m not sure there’s a “right” or “wrong” in terms of criticizing Tebow here. I think his team depends on him for leadership and that sometimes demands that he fire them up if they’re lethargic.

    In terms of the amount of physical energy required for sport activities, blocking in football is amongst the highest. Players must move at high speed with the most power they can muster for a relatively short amount of time. So if your job is to push someone away as hard as possible, it helps to have a team leader yelling and getting your energy high. The problem is that there are a multitude of jobs that players have to do, and the three people that were supposed to handle the ball (which requires more precision than power) for Florida on the play after Tebow’s run all messed up: the shotgun snap from the center was a few feet to Tebow’s right, Tebow didn’t catch the ball cleanly and looked like he never quite controlled it as he was trying to hand it off, and the runner may have been too early to the ball, didn’t receive it properly, and then didn’t have the presence of mind to fall on the fumble. It was a sloppy play all around. Would they have been better off if their quarterback was more composed before the play and encouraged them to play calmly and execute? I’d argue yes, but there’s no way to prove it for this play.

    Addendum 12.14.2009
        Great energy/momentum swing in the Patriots game yesterday (against the Carolina Panthers, a 20-10 victory for the Pats). The Patriots have been struggling over the past few weeks and had a noticeably quiet crowd. The announcers were talking about how it was the most lifeless game they remember in Foxborough. The Patriots are widely regarded as being much better than the Panthers, but started slow in the game and fell behind 7-0. With the score tied, the Patriots got the ball on their own 4-yard line. On second down, Wes Welker caught a pass just before getting absolutely blasted by a linebacker. He held onto the ball to bring up 3rd and 2. For those of you who are not that familiar, Wes Welker is one of the smallest wide receivers in football, but is known for his quickness. He gets open with regularity and often is able to squirm for an extra yard or two. Sometimes he takes big hits, but usually gets up quickly. In this case, he got up  and caught a pass for the first down on the next play. As he walked back to huddle, in a rare move, he was yelled and waved his arms in the traditional motion that signals for the crowd to make more noise. Suddenly, the stadium came to life! Welker was fired up and caught 4 more passes as the team marched down the field and scored a touchdown.
        Looking at what I wrote about Tim Tebow, I feel like I have to explain why I liked this show of emotion by Welker but ripped Tebow for something similar. First, I’ll admit a bias for the Patriots. Second, I want to make sure that I acknowledge that there tends to be bias towards the successful drive, so that could play in as well. But here are the big differences:
        -Welker is not the quarterback, so he wasn’t responsible for the team’s focus in the same way that Tebow was. He also wasn’t going to handle the ball to start the next play.
        -Welker was operating in the circumstances of his team really needing an emotional lift (Two straight losses for the first time in years, suspended players because of tardiness, lack of energy in bad weather). Tebow’s team was struggling, but they were still undefeated, not yet fighting for their season. Emotional swings are fickle, so they are best used when you’re desperate.
        -Welker wasn’t celebrating so much as imploring an emotionally flat fan base and team.
        -His imploring was shorter. It never made me feel like it was going on too long.
        -Welker kept his focus and continued to make plays on the drive. He’s a pro, not a student, so he's better able to pick his spots.
        -It’s also possible that it’s more “forgivable” because he was shaken-up from getting knocked down on the previous play.

Doc Rivers and the 2008 Title

       Doc Rivers is currently the Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. When he was hired, he quickly gained a reputation in Boston as an all-around great person, but it was unknown if he could lead the team to an NBA championship. Before the 2007-8 season, his job was in jeopardy because of a perception that his teams had underperformed and that his tactical knowledge was not great enough to guide the Celtics to the requisite victories.

       In that summer of 2007, Doc received a boost in the form of two (possibly miraculous) trades that brought veteran All-Star players Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the team. With these players added to resident star Paul Pierce, the team was sure to improve no matter who was coaching. The players deservedly garnered a great deal of praise as they stormed into the playoffs, riding a tenacious defense to the Finals where they and took a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against their old rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.

       Seemingly on the brink of a championship, the Celtics responded with six terrible quarters of basketball, getting blown out in game 3 in Los Angeles and falling behind by 21 points in the first quarter of the next game. Midway through the third quarter, Doc's team was down by 24 points and in danger of facing the Lakers for a crucial game 5 in LA.

       It should be said that in the Lakers had been playing phenomenally, especially some of their younger players who seemingly could not miss a shot for a game and half. About midway through the third quarter, Doc was interviewed about what he told his team during a timeout. He calmly explained that he had reminded them about their greatest strength, their defense, and how playing great defense was something that they could achieve if they committed to it. He also told his team that the only important aspect of the rest of the game was that they "compete." He did not emphasize closing the deficit, scoring, or looking good. He wanted them to find something within themselves and fight for the game.

       Watching at the time, I was not sure if Rivers believed what he had said or expected it to work. In truth, I still think he may have just been hoping his team could get an iota of positive feeling going into the next game if they brought the margin of defeat down to something respectable.

       As it turned out, his team performed beautifully for the rest of the game as the young Laker players began missing almost every shot. The Celtic defense clamped down, they hit a few shots, and ended up winning by 5.

Why this is great:
1. His instructions were simple and clear.
2. He focused the team on their strength: defense.
3. He took the emphasis off the score. Therefore, the team could focus more on the process and performance rather than the outcome.

       Was it this speech that made the difference? There's no way to be certain, but I do know that his team looked whipped beforehand and were cruising to their second straight blowout loss. Afterwards, they played their best and were competitive. They lost the next game in the last few seconds, and then won the series in the next game in the most lopsided series clinching game ever.