Friday, May 11, 2012


I attended a high performance sport seminar once and one of the speakers asked all the participants how important the mind was in their sport.  He asked what percentage the mind played in their sport compared to technique, fitness, nutrition etc.

The representatives from all the various sports estimated the importance of the mind and the answers varied, but not by much.  Everyone estimated the percentage to be between 75-90%. They all thought the mind was the most important aspect.

The speakers’ next question was even more reveling.  He asked “what percentage of practice time do you devote to training the mental aspects in your sport”? The answers fell between 10-15%!

Why is it that as coaches we devote so little of our time to something that we know to be so important to the outcome in our various competitions?  I think the reason is that we understand very little about the way the mind works and therefore it’s difficult to train.  It’s the “hard” subject we try to avoid.

I have always prided myself in being able to improve the results of the players I work with.  To achieve better results I have needed to understand the elements that contribute to a stronger mentality in match-play. I have needed to understand the way the mind works, what the dangers are and how to address them.

Here are 3 ways to tackle the difficult subject of training the mind to perform in competition. These are outlines and will need to be developed and refined by the reader but they are strong building blocks that can be introduced into your practice culture and competition

1.     It’s Not About The (Bike) Strokes
Remember Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s Not about the Bike”?  Armstrong was a cyclist who performed at the highest level and who understood that what he achieved in races around the world had nothing to do with the bike, it was all about himself.  It was about his mind, the way he trained and the attitude he brought to his chosen sport of cycling.

Most tennis players starting in competition think tennis is all about the strokes.  While warming up before the match they are trying to obtain perfect technique in the belief that this is the prerequisite to winning.  However when the match starts it’s the mental aspects that eat away at their game first, ultimately causing the strokes to fail.

Stress is a part of practise... it helps us grow as players

Your Homework: Monitor your mind-set in the lead-up to competition.  Are you ready to believe in yourself, fight adversity and combat stress? This is where your focus and energy must be directed. The time to work on your strokes has past, it all becomes mental now.

2.     Avoid Stress at Your Peril!
They say there are two certainties in life, death and taxes. In competitive tennis there is another certainty, stress.  It does you no good to ignore or try to avoid it, learn to play with it and to manipulate it to help you.

Parents often try to eliminate stressful situations from their child’s competitive experience.  This doesn’t make sense at all.  Over time humans have evolved because we have adapted to threatening situations.  Although we are programmed to avoid stress, the best way to avoid stress is to adapt to it, become faster, stronger, smarter. It’s the same in tennis. If you are too slow getting to the ball you need to train specifically on your speed or your anticipation.

With this attitude your improvement is a continual process. Remember “what doesn’t kill you makes you better”

Your Homework: Stress is trying to teach you something, listen and learn.  Add stress into your practice sessions any chance you get.  Learn to use it as a teacher, motivator and a stimulant to better performance.  Face it front on and deal with it. Ignoring competitive stress will only make it worse.

3.     The Coach Takes Responsibility…
At this point you have (1) recognized that it’s really about the mind and not the stroke mechanics (2) realized that stress is a natural ingredient of competition and can be used as a tool to stimulate a higher level of play. 

It’s now important to for the Coach and the Player to divide responsibility for the result.

Leave a player to perform exactly what has been practised

Your Homework: The player’s responsibility is to perform exactly how they have been taught in practice… to the best of their ability.  Win or lose, the player must take whatever has been taught in practice and apply it in the match.

The Coach’s responsibility is to take responsibility for the result, win or lose.  If the player loses because of a technical, tactical or physical reason, the coach must takes steps to remedy the problem before the next match if possible.

This understanding between coach and player goes a long way towards easing the pressure on the player.  Also, if the player see’s progress from one tournament to the next, they are more likely to relax in the match and perform better.