Presented by Beau Treyz and Claudio Pistolesi
Looking Beyond the Court - Episode 2
Following up our introduction to mental abilities, we present THE mental ability considered extremely important by world class tennis coaches and players: SELF-CONFIDENCE. Compare it to the fuel in a car. You can have the best car on earth but without fuel, it doesn't move and self-confidence works in the same way for any potential top player in the world. To take a deeper look into self-confidence, we will break down first the SELF and then the CONFIDENCE and how the two become one, to be the most important attribute of any successful athlete and person.
Starting with SELF, personal growth is the foundation of becoming a great athlete. We need to acknowledge that in order to get self-confidence and how we can develop it. We also have to grow self-esteem. We need to have a base level of self-esteem, to believe phrases like:
‘I hold value as a person.’
‘I am proactive in taking initiative every day, from small actions to larger ones.’
‘I take responsibility for my life and I don’t put my mission on other people’s shoulders.’
Those are three examples of healthy ‘self-talk’ and that’s where personal growth begins. To be the drivers of our own ship and accept that we are able to take actions towards our individual fulfillment as people.
To get into self-confidence, we want to share a personal conversation between Claudio Pistolesi and Toni Nadal, coach of Rafael Nadal. While they were talking about Rafa’s career, the conversation turned to what Toni thought Rafa did that was the biggest contributor to Rafa’s success. Toni believes that what makes Rafa special is his ability to take responsibility for his performances on court and his attitude off court. Rafa is able to do amazing things on the court physically — his movement is top-level, his forehand is lethal, but that is not what made his career what it is. Rafa truly has a mentality that every day he can go on the court or into the gym and improve. He starts from scratch every day by doing things like eating well, warming up properly, taking care of injuries and from there he just has to work hard and improve and the results will take care of themselves. This mentality is talked about all the time in sports, but it is very hard to actually cultivate; this is how self-confidence begins.
The player needs to take responsibility for what they can control, totally and absolutely, but how do they know what they can control? This is where having a great coach, or team can make all the difference in the world in terms of career outcomes for tennis players. The team must lay out a plan for the player to follow, and the player many times can collaborate and give their opinion on how they want to do things, but from there it is the execution that builds the confidence. In Steven Kotler’s book, ‘The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance’, Kotler writes this when referring to how hard tasks should be in order to reach a ‘flow state’ and improve as much as possible as quickly as possible.
“Challenge/Skill ratio,” is the last of our internal flow triggers, and arguably the most important. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (i.e. in the now) when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel—the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch, but not hard enough to make us snap. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills. In technical terms, the sweet spot is the end result of what’s known as the Yerkes-Dobson law—the fact that increased stress leads to increased performance up to a certain intensity, beyond which performance levels fall off or decline. In real-world terms, it’s not much at all.”
Pushing the athlete to have a desire to improve their physical, mental or emotional skills by 4% is something that we can all be held accountable to, and allows for a feeling of confidence upon completion. The player completing their tasks and feeling like it’s on par with the plan they have drawn up with their team develops the next layer of confidence. We gain confidence from a blend of challenge, success and failure. This is part of Rafa’s mentality that allows him to continue improving—to change his serve and forehand techniques even after winning Grand Slam Titles. Losses at Wimbledon and on faster hard courts showed him that he had weaknesses he would have to improve if he was to truly reach his potential. Rebuilding his strokes and his strategies with the high end goal in mind is what allowed him to gain confidence even in times of struggle.
Where does confidence come from? It comes from self-discipline and self-esteem. And Self-esteem comes from goal setting and execution of goals, no matter how big or small they are. That’s how to build self-esteem and confidence. Not following through tears someone down. Nothing makes someone feel better than carrying through with his/her word. Stack enough of those decisions on top of each other and after a while it builds self-esteem and confidence.
It’s also about recognizing how a player’s game can grow, both on and off court and connecting those dots. Maybe a player needs to relax on court, gets pretty wound up before matches and ‘match level’ turns out to be much lower than ‘practice level.’ The first thing to do is to recognize that, and try to find some possible reasons why this is happening.
Many players are messy, their racket bag has a ton of stuff in it they don’t need or use. They don’t really know what’s in it but they just carry it around everywhere they go. They could start by cleaning up their racket bag, and making sure that they only have what they need: a couple energy bars; a change of match and practice clothes; and some bands and a jump rope. A change like this can make a big difference in the player ‘feeling ready’ when they go on court. They are prepared, so they can better focus on the match or practice in front of them.
Aligning actions with goals is another important step. With the help of a coach, team member or peer, the player should be able to set his/her goals and then identify the steps needed to accomplish the goals. You cannot plan every step of the process to become better — even the best laid plans go awry; but you can create a good guide, and sticking to it can build confidence on and off the court. The first step is deciding what the player wants, and who the player wants to be on and off the court. The second step is following through with good decisions. Say what you want to do, and do what you say. When someone consistently follows through with decisions, it builds self-esteem and self-trust. In a way it creates small, controllable wins that culminate into bigger wins and the accomplishment of goals.
When a player has a problem of ‘confidence’ on the court and is losing, typically the player keeps playing more tournaments in the hopes of winning and getting some confidence back. That is definitely a reasonable solution. Taking a break from tournaments and doing a couple good hard weeks of training can also work; but to build self-esteem, and thus build confidence, going even deeper into habits and goals is necessary. Maybe more matches are not the answer to low confidence, but sticking to the routine of warming up and cooling down properly before and after matches, or staying with the fitness program even when it is tough. Many times these little things can really affect players and contribute to success in tournaments.
Most players play their best tennis against better players. They know they have to move faster, go for better spots on serves, and COMMIT to shots. If they play with hesitation, they have no chance. Being the underdog in these situations helps to get over the fear of losing, because it’s already expected. This mentality works to a point, but does not help when a player is the favorite and has the opposite effect. Self-confidence allows players to get into that same positive mental headspace all the time—letting go of outside expectations, and the ideas that can so easily fog the brain and just play. Simply, but not easily, players take each point as it is — one at a time. The fog in a player’s brain literally slows the whole body down, everything from movement to racket head speed and decision making; it all slows down and causes play well below potential.
We at Sense Arena believe that the smallest details done properly can add up to being able to go on court and play with confidence and a clear motivated mind. There are many thoughts that ‘matter’ to a player that contribute to the outcome of matches and the development over periods of time. It can be the messy tennis bag—a clear sign of disorganization; it can be the toxic partner at home keeping them up on FaceTime at all hours of the night and distracting them from their tennis; or it can be the poor relationship with the father that turns into fear for the player in big moments.
Self-confidence, and a player’s lack or abundance of it, may not come out until facing an equal level opponent. Beating significantly weaker players doesn’t test a player. Losing to players significantly better also has limited developmental benefit. It is the matches against equals or those slightly better or worse that truly reveal a player’s frame of mind and coping abilities. We believe that it’s best to work on these skills proactively and virtual reality is one of the best training aids to use. We can create scenarios that are nearly the perfect challenge, not too hard and not too easy, by pushing players to their potential, whether they are #1 in the nation working on their volley reaction time; a local league player sharpening decision making skills to get to that 4.0 level; or someone new to the game learning what hitting into the open court means. Training players at their level is one of the biggest advantages to personalized training - gone are the days of going to a clinic and being the best one there by a mile and basically wasting an afternoon of practice. Now players can put on the headset and train with more purpose and reward than ever before.
Self-confidence can be built at all times. You don’t have to ‘wait’ for a time of success or a period of struggle to begin thinking about it and working on it. You can start right now, if you acknowledge that you can always become more confident and your self-esteem can always be higher. If you are introspective enough to recognize the areas within yourself or your game that can and should grow, then you can begin working on them. If you have a coach or a team helping you, they can point out areas that you can focus on. Improving both on and off the court should not be random. It shouldn’t be luck. It should start with a plan, and then through time as you work on the plan you will grow your skills both physical and mental and then you will have improved. Maybe some big wins come along the way and those accelerate the rate at which your confidence grows and your skills improve; or maybe, some tough losses or an injury come along the way and slow down your growth. Both scenarios happen all the time, but with discipline and a structured plan in place you will continue to grow.
Success as a tennis player can seem random. There is no formula that if you do ‘xyz’ then you are guaranteed that your dreams and goals will be accomplished. This reality leads many players to have doubts - long or short spans of time where they don’t know if tennis is ‘for them’ or if what they’re doing is ever going to pay off and their efforts will be rewarded. When you begin ‘questioning everything’ sometimes the only thing you’ve been ‘doing right’ are the basic daily tasks. This is where having a plan and daily goals and standards become so crucial; they form the bedrock of your confidence, the foundation.
When you haven’t been doing the simple things correctly, like warming up, having your rackets ready, doing your fitness, then you have no foundation. In some ways, doing the little things right is not so much because you even think it will help in the moment, but it’s the base you are building to get the best out of your potential and enjoy the big moments. It’s creating a layer of confidence that cannot be broken or questioned — and in really tough times when you question everything, it is nice to know that certain things have been done properly. Sense Arena is here to help you build that foundation and support you to find your best level and enjoy your time “In the Arena”. Hope to see you on the courts soon!
- The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler