Q&A on Sport Psychology
We caught up with academy coach and Sport Psychologist (in-training) James Newman, MBPsS.
SO WHAT IS 'SPORT PSYCHOLOGY'?
Very simply, it is about understanding our thoughts, behaviours, emotions and physiology - and then working with these elements to make an individual or team perform better.
WHAT DIFFERENCE CAN IT ACTUALLY MAKE?
Well, I am biased! However, I think it depends on the openness of the individual. Sometimes there is resistance to change, which makes progress difficult, often though there is less friction and you can get stuff done and make progress. Importantly, psychological development is like tennis development - if you stop training, your level will drop. You have to keep it up - though that doesn't mean you need a Sport Psychologist to keep going.
WHY DON'T SOME PLAYERS WORK AS HARD AS OTHERS OR REACT AS WELL UNDER PRESSURE?
There are lots of reasons, it definitely comes more naturally to some players. However, I never give up hope with any player. What has to happen is for a player to accept they need to work harder or react better. If they don't see it, it is hard to get anywhere. Certainly there are players in the academy who you can see are not willing to do the work. That is a shame but inevitable. I'm always here if they eventually want help addressing those things though and I always bear in mind how lazy I was at their age!
WHAT ARE THE COMMON ISSUES ATHLETES COME TO YOU WITH?
It very much varies. Usually with younger ones, they won't necessarily realise their thoughts or behaviours are harming their sport. Older ones tend to realise better when there is an issue or something they can get better at. The majority of issues boil down to the fight between wanting something and fearing it not happening - or it not actually happening. This is where we see unhelpful levels of nervousness and anger.
HOW DOES BEING TOO NERVOUS AFFECT TENNIS PLAYERS?
Some level of nervousness is good. We don't want to be falling asleep when we step into a match. The problem is that when the fear of the situation becomes too great, our brain starts to send us into 'threat' mode. 'Threat' mode is important if you have a real fear to face (e.g. a bear chasing you, a car coming towards you too fast) as it mobilises energy fast (the adrenaline rush) and you use it fast. With tennis, the things we fear often aren't settled until hours in the future, so this nervous energy has no significant outlet. It is also not designed for fine motor sports and decision-making sports like tennis. Too much nervousness inhibits decision-making and stops us being able to coordinate our actions. These are serious liabilities for tennis players!
IS THERE 'TOO YOUNG' AN AGE FOR CHILDREN TO BE INVOLVED IN SPORT PSYCHOLOGY?
It depends on the method. I strongly feel that the earlier that you start discussing beneficial ways to think, to manage pressure and to behave under pressure - the more natural a response it will be for the child. This doesn't mean we sit a 5yr old down with me for an hour! However, working on court with the mini groups, I will try to expose them to failure. To discuss what winning and losing means and how to process it. If you package it in a way that they understand, I think it is immensely useful for their future development.
In terms of one-to-one work. I've worked with players from 9 years upwards and I'm comfortable saying that these ages have responded well on the whole. Again, an intervention for a 9yr old is going to be very different to a 14yr old, but you find ways to make it relevant. If they can learn long division, they can learn how to manage pressure!
IS SPORT PSYCHOLOGY ABOUT ROUTINES, GOAL SETTING...?
This is kind of a basic view. I will use routines, goal setting and such psychological skills. However, they are really just the surface level controls and without any other type of intervention I find they are quite ineffective (but worth a try if there isn't a Sport Psychologist around). Somebody 'controlling' themselves, is less effective than actually believing there isn't anything to control.
SO WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY BELIEFS?
One thing I have learned in my work is that everyone gets scared and everybody has a lot of adversity that they have to manage. The people who tend to navigate these adversities better are those who have more helpful and rational beliefs about it. For example, if you think it is terribly unfair and unacceptable for someone to cheat on a line call - you are bound to get angry, you might get very upset and your tennis might suffer.
However, if you feel that 'yes it is unfair and not right, but sometimes things just aren't fair' you might still be a bit annoyed, but not so much that it affects your performance.
Understanding peoples' beliefs about adversity, about their own abilities - this is key to then making changes that will help them. It is a little like 'Schema Theory' for those who have read about it.
WHAT IS MENTAL TOUGHNESS AND HOW DO PLAYERS GET IT?!
Mental Toughness is a pretty all-encompassing phrase. To me it represents an individual's ability to be resilient. To find the right behavioural and cognitive response to the situation they are in, no matter how stressful.
AH, SO YOU MENTIONED STRESS. YOU DO STRESS-TRAINING WITH PLAYERS, WHAT IS THAT?
So stress training is essentially about trying to put the players under pressure and seeing how they perform. Generally the tasks will get harder and harder, until it is very challenging if not impossible to achieve.
This might all sound quite demotivating - and it is a fine line - but it plays an important role. When children train, typically there is little pressure. When they compete there is always some pressure. Our movement and decisions can be very different under pressure. So the forehand that looks amazing in a basket drill, can suddenly go to pot when playing a break point.
The point of stress training is to bring the world of practice and competition together. We want them to test their skills under-pressure, but in environment where we can stop them, offer support, tweaks and set them on their way.
The test of a true athlete is never about what they can do when they are comfortable and winning, it is what they do when they are uncomfortable and losing - that is where athletes are made or broken.
WHERE CAN PEOPLE LEARN MORE?
People are free to visit my website: www.themindhawk.co.uk or email me with any questions: James.Newman@themindhawk.co.uk.