Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

King of Clay

Tennis great, Rafa Nadal, made it an even dozen championships this June at the French Open. He has won this major event in his teens, twenties, and thirties. Although the accomplishment inspires awe in the present, the true magnitude of the feat will grow over time. History needs to lend perspective to present unfolding of the accomplishment—and it’s very possible the undisputed “King of Clay” can add to his trophy case in the years to come.

rafa wins

What can we take away from this truly remarkable story?  Here are just a few…

Vision: Rafa is right-handed. Early on his first coach, Uncle Toni Nadal, envisioned the advantages of playing left-handed. Unlike baseball, you must hit from both sides in tennis—and at the highest level both sides must be strong. In Rafa’s case his natural right side became one of the greatest backhands of all time. For many the backhand side prevents players from the upper echelons of achievement. For Rafa on this side he could go toe-to-toe with a righthander’s forehand.

Adaptation: The saying “Nothing fails like success” speaks to the mindset of extinction. In competition, there is always someone preparing to dethrone the champion, there is always someone about to make a break-through. Adapting represents a break-with what is familiar—and this is particularly hard for the body and the mind. Equilibrium is favored, but excellence requires comfort with pushing limits and limiting beliefs. Rafa has improved all areas of his game and continues to add new wrinkles along the way. Where he was once was average at the net, now Rafa is excellent coming forward. He’s added power and versatility to his serve. Recently, he’s worked hard on angling groundstrokes rather than always hitting through the court. His evolution continues…bad news for his youthful peers, but a path they would do well to follow.

 Effort: The one thing we can always control is effort. We can’t control the weather, our opponent, the crowd and a million other factors. But deep inside we are the only ones who know if we have given our best. While Rafa is his only true judge and jury, from the outside and from the observations of his opponents, he has always given his all. One thing appears consistent throughout Rafa’s career, is that in terms of effort he plays each point the same: full throttle.

Humility: Rafa is a graceful champion. He has the utmost respect for the game, his team, his opponents, and the venues he plays. While confidence is important to the mental game, humility lends a perspective beyond competing and winning. Many factors beyond the athlete’s control have to all fall in place for an individual to have a long and prosperous career—let alone the chance to try. Rarely said or admitted, there are individuals out there who have the heart and the talent to compete, but never the opportunity. On some level, spoken or not, I believe Rafa knows this and understands this. And on some level, spoken or not, those who understand this truth play with the humility and the grace of having such an opportunity not afforded others. Rafa represents the opportunity very well.

Long live the King… Vamos!

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

cover shot

 

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Tension Connection (Part 2)

Going right to the connection between the player and the equipment, a major source of tension can be understood where these two meet. This connection is vital to another important connection, that of impact or as we have called it, “the moment of truth.” Again, this is true of any sport that requires one to grip the equipment. For simplicity sake, I am going to use the visual of the moment of truth in tennis.

novak fh contactrog fh contactcontact tennis

For the most part, if we consider the impact of a ball at the common strike zone (not too high or low) a pattern presents itself. You will notice that the racquet is perpendicular to the ground or nearly so. The only thing that matters here is that this is the position of the connection to the equipment at contact while playing without pressure—in other words, “just right tension.” If we use the scale previously mentioned where 1 is loosest, and 10 is the death grip, then we can say that these connections represent a grip tension of less than 5. It allows the fluidity of release while keeping the structure of the swing path. And for your personal use, just consider what your grip tension is (1-10), and then consider the next point:

Within a competition, you have fallen out of the sweet spot of performance and are experiencing stress. You feel tighter, and mentally feel a sense of pressure. For all competitors in these situations, things shorten. Muscles tighten, grips tighten, and swings get short and less fluid. Maybe your grip pressure goes from a 3 to a tense 7. What happens at the point of impact?

With the change of pressure, you change the connection with the equipment and the moment of truth. If you employ a semi-western forehand grip and tighten from a 3 to 7, the diagram below will likely happen. Notice the bottom edge leads and the sense of squaring up to the ball is now off. Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try it. Maybe your racquet or clubface or bat will move differently. Subtle or not, it will move. And because things get shorter, you are often out of tempo as well. Tightness and lateness go together because when you are out of the Zone of Optimal performance time has a different quality.

tension connection 1

What’s the most important effect? The outcome of the impact… Process produces product—and now it gets really interesting. Competing is about executing and adjusting. If you adjust based on the product, you may get even more lost. Many times in error analysis, I will ask simply “What happened?” The reply says it all for it speaks to process or outcome. If the moment of truth is off square, you will feel it—or not. I often ask, “What did you feel?” Again, the answer says it all. If the tension changes contact and produces and off-center strike, without process data (your sense of “feel”) you may adjust by firming up your grip. Now you are really going down a dark road.

This is why it is important to adjust based on the process, not the outcome. You play like you practice—which is why practice must reproduce the conditions of play. You have to create tension and a just right feel. And you have to know how to adjust based on the feel—not just the outcome. The outcome is data, it is the product, but working backward to the source of control, you come to the connection: you and how your process got you to the moment of truth.

Bottom line: develop your awareness of self, your kinesthetic awareness of your movements, your process for producing and executing in a repeatable manner. It matters because you maintain a sense of power and control. Adjustment without awareness does not build capacity. Without awareness and the feel of how you get to the moment of truth, you reduce your outcomes to: good days and bad days.

That leaves way too much to chance.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

book thumb

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Tension Connection

In the next few posts, we will dive deeper into the connection between tension and performance. While all athletes experience some sense of tension in performance, the points of connections have similarity depending on the sport. For this article, we will explore sports that require the use of a handle. While I may reference the most popular sports, the connection works regardless of the equipment you are holding: a bat, a club, a racquet, etc.

man in white denim pants and black sandals playing golf during daytime
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

In an earlier post, I talked about moments of truth, when preparation, anticipation, and execution meet at a point in time: the batter connecting with a pitch, a golfer driving a tee shot, the tennis ball meeting the strings on a cross-court forehand. One of the key connections in all of these moments of truth is the athlete’s grip on the handle. While the type of grip on the equipment of choice is important, the quality of the grip at the moment of truth is a significant factor between the expectation and the execution. Any competitor can tell you the type of grip they employ, how they hold the club,etc., yet how well they can describe the connection is a better indicator of consistent performance. I use a 10-point scale to describe this quality, where 1 is so loose the club or racquet flies out of your hand, and 10 is so tight that blood flow is cut off and parts of the hand turn white.

Everyone is, to some extent, unique. For example, if a tennis player uses the popular semi-western grip, the actual output will be different if her grip pressure is 2 versus 8. Studies have confirmed these unique grip signatures. One such study of golfers collected data from nearly ten thousand grip sensors and found that golfers “had their own unique grip force ‘signature’” which were repeatable but different than the signatures of other golfers.

Why is this important? The grip represents the balance of structure and fluidity. Not enough structure in the connection and it’s hard to repeat the swing path and the moment of truth. Too much structure and the anatomy can’t perform in a fluid, repeatable manner. This is the diminishing effect of tension. More important is the tension that resides out of the athlete’s awareness.  Coaches will talk about “feel” and this starts to get to the root of the tension connection. Under pressure, our awareness contracts and we lose some of the internal capacity that allows us to sense this “feel.” Thus, chips fall short or are skulled long. Second serves find the middle of the net. Bats can’t catch up to fastballs that, under less pressured circumstances, are ripped into the gap.

It all starts with self-awareness and a mindset of curiosity, imagination, and continuous improvement. While equipment matters, in the end, it is the connection to the equipment that matters most. Developing this awareness of self, and the awareness of self in space needs to be an integral part of practice. Start today. Take the time each practice session to become more aware of this connection to your equipment. Give yourself the internal feedback you need to raise your sense of connection. Use the 10-point scale. It’s arbitrary but effective if you use it consistently. You will notice, over time your connection to your unique grip signature. And you will find your ability to repeat that “just right” feel increases.

Next time, we get a close “look” at the tension connection.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

book thumb

Reference:

Komi, E. R., Roberts, J. R., & Rothberg, S. J. (2008). Measurement and analysis of grip force during a golf shot. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology222(1), 23-35.

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Distraction

Over the next two weeks, some of the year’s most exciting tennis will happen in New York at the U.S. Open. It is a brand, an experience different than any of the other Grand Slams. Having been to several Opens over the years, one of the striking features is the “feel” of the event. Not only is it one of the majors, there are some major distractions that the players will have to cope with to get through the draw.

people sitting on bench watching tennis event on field during daytime
Photo by Raj Tatavarthy on Pexels.com

In Flushing Meadows, the country club atmosphere is truly, well, flushed. While each court has its own unique environment, the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple abound. On the outer courts, fans can get right on top of the action. Movement, phones, cameras, and the smell of concessions are all a part of the player’s sensory experience. Something is always happening in the periphery of a player’s sight. Focus is at a premium.

ball blur close up daylight
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Even on the show courts and the stadium venues, the hum of the city is evident. While some sense of structure is kept at courtside, in the middle and upper tiers spectators carry on conversations as if it were a coffee shop, cell phones ring, and bored children race up and down the stairs. The silence and decorum of Wimbledon is out the window.

And the city never sleeps here. No curfew exists and matches can carry on until the wee hours.

First-time competitors will notice the enormity of the grounds, the city-street feel of bobbing and weaving as they make the walk from the player’s facility to the courts. And what it will come down to is how quiet they can make the experience inside their minds. The distractions will not go away. They will ebb and flow in different flavors.

There is nothing subtle about the US Open. How players fare will be, in part, a function of the ability to tune out what is irrelevant. To make such a public and busy space quiet in your mind is the challenge. One that requires both the ability to focus on the matter at hand and to keep the distractions outside the lines. Those who do not prepare beforehand may be heading to LaGuardia sooner than expected.

The process of coping with distraction needs to be a part of your mental approach. How do you work on this as a part of your mental training? How do you consider what drives your best performance and what may be an obstacle–internal and external? Failing to plan for this comes with a great cost…

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

Performance psychology

Moments of Truth

In all sports there are moments when preparation gives way to execution at a specific and vital point: In baseball, it may be the contact of the bat to ball or the pitcher’s release point. In tennis, it is the connection of the racquet’s sweet spot to the felt of the tennis ball. In golf, it may be the impact of the putter or the driver to dimples of the golf ball. In hockey, the one-timer off of a perfect pass. Or in basketball, the release of the jumper or free throw. And in soccer, the penalty kick. What all of these events have in common is an inner trust—or distrust in the process.

contact tennis

In my work, I help players to understand the power of language to influence the mindset. Listening to players reflect on performances tells you exactly where they are in their developmental trajectory. It’s either up or down for there is no such thing as standing still in development. These moments of truth in execution have meaning and significance because they reveal:

 

  • The connection between trust and the moment of truth.
  • The connection between confidence and process. This is internal—not one based in results. Because of other factors in competition, you can not trust the process but still execute and win— but this will lead to a different trajectory, one with limitations.
  • The connection between moment and momentum in the continuum of moments.
  • The connection between trust and self-talk.

contact baseball

It has been my experience that teaching methods, coaching, and media influence (among other factors) have led to an over-emphasis on outcomes and externals. So much so that when I ask if players experienced the moment of truth (Did you see the ball? Did you feel the swing? Contact?) their answers run from silence to a confused stare. They can tell you what the outcome was, but have no recall of the extended process that leads to the result.

man in white denim pants and black sandals playing golf during daytime
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Further, constant focus on the externals not only dampens intrinsic motivation but can lead to an external locus of control. In other words, the results of a match or performance are based on conditions beyond the athlete’s control (“That’s just the golfing gods.” “The weather was really tough.” “I had a bad day.”) But, most importantly, this attitude puts our attention on aspects we cannot control. And the result of an external focus is a consistent and unnecessary internal pressure.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.