Recent article published in Squash Player magazine - January 2012 (Issue 1) - pages 22-23.
Mentally in Tune.
Be World Class
When do you play at your best? How would you describe your perfect mind-set? What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Most players know that their frame of mind going into competition has a huge impact on the way they perform. However, there are relatively few players that have mastered the art of engineering their mental and emotional state. Most are not fully in control of what they think and how they feel. If you can control your thoughts and feelings, you have a considerable advantage!
When I speak to athletes about their perfect mental and emotional state, they tend to mention the same sorts of words; confident, focussed, motivated, excited and even a little nervous. Most athletes actually like to have a little nervous energy. Ironically, a lot will say that they are worried if they don’t feel nervous. Some don’t like the feeling of being nervous, but they know that they perform better if they do.
Conversely, the vast majority of athletes know that they tend not to perform well if they are worried, anxious, have doubts or feel flat. A lot of players will notice that they are thinking too much and questioning themselves before they take to the court. Of course, the challenge, if you find yourself experiencing negative thoughts and feelings, is to change the pattern! How do you help create the optimal state? How can you engineer it, rather than leaving your mental and emotional state to chance?
It is easy to be confident when you’ve been playing well and winning games. You’re likely to be confident facing an opponent that you’ve been successful against in the past. Evidence tells you that you’re likely to play well again, or likely to be successful. However, there is a weakness in relying on results and past success. What if results have not been so good? What if you’re facing an opponent who you have not beaten before?
Results are not in our control. The performance of our opposition is not in our control. Therefore, if we base our confidence on them, we’re in for a rough ride. However, our own performance is within our control, as is the quality of our preparation. These are much more reliable.
Of course, in order to feel confident, we need to know that we have prepared as well as we possibly could have. We need to know that we pushed our self in training. We need to know that we really have focussed on our technical sessions, honed the finer details of our skills and learned the tactical lessons from previous games. We cannot fool ourselves or pretend that we’ve prepared well. Ultimately, we know whether we actually pushed our self to the maximum when we were supposed to. We know whether we have done everything we can to improve our game. Those players who pull out all the stops and approach their training and preparation with a ‘no stone un-turned’ mentality, often find that they are confident when they walk through the glass doors! To find out more, read ‘Control Your Confidence’ in SP Vol.38, Issue.1 (page15).
People often feel over-anxious when they imagine that there is pressure. Personally, I don’t believe that pressure actually exists. I believe that it is imaginary. Normally we feel pressure because we are worried about the outcome of a future event. For example, we worry that we might not win the game this afternoon. The only way that we can ever experience the future is through our imagination. Therefore, our experience of pressure has to be a product of our imagination; specifically vision of what might happen if we lose. Often we use our perceptions of what other people expect of us, or what we think other may think of us, to fuel this process.
The problem with all of this is that we start to focus on the wrong job. The job in squash is very simple. It is simply to score as many points as you can (which also means trying to concede as few as you can to your opponent). And that’s it. It is no more complex than that. If you happen to score more points in each game and therefore win more games, you will win the match. If the opponent scores more, they will win. Your job is not to beat them. Your job is not to win the tournament. Your job is not to impress a coach, parent, partner, the media, the squash community or anyone else. If you are focussed on trying to do any of those things, you will create an uncontrollable task. And that’s where the feeling of anxiety often stems from. If we feel that there is a gap between the job we think we must do, and our ability to do it, we are susceptible to feelings of pressure and anxiety. In order to control our nerves, we need to make sure we get the job right!
Think of your focus like a torch beam. In order to play well, it stands to reason that the torch beam should be shining on those things that help your game. How effective will you be if your torch beam is directed at your own thoughts? What kind of performance can you expect if you’re focussed on the negative thoughts, doubts and worries that are zooming around your brain? What if your focus was firmly set on key aspects of your game? How well would you play if you were intently watching the ball? What if you were focussed on the feeling and weight of your shots, or even the sound of the ball as it hit the strings of the racket?
One of the keys to playing in ‘the zone’, is to become immersed and absorbed in the task. You can start doing this in the warm up. Focus on what you see, hear and feel. Use your senses! Find those things that really help your game. For example, focus on the movement of the ball, or the lightness of your feet, or the sound and rhythm of the game. For more on focus, read ‘Razor Sharp Focus’, SP Vol. 38, Issue.5.
1. Use your preparation & performances to underpin your confidence (not opponents or results)
2. Have a ‘no stone un-turned’ approach to preparation.
3. Get the job right!
4. Control your torch beam
5. Focus through your senses – see, hear and feel your game.
If you like this article, you'll love reading Peak Performance Every Time!