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Brain Training: It's a good time to be a sports psychologist—particularly one who specializes in tennis
These days, no trophy ceremony is complete until the winner has paid tribute to his or her mental coach.
Published Sep 19, 2021
WATCH: Daniela Hantuchova interviews Daria Abramowicz, sports psychologist to Iga Swiatek
More and more pros are singing the praises of their sports psychologists. Should you be working with one, too?
“We have lots of competition now,” says Dr. Patrick Cohn of Peak Performance Sports, “but we’re busier than ever.” It’s a good time to be a sports psychologist, and in particular, one who specializes in tennis. These days, no trophy ceremony is complete until the winner has paid tribute to his or her mental coach.
Last month, Naomi Osaka wrote a cover story for Time about her struggles with her psychological health. Even recreational players might be a little shaken up, and in need of some counseling, after the pandemic.
“Any time a pro talks about it and demystifies what we do, it helps us gain acceptance,” says the Florida-based Cohn, who has a Ph.D in applied sport psychology, and has been working with tennis players for 20 years.
Mental coaching isn’t new to the game. Jim Loehr, Allen Fox and Tim Gallwey, to name just three, have been exploring what makes players tick, and explode, since the 1970s. Ivan Lendl, a pioneer in so many aspects of tennis training, made it part of his regimen 35 years ago. Therapist Alexis Castorri designed a program to help Lendl play more freely; she also guaranteed that it would take him to No. 1 by the end of the 1985 season. That’s exactly what happened.
“Her ideas were new to me,” Lendl told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about his time with Castorri, who has helped Andy Murray and Simona Halep make similar breakthroughs. “But they made sense. I wasn’t skeptical about the program.”
Not everyone in this tradition-bound sport has been as forward thinking. To admit to needing help was to admit weakness, and possibly boost your opponents’ confidence when they faced you.
“People thought there must be something wrong with you if you worked with a psychologist,” Cohn says. “But that perception is changing.”
The term “mental health” has always been associated with depression, but athletes like NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers are expanding the definition.
“This offseason I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself,” Rodgers said this summer. “I think for a long time mental health has been only an ‘OK topic’ to broach if you’re talking about dealing with bouts of depression, suicide—like big-issue topics.” Taking care of your mental health, in the Rodgers sense, means doing what you need to do to feel good about yourself. For athletes, that means getting yourself in the right frame of mind to compete.
“Too often a player will wait until they’re in a slump to contact us,” Cohn says. “They’ll finally say, ‘Well, it’s not physical, so it must be mental.’ But you don’t have to wait until you have a problem. This is a tool everyone can use, because everyone can get better.”
Can sports psychology make you better? If your livelihood doesn’t depend on it, you might consider it an unnecessary expense. But what if you want to play better to help your league or school team? Or you’re a junior trying for a college scholarship? Or you just can’t stand losing to players you think you should beat?
"There are lots of reasons people come to a mental coach,” says Jeff Greenwald, a California sports psychologist and author of The Best Tennis of Your Life. “There are players who haven’t had the career they thought they should. Some are new to sports, and don’t understand competition that well. Others are losing matches and thinking of quitting.”
If there’s any sport whose players can use a therapeutic ear, it’s tennis. We have to solve our problems by ourselves, and we spend 80 percent of our match walking—and thinking—between points. It’s also a sport that makes it clear when your mind is getting in the way. There are few things as frustrating as making a shot 10 or 20 or 50 times in practice, and then missing it in competition.
People thought there must be something wrong with you if you worked with a psychologist. But that perception is changing. Dr. Patrick Cohn
“People ask all the time, ‘Why can’t I play as well in matches as I do in practice?’” Greenwald says.
If you’re missing a shot, the standard remedy is to practice it more. But while repetition is essential, it won’t always help you swing freely under the pressurized conditions of competition. For that, you need to train your mind.
“Your brain is a powerful machine, but it doesn’t come with a user’s manual,” Greenwald says. “A mental coach can give you the GPS you need.”
Working with a sports psychologist is not unlike working with a teaching pro. Cohn will watch his students play in person or on video, and for $600 provide you with a month of mental coaching. That includes two assessments of your game, four psychology sessions, and an audio and workbook program.
Six-hundred dollars is likely more than you would spend for a month with a traditional coach, but you may not need as much help with your mind as you do with your forehand.
“Most players work with me for a minimum of three months, which is 12 weekly sessions, but some people come back for six months to a year,” Greenwald says. “They’ll play, and then we’ll debrief on what happened. You can get a lot accomplished in an hour.”
In the same way that a teaching pro will suggest a grip for your strokes, a mental coach will suggest a thought process for you to follow between points. If, say, you’ve been struggling with double faults, Cohn might start with a series of questions: Are you avoiding the double fault? Are you over-thinking your stroke? Are you not trusting the shot you practice? Are you too anxious to make a relaxed stroke?
And then he might suggest these steps:
- Develop a service routine that helps you visualize a successful serve.
- Be aggressive and avoid decelerating your arm.
- Trust in your stroke and swing freely by relying on your practice or muscle memory.
- Instead of trying to avoid a bad serve, have a positive intention of what you want to do with it.
Lendl, Halep, Murray, Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, among other pros, have all made gains through their work with mental coaches. And after facing skepticism about their methods for so long, many sports psychologists take particular satisfaction in seeing recreational players benefit from their advice and enjoy the sport more. Even better is when students can take the insights they’ve learned about tennis and apply them off the court.
“I’m in favor of healthy skepticism,” Greenwald says. “Like everyone else, I want to know what works and what’s BS.
“Tennis work is life work. It’s this lab for finding balance in our lives.”
If more people are willing to talk about mental health, and their psychological struggles on court, there will be more people who find solutions to those problems. “The floodgates,” according to Greenwald, “are opening.” We’ve kept them, and ourselves, closed off for too long.