While fear and anxiety inhibit performance and lead to muscle tension, confusion, and indecision, an equally dangerous mental state often arises in the absence of fear, when a player is totally in command of the match and on the verge of victory. I call it a major “comfort trap” when a player feels satisfied and puts on the brakes with a lead. A much better solution to this problem is to close the match out by unleashing the “killer instinct.”
Many players fail to realize that being close to an easy victory is actually one of the most vulnerable positions in the game. While it seems like you gain little by winning (since winning just meets expectations), losing can appear quite traumatic and far below expectations. Even slight self-satisfaction on the part of the leader combined with the gritty determination of a wounded opponent can change the match dramatically. If you let negative thoughts and fear of choking also intrude, you can expect a major turnaround.
Players at all levels have experienced the agony and frustration of failing to put away a match. David Nalbanian knows. He won the first two sets against unseeded Marcos Baghdatis this year in the semifinals of the Australian open and had a 4-2 lead in the final set before Baghdatis stormed back to reach the final against Roger Federer. Jana Novotna knows too. She was charming in crying on the shoulder of the Dutchess of Kent after she threw away a 6-7, 6-1, 4-1, 40-15 lead over Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final.
Searching for Answers
Choking is such a maddening process that I appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America this year to try to explain the disappointing performances of U.S. Olympic athletes Bode Miller and Sasha Cohen. The best way to explain choking is that athletes choke on thoughts by thinking too much about the implications of performance rather than just doing what they have been doing all along. In tennis, it’s just not possible to just coast to victory by waiting for an opponent to lose. Putting the brakes on usually only puts the brakes on you!
With a big lead, it’s important to know how to win. The mental skills needed to close out a tennis match have to be understood, practiced, and refined over and over. Once you’ve mastered these skills, you’ll have developed the killer instinct. Combining solid research knowledge with my brief interviews of over 50 players on the ATP and WTA tours about closing out a match, I have developed some tips to help you develop the killer instinct and prevent yourself from choking ever again.
1. Never become comfortable with a lead. There are no guarantees for victory. Games are often won and lost in streaks, so you must always be wary of your opponent’s ability to rally. Stay on guard and expect your opponent to be toughest when you are up. Realize that momentum swings are part of the game and that a 5-1 lead is never safe. At the same time, if you find yourself down 1-5, keep your hope alive and keep fighting because you just might have your opponent where you want him.
2. Play mental games with yourself to avoid a letdown. When you have a lead, pretend that you are really several games behind and need a complete effort to even remain in the match. Play loose and aggressively. Forget about the score if you can and just play tennis.
3. Keep your intensity and energy level high. If you find your intensity slipping or you begin to lose interest in the match or think about how nice it would be to win, fire yourself back up to an optimal arousal level by imagining that you are the commander of a space shuttle ready to blast off, or a cheetah preparing to pounce on your prey. Walk to the fence and jog in place to help facilitate this energizing process.
4. Overconfidence is another major trap leading to reduced effort and performance. Find the right mixture of poise and modesty. Avoid thinking about or discussing the final score or your next opponent. Stay completely focused on the present moment and eliminate all other distractions that could intrude.
5. Keep the pressure on your opponent by playing well with a big lead rather than just coasting. Your goal should be to convince your opponent that he or she has absolutely no chance of coming back.
6. Don’t drastically change you style of play. Just keep doing what you have done all day to get this lead. You might enhance your focus by targeting the first serve or return, and keeping externally focused on the ball helps remove the chance that distracting thoughts will intrude.
It takes a precise combination of mental skills and practice to consistently close out matches that you should win. Don’t wait for your opponent’s next dramatic comeback to realize this truth. Invest in sport psychology and prosper!
Dr. John F Murray is a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida and at www.JohnFMurray.com