--- Tennis is a diabolical game, and no matter how we practice our strokes and strategy, no matter how hard we can rip a forehand or how good our serve is, there will always be the specter of another entirely different element the game lying beneath the surface: The MENTAL GAME.
What makes the difference in tight matches? How can mental preparation and emotional calm lead to victory? How can nerves, or emotional angst sabotage an otherwise foolproof player, and cast him or her off to the lot of the almosts and has-beens? How can you — whether you’re a weekend hacker or a world-class junior or pro — improve your chances of winning without even stepping on the court?
In his new book Tennis: Winning the Mental Match, UCLA grad, NCAA champ, and Wimbledon quarter-finalist Dr. Allen Fox shares his theories on the psychology of tennis. Fox, who admittedly suffered from and overcame the usual emotional issues of tennis early in his career, wrote this book for players of all levels with the goal of helping them develop an awareness of their proclivities on court, the pitfalls that lie in wait, and what to do about them.
He covers a great deal of ground, from methods of reducing stress, to visualization, to game planning, and — of course — the time honored tradition of choking. All the while he pulls juicy analogies from his tennis past and present, mentioning real-life meltdowns, tantrums, and those — like the unflappable Rafael Nadal — who’ve embraced and understood the concepts he’s teaching.
Here is the text of an interview I had with Dr. Fox about the book. Please read on to hear what he has to say about his motivation for writing the book and to gain a better idea of the type of material that it covers.
Q: Who would you say you are intending to benefit with your book? What’s your goal and who do you want to reach?
Allen Fox: I’ve done a lot of consulting with a lot of different levels of tennis players, and what I found is that they all have the same problems in one way or another. They differ in degree, but generally run into the same sort of issues. So I am really am aiming this book at everybody who wants to win tennis matches, which is everybody.
The essence of it, if I was really boiling this book down, is that tennis tends to be an emotional game, more so than most other games, and people run into emotional/mental issues that are counterproductive. In fact it’s more difficult mentally than any other sport I can think of, with the possible exception of boxing.
Q: Well, in your book you pointed out the diabolical scoring system in tennis. They certainly don’t have that in boxing. If you put a guy on the ground for 10 seconds you’re gonna win. In tennis you can score a knockout in the first game or the first set, but you still have to come back and start fresh in the next game.
Allen Fox: Of course it’s not as physically scary as boxing, but it requires concentration and emotional control over a longer period of time. That’s one the toughest part of it. Most players can control their emotions for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, maybe even 30, but it’s very hard to control them for 2-3 hours. The professionals can do it — but even they have trouble.
Q: Justin Gimelstob, who wrote the forward for your book says: “one of the most important things that Allen has taught me has been to recognize counterproductive emotional responses when they occur, and to use my reasoning skills to overpower them.” How can you overpower you’re counterproductive responses if they’re already underway?
Allen Fox: The first trick is to recognize what counterproductive emotions are liable to show up. You have to know yourself. If you play tennis for a while, you learn — if you keep your eyes open — how you tend to emotionally respond when things go wrong. You have to learn these through experience, and be ready for them in similar situation. Once these emotions are running, they are powerful and tend to overpower the logic system. So it’s dangerous to let them run. You have to head them off early by having, in advance, an emotional game plan.
Once you truly make up your mind to attack these control issues, you can do it, and do it immediately. I know because I’ve done it myself, and seen it done with players I’ve coached. It’s all been tested. I used to have a very bad temper when I was younger. I wanted to win too much. I tended to get very angry when things went wrong, and I used to lose matches because of it. One day I woke up and said to myself, “wait a second, this just isn’t working. I can’t get mad enough to satisfy my angry urges. I can bite the ball, break my racquets, hit the fence, but none of it will do me any good.” Then and there I decided I simply wasn’t going to do this anymore, and by and large, I didn’t.
Q: In the book you talk a lot about not reacting emotionally after bad points. What should that feel like?
Allen Fox: You shouldn’t feel anything. The point’s over, and there’s no emotional reaction whatsoever. It doesn’t take practice: it just takes the heartfelt decision to do it. It requires a logical and conscious prior decision to counter these natural and instantaneous emotional reactions to errors. Once you really decide not to have them, you won’t. There’s nothing more to it.
Q: In a sense it kind of becomes a part of the ritual.
Allen Fox: That’s the best way to start any pre-point ritual, because you don’t have to dig yourself out of some emotional hole. You start out neutral, and then you can drive the emotions as you wish rather than have them drive you.
Q: How important would you say for all types of players to differentiate from goals and expectations?
Allen Fox: I think it would be particularly helpful with the elite, super-highly motivated players, to get away from expectations and deal with goals. These people have a tendency to get down on themselves if they don’t achieve all of their expectations, which are generally very high. On the other hand, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the average person, who is usually not highly driven in any case. (They could actually use a bit more motivation.)
In this sense I’m looking at a goal that is some sort of a shining light that’s in the distance. It’s exciting, hopeful, and positive, and gives players direction and motivation. And the motivation is more about progressing towards goals rather than being absolutely forced to reach them. The expectation is problematic. This is something they feel they must accomplish, and when they don’t, they can get quite negative, disappointed, and unhappy.
The goal should be a motivational tool. It’s a nice dream that players have. But setting goals that are unrealistically high, and then expecting to reach them, and getting down on one’s self if one doesn’t can be a problem.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about short term memory, getting over bad losses and bad points quickly?
Allen Fox: The more emotion that’s involved in an event, the stronger the memory. We’re genetically programmed that way. Things that hurt your confidence, like losses or missed easy shots, are things you don’t want to remember too vividly. And having a reaction or tantrum after a particularly disappointing shot imprints the event more powerfully in your memory. The more emotional you get about it, the more you beat on yourself, the more you remember the failure and the more your confidence suffers.
Q: To realize that there is a connection between the outburst and the fear is amazing.
Allen Fox: The emotional outburst enhances the fear associated with the possibility of error. What I’ve seen is that when a player has been emotionally reacting frequently throughout a match with errors, that player is more likely to make extra errors in the crunch than his better controlled opponent. Correct shots are produced by smoothly functioning habits. And these require a well-balanced nervous system. Getting over-wrought emotionally is rather like kicking the system wiring around. When crunch time comes around the carefully wired habits are slightly disrupted and out come a few extra malfunctions (errors). You’re trying to make this little machine of yours function — you practice and work on strokes over and over — and when you get highly emotional you mess up the whole system.
Q: When I was reading your book I kept thinking about how Rafa and Roger are so unflappable and how they separate themselves from the rest this way.
Allen Fox: They’re better mentally even than the average great player.
Q: Do you think these guys focus on it?
Allen Fox: Nadal knew what to do right away. For whatever reasons, he knew very young what to do. Federer figured it out. But Nadal knew it instinctively.
Q: So Rafa wouldn’t need your book?
Allen Fox: He wouldn’t need it — he could write it. Although he probably didn’t have to go through some of the difficulties, so he might not know exactly what makes him so much more effective than the other players. Federer could probably write the book. Djokovic ought to read it. He’s highly intelligent, but often gets too emotional.
Q: What about visualization? Is that a valid concept?
Allen Fox: What I use visualization for is to create an emotion. You visualize this great return of serve, where your body went into the shot, where your hands were loose, and you saw the ball into your racquet, and you recreated the feeling of hitting the great deep shot. That is helpful because the game tends to follow the emotion. Visualization can help create an emotion that will help your game.
Q: And how does on-court optimism figure in to this equation?
Allen Fox: If you buy the fact that your game will follow your emotion, than as a competitor a big part of your job is to try to create emotions that are useful. Thus you must beware of negative thoughts and immediately react by replacing them with realistic positive ones. Deliberately conjuring up realistic positive thoughts is one of your obligations as a competitor. It’s one of the competitive skills that a player needs to have, just like being fit and having good strokes.
Q: If you could write down three things for a generic player to prepare for competition, what would you write?
Allen Fox: Number one I would write that your game will tend to follow your emotions, so you need to make sure you have positive ones. Number two, stay practical. The golden rule of tennis will save you from problems. This is: Never do anything on court that doesn’t help you win. And number three is to try to reduce your stress. The stress of wanting to win and wanting to perform, yet not being sure you will be able to is stressful. Accept that you are human and fallible. You’ll make mistakes because you can’t help it. Accept this reality. Recognize that the outcome is ultimately not controllable. You’re just trying to do the best that you can, a point at a time, maximizing the probabilities of winning each one, but accepting that there can never be certainty.
Q: When is the book going to be available?
Allen Fox: It’s available on kindle electronically right now, and it will be available early January at Tennis Warehouse and at my home page: allenfoxtennis.net.
Q: It’s a fantastic book and I think the more people that read it, the more people that will become better at this diabolical game of tennis.
Allen Fox: I think it will be beneficial. It has worked with the people with whom I have consulted and coached over the years. My motivation is to be helpful to the majority of players. I have accumulated a great deal of information over the years, and I don’t want that information to be buried with me (laughs).