Tensionitis and Performance Anxiety

October 9, 2015

Eva AsderakiThe recently completed US Tennis Open provides excellent examples of the tensions and anxiety that reduce performance. We look at the stories and what the top players do to overcome the problems of ‘tensionitis’, and suggest relevance to business leaders.

Let’s start with the stories that emerged as the tournament unfolded, before looking at the  tensions which might have been important as factors in their outcomes.

First, there was talent and courage of the players which gave so many moments of high drama.

The Serena slam story did not have the intended fairy-tale ending. Instead it had a quirky, unexpected and delightful conclusion.

The clash of the titans when Novak and Roger met was as heroic as might have been expected.

The Big Serving Guys (BSGs)

The Big Serving Guys (BSGs) such as Eisner and Anderson did a lot of damage in earlier rounds, putting out seeded players including Kai Nishikori and Andy Murray.   But the BSGs all eventually stumbled out to the very top players.

In this respect I wanted to reserve the classification of BSGs for very tall players using their greater height to produce unreturnable serves. (‘unreturnable serfs’ as my predictive text put it, sounding slightly Scandinavian). Federer had a great serve which wrought havoc. But he fits into the rare category of a more normal-sized player with an exceptional serve.

The conclusion reached is  that BSGs have developed a style of play which gives then advantages over the games in a set until a tie break is reached. In tie breaks the advantages are balanced out by their inexperience in the pressures of having to avoid dropping any point, particularly against top players who have been learning about the serving patterns of the BSG. This means BSGs win slam events more rarely than might be expected.

Tensions and performance anxieties

When we look more carefully, we find examples of how tensions influenced performance in numerous matches starting from day one to the finals of the last two days. No player was completely immune. Even Serena had been showing unusual signs of fragility under the great pressures of closing out the Serena slam.

The great struggle between Federer and Djokovic in the final  again showed that even the greatest players have to deal with nerves as critical points approached. In that final, both the players mostly showed astonishing skills at what has been called Thinking Clearly Under Pressure (‘TEA CUP’). But  clarity of thought is always fighting against more emotional processes. Put another way, as the sports psychologist Jim Peters puts it, we all have our inner chimp to control.

Some points for reflection

Point 1.   However Godlike we treat them,  even the greatest players have to deal with the tensions of the moment. They may just have exceptional control over them rather than being controlled by them.

Johanna Konta and Simona Halep each could be taken as an example of a player who overcome performance anxiety. In the past, each of these of these young players had suffered from serious problems of inconsistency which were holding back their potential. Joanna chose to work with a ‘mind coach’ who specialized in reducing anxiety pressures of financial managers. Her story became more widely noticed as she beat several top twenty plates as she built up a winning streak of eighteen winning matches. Simona’s story is even more remarkable. She turned to a new coach partly to develop her serve into a powerful weapon. She also confessed she needed help as she had lost all confidence under pressure. Under her new coach, Simona moved up to World No 2.

Point 2. Performance anxiety is deep-rooted but can be controlled. The player may find it easier with a new mental approach introduced by a new coach.

John Isner had won 108 service games without one loss in this year’s and part of last year’s US Open. But when Federer took him to a tie break and unleashed another service winner of his own, Isner abruptly hit the wall and could not make a first serve. Performance Anxiety or the dreaded ‘Yips’ had taken over his play.

Point 3. When a playing strength which has brought success is not working successfully, the tensions mount. An automatic pilot action is interrupted and the player starts thinking, so ‘staying in the zone’ becomes increasingly difficult.

During the tournament, several players found ways of reducing tension often involving self-harm. Murray is well known for smacking himself in anger. Interestingly, having now dispensed with her mind-calming coach, has reverted to self-abuse slapping her sole vigorously. Kyrgios sulks, pretends to give, and calculates fines for racquet abuse. Coco V destroyed a racquet with such enthusiasm, that a U Tube of the violence went viral

Point 4 Violent physical action is a widely-found mechanism for tension release. There may be diminishing returns on such approaches though the effect known as habituation. The press is essentially defined as a decline in response for a specific applied stimulus.

Rafa Nadal is a case study of tensions nearly overwhelming a great athlete. The symptoms are easier to identify than to remedy. After a period of near invincibility on clay courts, Rafa sustained serious injuries and time out. On returning to tournament play he was clearly no longer invincible. While this period of recovery was to be expected, but other players realised they had a chance to beat him. His loss on the clay courts of The French Open helped as the French say to ‘encourager les autres’

Nadal had slumped to No 8 in the rankings in the US Open before losing to the unpredictable Italian Fognini. At the press conference he showed his awareness that he had to his mind overcome his nerves even if he had lost the match

I fighted until the last point all the time, good attitude. Not enough to win today. I lost a couple matches this year like this. But the good thing is my mind allows me to fight until the end as I did during all my career. Sometimes this year I was not able to do that. So I am happy with that. I enjoyed the crowd. Was amazing support out there. Just very special feeling be out there with that support. I enjoyed that. I tried to fight until the last ball. I believe I did, but was not enough today.

Point 5 Rafa knew he had to overcome mental as well as physical problems in returning to the top table of the game. He seems to draw comfort that although he lost, he lost not because of nerves. However, this may not of itself be enough to deal with the problem. He has to date remained loyal to his ‘Uncle Tony and coaching staff. Maybe he will have to take the tough decision that Halep, Murray and others took to make progress.

Discussion welcomed

Discussion is welcomed on the issues raised in this post.

 

 


Tennis tactics at Wimbledon: the curious case of two injury time-outs

July 7, 2015

The match between Andy Murray and Andreas Seppi in the Wimbledon championship of 2015 was noted for two incidents each involving an injury break called by one of players

Saturday July 4th, 2015. Home favourite Andy Murray was scheduled to play Andreas Seppi. Murray seeded No 3 was expected to win against the lower ranked player. His previous record against Seppi was 5-1. For two sets, expectations of crowd and presumably players were more or less fulfilled. Murray cruises to a 6-2 6-2 advantage. After some lengthy rallies, Seppi looked increasingly fatigued…

Read the rest of this entry »


“Masterminds who give genius a guiding hand” Analysis of top tennis coaches

June 18, 2011

A thoughful examination of coaches of the top four male tennis players suggests their skills involve trust-building and seeking to make marginal changes

Hugh MacDonald writing in the Herald provides an impressive piece of sporting journalism. He stuck to supplying readers with evidence above opinion, in analysing the coaches and their impacts on the big four of Men’s tennis.

They are the best in the world, perhaps the best quartet in world tennis ever. So how can anyone make them better? This is the task facing those who choose to coach Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. They are four different personalities with distinct playing styles, but with the same driving force that demands improvement in their game.

Long-term relationships

Djokovic and Nadal have persisted with a long-term relationship with one coach. ‘Uncle Toni’ has been with Nadal for ever. Djokovic has stuck with Marian Vajda for much of his career. A brief period with the distinguished player coach Todd Martin did not work out. Federer has also stuck with Severin Luethi for some while. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying “We don’t particularly set up and say, ‘let’s do a brainstorming session’, like in business school or something. It’s somewhat more casual. We are in track suits and lounging around and all of a sudden it happens,”

Not so long term

Which brings us to Andy Murray. The snarly Scot seems to need a coach as target for his on-court frustations. Relationships appear to be intense and ephemeral in contrast to the other three players. MacDonald is tactful when he writes:

The most intriguing set-up, however, is situated at the heart of Team Murray. “I have a coach,” was Murray’s brisk answer to enquiries at the French Open about when he intended to appoint a full-time mentor. Murray now has access to Darren Cahill and has Sven Groeneveld in his box. Cahill coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi and Groeneveld worked with Federer. The 24-year-old Scot thus has a mine of experience to seam. The approach of player and coach, though, show the relationship is built on trust and then faith. Murray talks of the “stability” the Australian has [recently] brought to his game. He said: “He did not just steam in and say, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that’, and start telling everyone what to do. He spent a few days not really saying very much, but he was figuring everyone out.” Murray added: “He’s someone who has been around big events and who has played at a high level as well so he knows how to deal with things emotionally. He knows how a player feels.”

Do coaches make a difference?

The accounts suggest that they do. Perhaps Murray has been the toughest challenge of the four. Perhaps it is one factor which keeps him behind the others in his ranking and tournament successes.


Getting into Fergie’s mind (games). Cathy Cassell may have one answer

May 14, 2011

Cathy Cassell

Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind and his mind-games over his period as manager of Manchester United Football Club have been much discussed in football circles. Such leadership behaviours require careful analysis. Which is where someone like Professor Cathy Cassell may have an answer.

A starting point for studying an individual’s leadership behaviours is to select a set of critical incidents which collectively throw light on the person and their behaviour patterns over an extended time period. That is what sports journalist Michael Carr did recently [May 2011]. His top ten Alex Ferguson incidents are:

1. Treble champions (1998/1999)

2. You don’t win anything with kids & managerial mind games (1995/1996)

3. Putting the boot in (that David Beckham dressing room injury 2002/2003)

4. Rivalry with Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger (1996 – Today)

5. First Premiership Crown (1992/1993)

6. A battle of footballing philosophies (with Jose Mourhino’s Chelsea 2006/2007)

7. A dramatic turnaround (Arsenal snatch championship defeat in March 2003)

8. Surpassing Liverpool’s nineteen league titles (to be confirmed, Confirmed May 14th 2011. 2010/2011)

9. Panorama accusations (after which, AF refuses to give interviews to BBC, 2004)

10. You’ve gotta be joking ref! (FA punishment for various comments about referees, 2011)

First impressions

The stories provide a wealth of information about one of the most successful leaders in Football of all time. They provide ‘compare and contrast’ opportunities with two other great managers (Wenger and Mourniho). They remind us that leaders are humans with human faults and weaknesses. A besotted fan might find plausible explanations to explain dressing-room outbursts like the one which speeded up David Beckham’s departure as a strength. Leadership theories might treat this as an unintended consequence rather than part of a grand strategy to get rid of David Beckham.

Critical incident analysis

Professor Cathy Cassell is a distinguished management scholar and long-time football supporter. She teaches her students at Manchester Business School qualitative research methods, including critical incident analysis. This approach helps a researcher identify the various themes which recur within a set of stories and their critical incidents. So come on Cathy. Let’s be ‘avin you. How about putting Sir Alex under the microscope on your courses next year?