The Attitude of Champions

Written by Simon Capon for UK Tennis Magazine Edition #37

 It’s semi-final day. You have battled through the rounds, experienced every emotion available to mankind, including exhilaration, despair and everything in between.

All the hours invested in a training program that provides you with the ability to win those tough matches has led you to a place in the last four. The final is always the pinnacle moment of any tournament and you are one match away from it. This can be the moment when your state moves from one of focus on the job in hand, to one of desperately wanting to achieve the win and feature in the match that leads to the ultimate victory.

 Kim was a club player who was known for her fierce competitive nature. She always played to win and spent most of her practise sessions against the male players at the club. She would take on anyone who would push her and assist her in becoming the best player possible. But it was different with competitions, as she had never reached the semi-final stage, and during our conversation she was at the point clearly displaying visible signs of anxiety. It was the day before her semi-final match. Kim took a deep breath and explained how much she wanted to win this match. In her own words, she told me that it physically hurt. I asked her to imagine she was at match point, her opponent was serving to stay in the match. How was she feeling?  Without hesitation she said, I want the win so badly, I’m begging her to double fault. This was crucial. Her focus was what I call ‘going away from’. In other words, she was desperate to avoid the emotions and anguish of getting so close to victory, all her attention was on the result. This instantly ignites the emotional brain into action. As we have looked at in previous articles the emotional brain is programmed to avoid failure at all costs. I refer to the emotional part of our brain as the emotional brain for simplicity. The emotional brain is the least developed part of our brain and behaves in a very primitive way. It believes that failure is not only dangerous but potentially life threatening. In a primitive world, we had to land a successful hunt to survive. Failure was never an option. The emotional brain still has this out-dated belief and as a result will avoid any potential failure. When you feel any anxiety, nerves or fear, remember it’s your over protective emotional brain attempting to take over. We need to use the energy from it to better use, thus taking Kim from high level of fear to the same level of certainty and self-belief.

The new strategy requires a different attitude. Kim was in fear of the possibility of defeat. This must be replaced with a very different attitude by one of complete all-out attack. The only way to crush the worry and lack of commitment is to fully commit to a complete change in state. 

As always, we begin by adopting a strong physiology by standing tall, proud, shoulders back and head held high. Every step, every gesture is one of certainty. We now introduce the Sargent Major – this is your inner voice. However, this inner voice uses words of necessity with a tone of certainty. Your Sgt Major is your most loyal companion and coach. He/she metaphorically takes you by the hand and leads you to a place of sureness and conviction. An example of his commands would be: stand up tall and focus on the job in hand. Every volley, back hand, slice and pass, picking an exact spot to place the ball. (Picking an area can dilute focus, so always be specific). I didn’t come here to give it a go, I came here to execute each shot to the highest standard possible. Kim told me how she would on occasions still feel the presence of nerves, so I explained that she must first re-check her physiology (Any sign of nerves and she will certainly need to readjust and this will have an instant impact). Her Sgt Major would then tell 

her with the commanding tone “Nerves? I don’t have time for nerves. Get out of my face! I’m the assassin who dominates this court”. She then adds something that is vital, she looks at her opponent and say’s You’d better bring your “A” game today. I only want to compete against you while you’re at your best. If her opponent plays a weak shot again her Sgt Major steps in and commands “not good enough, give me everything you have.” This is the point she knows she is no longer retracting or merely surviving in a state of fear. She is now in a very different place that allows her to attack the with complete conviction and certainty.

You may have noticed that she isn’t focused on the result. The result is likely to produce a conflict on her new state and provoke concern’s if she begins to fall behind at any time during the match. Her focus is unconditionally on her performance because this is the only component she is in control over. The ability to exclude the result, current score and importance of the semi-final will ensure her emotions are kept under control. Kim understands that she doesn’t have to be a slave to the circumstances. She can place her awareness on her attitude, focus wholly on the shot she is playing and the result will take care of itself. We all play to achieve the best result possible and it’s not always possible to conquer, but to dramatically increase the chances of a successful outcome we can change our thoughts. Practise this short program and you will in time play the biggest matches to the standard you are capable of.

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