The Mind Game—Managing Competition

While your pre-match routine includes mental and physical preparation, every player is different with respect to what works for them. For some, a simple warm-up and relaxing before a match will help them toward a “positive path.” For others, a rigorous warm-up before taking the court is critical. James Willstrop (above), for example, works very hard when getting ready for his matches—building his heart rate up and generating a strong sweat

By Damon Leedale-Brown, Sports Scientist & Conditioning Specialist

In previous articles we discussed the concepts of ‘Playing to Win’ or ‘Playing Not to Lose’, and ‘Better by Mistake’. Let’s address these concepts as they apply to competition, and consider strategies that can help us become more capable of managing game day emotions and keeping us on a positive or gain-orientated path during matches.

Nerves Kicking In?

In sport it is not unusual to see athletes who are fearlessly competitive during practice suddenly turn into timid overly cautious performers during competition. It is normal to feel nervous or anxious as a match approaches, and for various reasons some players get more nervous or anxious than others. This has a lot to do with how a player is ‘mentally framing’ the task ahead of them.

Do you view an upcoming match as a great challenge to take on—an opportunity to get on court and express yourself—or do you perceive the match as a potential threat—an opportunity to fail against an opponent you believe you should win against, an opportunity to let yourself or others down?

Pre-Match Preparation

Consider what works well for you as part of you pre-match routine to attain the appropriate level of physical and mental readiness before you step on court. Remember that although the end goal of the pre-match routine is essentially similar for all players, the way they get to that point could be very different based on the personality traits and individual needs of each player.

Does listening to music help and, if so, what type of music? Do you do better with a vigorous physical warm up or prefer to focus on simulated movements with relaxation and flow? Do you find it helpful to chat with someone before you go on (coach, parent, friend) or do you prefer to be alone with your thoughts? Do you find visualization/mental imagery effective or have you ever tried this technique?

Stepping on court

The five minute warm up can and should be used effectively to help you get settled mentally on the court, and ready to make a strong start to the early part of the match.

Be assertive with your body language during the warm up, sending out a message to your opponent that you are 100% committed and prepared for the contest! Get your feet moving and work balls into different areas of the court so you have to move onto them. How often do we see players almost frozen in place during the warm up with no movement or sense of confidence in the task ahead? Try and push through any ‘jitters’, breathe deeply, relax the body and release the swing fully.

Use the warm up to assess how the court is playing (lively/dead/grippy side walls etc.) and give yourself positive thoughts based on your observations—‘front wall is a little dead so I need to use more height to get the ball through to length’.
Throw some different balls across to your opponent and see how they respond: do they deal well with balls coming quickly at them; do they cope with high balls; do they look uncomfortable moving into the front?

This positive mental approach to the warm-up should get you into a goal oriented/play to win mindset at the start of the match.

Next time, we will talk about carrying this approach into the actual match—particularly when the going gets tough.