By Larry Lauer, PhD, CC-AASP
“I wouldn’t want to coach her, she is a head case!”“He will never be a great player. He is so mentally weak.”
Have you heard coaches, spectators, television and sport talk commentators mutter these words? I certainly have heard these jabs at very capable professional and amateur athletes, and it is frustrating to hear it as a sport psychology professional.
That is why Ana Ivanovic’s win at the French Open is a win for all the athletes that have suffered from nerves in the big match. You can beat your demons. You can show others (that would consider you a head case) that they don’t know you, and they underestimate your mental toughness…..
In last year’s French Open Final, Ivanovic admittedly had a bad case of nerves against Justine Henin and meekly went away in a blowout. This had some critics pondering whether Ivanovic had the mental toughness to win a slam. Her tough loss at the Australian Open only served to support those that didn’t believe Ivanovic had the mettle.
“It was very tough loss for me, and I had few sleepless nights after that, honestly,” said Ivanovic. “But, yeah, it’s something I learned from. I was again in that final, like in Paris it was much better but still, part of me was already thinking about possibly holding a trophy. So this time I really tried to change that and don’t think about that at all and just focus on my game.”
And change she did! Despite feeling nerves at times during the match (the match itself was described as a very nervous one), Ivanovic hung tough and kept battling. She allowed Safina to make the mistakes. Eventually Ivanovic was rewarded for her commitment winning the title 6-4, 6-3. She fought through the nerves and finished off her first grand slam.
The win was not without some nervousness, but Ivanovic is happy with it all the same. “Obviously you’re nervous”, admitted Ivanovic. “You want to make one step more and win a title. But, you know, the last two Grand Slams were great learning experience for me. I’m only 20 and it was my third final already, so that kept some pressure off me. Just trying to enjoy it and that’s what I did today.”
“I’m just really proud about my efforts today. It wasn’t [an] easy match. You know, it was a few mental games out there today, so I was really happy that in a key moment I managed to stay strong and calm, in the second set, especially.”
“Obviously there were a lot of emotions inside, but till the last point I tried to, you know, don’t think about the occasion and just focus on my tennis. So I was really happy I managed to do that today.”
Just because you have a history of nerves doesn’t mean you will always have nerves. You can overcome these demons. Ask the best player in the world, Roger Federer. He defeated his nerves to become the best player in the world. Yet, he still gets nervous at times.
“I felt the pressure. I’ve had an upset stomach, shaky hands, I’ve had it all,” said Federer talking about his nerves during the 2007 US Open.
“But it is just great to be back in a Grand Slam final and win it. I really enjoyed today and the entire two weeks.”
Federer’s quote is interesting. He felt nervous and had a great time! This shows the level of emotional maturity that Federer has. He understands that at times you are going to get nervous. He also recognizes that he can play through it and still win.
I think Ivanovic’s and Federer’s quotes highlight something very important. Mental toughness is not about being perfect, and it is not about 100% confidence and composure. It is as much about being able to deal with adversity, like feeling nervous in a big competition, by recognizing that it happens and playing through it.
For those of you out there that struggle with nerves there is reason for optimism. You can beat your demons like Ivanovic did at Roland Garros. And, this can be achieved by recognizing that nerves are a part of sport and that sport is not perfect. Finally, you might just want to hone your stress management skills so when the nerves appear you have a tool for dealing with them.
One method for beating your demons you read from Ivanovic was staying in the moment. That is when she was able to refocus back on playing the game and not on the impending championship or the nerves of trying to serve out the match. Ivanovic focused on the “productive”.
When you are in a stressful situation, try visualizing your game plan being played out or a specific tactic you plan to implement. This technique will help you stay in the moment and productively deal with your nerves.
Ivanovic quotes from Day 14-An interview with Ana Ivanovic-Saturday, June 7, 2008. Retrieved at http://www.rolandgarros.com/en_FR/news/interviews /2008-06-07/200806071212853882999.html
Federer quote from ROUNDUP: Federer overcomes nerves to write more tennis history. Retrieved at http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/226003
About the Author:
Larry Lauer PhD is currently the Director of Coaching Education and Development in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) at Michigan State University. His role involves working closely with the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and Think Detroit PAL to conduct high quality coaching education programs, training instructors, evaluating the program’s effectiveness, and developing curricular materials. In addition, Larry conducts cutting-edge youth sport research at the ISYS and develops resources for youth sport organizations, parents, athletes, coaches, and administrators. For instance, Larry has worked with USA Tennis to develop junior parent education presentations on getting started as a junior tennis parent and developing your child’s talent. Also, he has spearheaded the development of a book of mental skills and drills for junior tennis. At this same time, Larry completed a Ph. D. in Exercise and Sport Science, specializing in sport psychology, at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Larry has been consulting with athletes on performance enhancement and personal development issues for the past 8 years. He has worked with athletes from a variety of sports including tennis, ice hockey, soccer, cross country, swimming, figure skating, volleyball, gymnastics, and baseball. These male and female athletes have ranged from youth to collegiate to professional in their experience. Larry has been very involved in youth ice hockey in performance enhancement and reducing aggressive play. He has created a “Playing Tough and Clean Hockey Program” to help players develop emotional toughness and avoid dirty play on the ice. This Program is now being disseminated to youth hockey coaches through a partnership with the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association. Larry also has worked a great deal with coaches and parents providing educational presentations and resources, and private consulting. He conducts coaching clinics throughout the state of Michigan for high school and youth sport coaches, and parent education workshops. Larry has 7 years experience instructing in the USA Hockey Coaching Education Program. A former coach of baseball, hockey, tennis, and basketball, Larry has also received USA Hockey’s Advanced Level coaching certification. Larry served as hockey director for over two years in Philadelphia/South Jersey and Charlotte, NC. Specifically, he worked for the Philadelphia Flyers rink development department and Flyers Skate Zone for 14 months as a community youth ice hockey director.
Lauer & Associates, Championship Performance Consulting
Office Phone (517) 353-5395 Email: lauerl (at) msu.edu