Australian Open 2016 Men's Semi-Final
The question, can Roger Federer win another grand slam title is in the minds of tennis enthusiasts around the world. At age 34 his game continues to appear sharp and over the past couple of years has become an even more offensive player. Its clear he is motivated to win another slam as he has continued to play a full schedule. Even with his apparent intentions, does he believe he is worthy to hoist a grand slam trophy over his head one more time? Does he feel Worthy to Win? This is the question that all players have to answer yes to in order to breakthrough mentally. If I had the chance to talk with Roger here are FOUR MENTAL POINTS that I believe will make the difference for him in his match-up against Novak Djokovic. As you read through these four points ask yourself the question; What do you think would make the difference for you the next time you play against someone you have struggled to beat?
1. Be Prepared for an Early Start - Tennis is a momentum game and you need to have the belief that you can come out early and play your “A” game in the first set. Nothing more, nothing less. In the past grand slam matches with Novak you have had slow starts. With a “I have nothing to lose” mentality and a “I have everything to gain” thought process you can come out of the blocks solidly and confidently.
2. Find Distance from the Need to Win – Know that you are capable to win but forget about all your other grand slam victories like you have something to defend. You have nothing to prove, the tennis world knows your accomplishments are second to none. Just prepare for this match. Being single minded in your commitment to believe the work you have put in is enough and your game is ready. Let go of any other aspects of trying to control the outcome.
3. Don’t overthink the importance of the event - With your struggles with Novak in the past few grand slams its important to be prepared to play this one match. So you haven’t won a slam since 2012 – that’s in the past. You are playing solid tennis now and have the opportunity to trust your game and believe that you have the tools to get it done. Don’t over-think the importance of winning another slam – you have done that 17 times. Just play the match.
4. Take a hint from Gilles Simon: Be prepared to Suffer - Resist the urge to over-play and bail out of points– stay within your game, focus on percentage targets and wait for the right opportunities to be offensive. This will require a ton of physical work so accept that fact and be committed to work every point relentlessly. Build the points and the opportunities will come as the match progresses.
In the work I do as a mental coach I often hear coaches and parents say, “I know he/she thinks way too much before certain matches. How can we help him/her to not be so caught up in their head before important tournament matches?” One aspect of thinking too much before match-play is players predicting what will happen in the match. Making a pre-competition assessment is a psychological challenge that all high level performers are faced with at times. You can assess on either side of the outcome. One side includes the thought, “I have the win in the bag – there is no way I’m going to lose this one” The other side can begin prior to the performance by the idea coming into your mind that you are not good enough to win. This idea of accepting defeat prior to the event often occurs in the back of your mind, meaning that you are not consciously thinking about it, It’s more of an uneasy feeling that turns into tightness as the competition nears and eventually panic and self-destruction once you start competing.
In my book, Worthy to Win I make the point that seven out of ten performances are pre-determined before the competitors walk onto the playing field. One common reason is that upon assessing their competition, performers can fall into the trap of the “awe factor”. The result of this mindset is that as soon as anything goes off in the performance they will experience a panic response that can lead to a full-on choke response. Its important to understand that all levels can fall victim to the effects of this negative and doubting mindset. This mindset can begin prior to or in the early stages of the event by prematurally assessing your abilities or the abilities of your opponent and getting stuck in your mind regarding this over-analytical judgment.
Because of the internet it is all too easy to look up details on your upcoming opponent and begin to compare yourself to their status, ranking or former accomplishments. If you dwell on this too much it will find a way into your head and create a wall of pre-competition doubt. Another distraction can be talking with others who may have struggled with the same challenge and have become nay-sayers in their thinking. They may attempt to impose a “I couldn’t do it, so you cant do it” mentality into your thinking. Look for situations that validate that you can do it. This is the “if he or she can do it, I can do it” mindset. Learning to accept the upcoming match up and choosing to believe that you have what it takes is a mental skill that all performers need in order to make the jump forward in their mind. I call this jump taking a mental leap of faith. It requires the ability to focus on those things you can control and believe in yourself and your skill set and put your focus on your preparation. It also implies that you are not getting caught-up in excessive mental projections. Take it from the many who have dared to believe, never back down, and never say never!
A Great Example of Believing:
In July 2001, Goran Ivanisevic, although ranked 125 in the world on the ATP men’s pro tour, was given a courtesy wildcard allowing him to play in Wimbledon. He had previously lost three times in the finals of Wimbledon, and was currently having shoulder problems. Despite 125-1 odds, he believed he had what it would take to win. Match by match he moved toward the finals, a first for a Croatian tennis player. He shocked the world by defeating Patrick Rafter in the finals in a thrilling five set match that was the longest in the history of the tournament. Goran Ivanisevic became a Wimbledon champion because of his belief that he had a chance to win and managed the mental process of allowing his ability to come out without over-thinking what his opponents ability was.
This week I had the opportunity to coach players at the 52nd Annual Copa Del Café “Coffee Bowl” in San Jose Costa Rica. This ITF Junior event is a level 1 event and has had some big name winners in the past. I walked up to the “Past Champions” board and was surprised to see how many great players had played this event as juniors. Among those notable past champions/finalists are Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Madison Keys and Noah Rubin.
On the first night of the main draw there was a celebration that took place on center court including a fireworks display and televised matches for the players who were featured to play on center court. It seemed that the level of excitement was off the charts and I imagined that the entire Costa Rican tennis community had come to watch these world-class juniors battle for the title. My mind wandered to the thought of how exciting it would be as a player to be featured as one of the center court matches in front of this large crowd. In looking at the impressive list of past finalists and champions it dawned on me that they all had to learn to deal with that pressure and perform in front of a crowd at events like the coffee bowl as juniors. The ITF junior circuit is the testing ground for future ATP and WTA players.
Center court is where all champions end up. Think of all the pro tournament titles around the world and how in the end the final rounds are all played on center court with a crowd watching. This can be a potentially stressful event in the mind of someone who has never been in that position or has a built up fear about being on a big stage. All champions need to get over the anxiety of playing in front of a crowd if they are to rise to championship status. There is not one national, collegiate or grand slam champion who hasn’t dealt with that dilemma. As a mental coach I have heard players talk about how the crowd affected them in a negative way. “I felt so much pressure to play well” is something that is a common fear. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of everyone” is another one.
One of the core mental needs of competitive athletes is the need to be validated by others. How players appear to their peers, coaches and parents can become a big issue in the mind of junior players. This is an aspect of mental development that players need to learn how to manage. Letting go of being overly “needy” to be accepted by other people is the elephant in the room that needs to be confronted. This is where distancing from the “need to win” is huge. Admitting and accepting that you can’t control everything in a match or your opponent is one way of finding the distance that can help you to just focus on your execution and play your very best. Believing that your best is good enough is also a big part of the mindset that will help you to deal successfully with the stress of being on-stage when the pressure is on.
Worthy to Win