Psych 'Em Out
Don’t think the mental game plays a big role in sports success? Ask David Ferrer about losing his cool.
Earlier this year at a tournament here in Florida, in the middle of a straight-sets loss, the Spanish tennis pro hit a ball toward a crying baby in the stands in attempt to silence the child. Although his opponent, Mardy Fish, was an equally skilled player—ranked No. 9 in the world to Ferrer’s No. 6—physically Ferrer could have won the match.
Mentally, he wasn’t up to the task. It was a rare mental breakdown from a player nicknamed “The Grinder” for his ability to outlast better players by forcing them into mistakes.
The sports world is littered with stories of athletes in the midst of losing games or seasons throwing tantrums, yelling at officials, bumping opponents and lashing out at fans. Although they might blame physical ailments (Ferrer said the loss was caused by indigestion), usually these meltdowns are the result of losing the game between the ears, not the game in the arena.
Solo sports, golf and tennis especially, are rife with opportunities for mental lapses. That also means opportunities abound to get inside your opponent’s head. If you keep your focus, you often can use basic psychology to unbalance your opponent mentally. Advantage, you.
“Think about (golf,)” says Gene Rochette, certified mental game coach and health and physical education chair at Community School of Naples. “From backswing until you hit the ball, it probably takes three seconds. Three seconds. If you shoot an 80, that’s 240 seconds or four minutes for 18 holes.
“So in a four-hour round of golf, you spend four minutes swinging the club, and the rest of the time you are thinking.”
So what are we doing in the meantime? We are beating ourselves up about the shot we just took.
In looking for an advantage on the links, there are two choices—planting seeds of doubt and full-on distraction. The latter is a bit bush league; think coughing loudly during your rival’s backswing.
But the first option can happen organically. Rochette says the key to winning the mental game in golf is to get out the negativity over a bad shot quickly and then forget it as you move on to the next one.
“You need to visualize the next shot,” he says. “How can you do that if you are thinking about what you just did?”
Golf, especially among friends, is as much about busting chops as it is keeping score. But subtle reinforcement of your opponents’ weaknesses can have a lasting impact. Just a simple comment—“Good shot, Capt. Slice”—can quickly get inside your opponent’s head.
Routines play an important role in how we feel when we are playing, Rochette says. Professional athletes often have legendary stories about their obsessive pregame rituals. Hall of Fame third-baseman Wade Boggs ate fried chicken before every game and envisioned himself going four-for-four at the plate.
You might not need to be that regimented, but some sort of structure matters both before you play and during a match or round. Little cues signal to your brain it’s time to focus on a familiar task. Whether you bounce the ball three times before throwing it up on a serve or take two practice swings before lining up behind the ball, consistency in preparation enables consistency in the game. So it goes without saying that knocking an opponent off a routine can break through his mental security, leading to sloppy play.
“When you are out of your routine, things tend to come unraveled,” Rochette says.
If your opponent plays methodically, speed up the game. If she prefers silence during a tennis match, your best Monica Seles grunt might help.
But there’s a danger in this approach: If your opponent plays well under duress, it can take his or her game to another level.
Sports psychologist Patrick Cohn, on his blog sportspsychologytennis.com, writes that if your opponent learns to “win ugly,” scoring points without her best stuff, then it makes her even better. He cites Rafael Nadal’s transformation from great player to elite as an example of what learning to play ugly can achieve.
And it doesn’t just change the game you are playing right then. “It not only gives them confidence during a match, but in future matches,” Rochette says. “Then they know, ‘Hey, I’ve done this before.’”
If another player is knocking you off your game, Cohn suggests reverting to the basics. If you’ve got a bread-and-butter shot, he says you should go to it. Don’t get overly concerned with technical aspects of the game. Play instinctively.
Another tennis great, Roger Federer, offers a different key to beating your opponents mentally—don’t let them see you sweat.
“He always looks the same,” Rochette says. “Doesn’t matter if he’s up or down.”
This throws opponents off because we get as many of our cues about how the match is going from watching the other player as we do the scoreboard. If you don’t get angry, slump your shoulders or look defeated after a bad shot, you are signaling to your opponent that you aren’t out of the game.
The ultimate way to throw off an opponent mentally is to wear him down physically, because players don’t practice the mental game the way they do a backhand or putting. When you are tired, an untrained mind is more likely to wander off the task at hand, leaving you vulnerable to mistakes.
“Most people don’t practice the mental side of the game,” Rochette says. “So when they need it most, they don’t have the focus.”