The recently completed US Tennis Open provides excellent examples of the tensions and anxiety that reduce performance. We look at the stories and what the top players do to overcome the problems of ‘tensionitis’, and suggest relevance to business leaders.
Let’s start with the stories that emerged as the tournament unfolded, before looking at the tensions which might have been important as factors in their outcomes.
First, there was talent and courage of the players which gave so many moments of high drama.
The Serena slam story did not have the intended fairy-tale ending. Instead it had a quirky, unexpected and delightful conclusion.
The clash of the titans when Novak and Roger met was as heroic as might have been expected.
The Big Serving Guys (BSGs)
The Big Serving Guys (BSGs) such as Eisner and Anderson did a lot of damage in earlier rounds, putting out seeded players including Kai Nishikori and Andy Murray. But the BSGs all eventually stumbled out to the very top players.
In this respect I wanted to reserve the classification of BSGs for very tall players using their greater height to produce unreturnable serves. (‘unreturnable serfs’ as my predictive text put it, sounding slightly Scandinavian). Federer had a great serve which wrought havoc. But he fits into the rare category of a more normal-sized player with an exceptional serve.
The conclusion reached is that BSGs have developed a style of play which gives then advantages over the games in a set until a tie break is reached. In tie breaks the advantages are balanced out by their inexperience in the pressures of having to avoid dropping any point, particularly against top players who have been learning about the serving patterns of the BSG. This means BSGs win slam events more rarely than might be expected.
Tensions and performance anxieties
When we look more carefully, we find examples of how tensions influenced performance in numerous matches starting from day one to the finals of the last two days. No player was completely immune. Even Serena had been showing unusual signs of fragility under the great pressures of closing out the Serena slam.
The great struggle between Federer and Djokovic in the final again showed that even the greatest players have to deal with nerves as critical points approached. In that final, both the players mostly showed astonishing skills at what has been called Thinking Clearly Under Pressure (‘TEA CUP’). But clarity of thought is always fighting against more emotional processes. Put another way, as the sports psychologist Jim Peters puts it, we all have our inner chimp to control.
Some points for reflection
Point 1. However Godlike we treat them, even the greatest players have to deal with the tensions of the moment. They may just have exceptional control over them rather than being controlled by them.
Johanna Konta and Simona Halep each could be taken as an example of a player who overcome performance anxiety. In the past, each of these of these young players had suffered from serious problems of inconsistency which were holding back their potential. Joanna chose to work with a ‘mind coach’ who specialized in reducing anxiety pressures of financial managers. Her story became more widely noticed as she beat several top twenty plates as she built up a winning streak of eighteen winning matches. Simona’s story is even more remarkable. She turned to a new coach partly to develop her serve into a powerful weapon. She also confessed she needed help as she had lost all confidence under pressure. Under her new coach, Simona moved up to World No 2.
Point 2. Performance anxiety is deep-rooted but can be controlled. The player may find it easier with a new mental approach introduced by a new coach.
John Isner had won 108 service games without one loss in this year’s and part of last year’s US Open. But when Federer took him to a tie break and unleashed another service winner of his own, Isner abruptly hit the wall and could not make a first serve. Performance Anxiety or the dreaded ‘Yips’ had taken over his play.
Point 3. When a playing strength which has brought success is not working successfully, the tensions mount. An automatic pilot action is interrupted and the player starts thinking, so ‘staying in the zone’ becomes increasingly difficult.
During the tournament, several players found ways of reducing tension often involving self-harm. Murray is well known for smacking himself in anger. Interestingly, having now dispensed with her mind-calming coach, has reverted to self-abuse slapping her sole vigorously. Kyrgios sulks, pretends to give, and calculates fines for racquet abuse. Coco V destroyed a racquet with such enthusiasm, that a U Tube of the violence went viral
Point 4 Violent physical action is a widely-found mechanism for tension release. There may be diminishing returns on such approaches though the effect known as habituation. The press is essentially defined as a decline in response for a specific applied stimulus.
Rafa Nadal is a case study of tensions nearly overwhelming a great athlete. The symptoms are easier to identify than to remedy. After a period of near invincibility on clay courts, Rafa sustained serious injuries and time out. On returning to tournament play he was clearly no longer invincible. While this period of recovery was to be expected, but other players realised they had a chance to beat him. His loss on the clay courts of The French Open helped as the French say to ‘encourager les autres’
Nadal had slumped to No 8 in the rankings in the US Open before losing to the unpredictable Italian Fognini. At the press conference he showed his awareness that he had to his mind overcome his nerves even if he had lost the match
I fighted until the last point all the time, good attitude. Not enough to win today. I lost a couple matches this year like this. But the good thing is my mind allows me to fight until the end as I did during all my career. Sometimes this year I was not able to do that. So I am happy with that. I enjoyed the crowd. Was amazing support out there. Just very special feeling be out there with that support. I enjoyed that. I tried to fight until the last ball. I believe I did, but was not enough today.
Point 5 Rafa knew he had to overcome mental as well as physical problems in returning to the top table of the game. He seems to draw comfort that although he lost, he lost not because of nerves. However, this may not of itself be enough to deal with the problem. He has to date remained loyal to his ‘Uncle Tony and coaching staff. Maybe he will have to take the tough decision that Halep, Murray and others took to make progress.
Discussion is welcomed on the issues raised in this post.