THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP TO PRACTICE AND PLAY AT YOUR HIGHEST LEVEL

THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP TO PRACTICE AND PLAY AT YOUR HIGHEST LEVEL

by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology

Consistent quality sleep is one of the most important aspects to playing tennis at the highest level. It is also one of the most ignored, especially among junior players. Lack of sleep causes reduced performance, poor emotional control, loss of motivation, decreased ability to concentrate, poor decision-making and shot-selection during matches, and a lowered ability to master new information and skills learned during practices. You will get tired more quickly during matches and your body takes longer to recover. Even injuries take longer to heal.

For most people, 7-9 hours of sleep is needed for good cognitive abilities, emotional well-being, and overall performance in daily life. Elite athletes require even more—at least an hour extra. Because of the long training days and how hard the body is pushed, high-level tennis players require a consistent 9-10 hours each night to perform at their best. Throughout the night, sleep goes through four cycles, or stages. These stages progress one by one (1 through 4) over the course of 90 to 100 minutes. After the body passes through each of the four stages, the cycle starts over again at stage 1. The goal is to complete as many full cycles as possible. The most important stage of the sleep cycle is the last one, which is why athletes need a lot of sleep to perform at their highest level during practice and matches—9-10 hours.

Follow these tips to improve your sleep hygiene (different practices and habits that help improve quality and length of sleep) and sleep environment to maximize on-court performance.

Sleep Hygiene

  • Maintain a consistent sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and night, even on weekends. Staying up too late and sleeping in on the weekends negatively impacts your sleep cycle for the rest of the week.

 

  • Put away all electronics with a screen (smart phone, television, video games, tablets, computer, etc.) at least an hour before bed. The blue spectrum light from these devices severely disrupts ability to fall asleep and sleep quality.

 

  • Turn your phone on silent and keep it out of arm’s length from your bed (even if you use your phone as an alarm clock).

 

  • Avoid food and drink (especially caffeine and fatty foods) within two hours of sleeping. For some, a small snack before bed might help sleep. If so, make it healthy.

 

  • Avoid stimulating activity within two hours of sleeping.

 

  • Do not use your bed for anything besides sleep (homework, watching television, etc.) because your brain will learn to associate lying in bed with being awake.

 

  • Take a warm shower before bed and brush your teeth well. The shower helps to relax the body and being clean has calming effects.

 

  • When you wake up in the morning, get out of bed immediately and into the lights. Turn your lights on and open the blinds. Your brain is expecting and needs bright light to keep the sleep cycle stable. Get up to your first alarm and do not hit the snooze button. Washing your face right away is helpful.

 

  • If you become tired during the day, take a nap if you have time. Make sure the nap is before 2:00 PM and is 30 minutes or less, otherwise it will negatively impact your sleep cycle.

Sleep Environment

  • Keep the temperature cool. It’s usually much easier to fall asleep in a cooler environment.

 

  • Keep the bedroom as dark as possible. Even tiny sources of light can impact ability to fall asleep. Your brain releases a hormone at night called melatonin that signals the body to begin falling asleep. Light sources, even if small, decrease the amount of melatonin released. Consider using an eye mask if necessary.

 

  • Make the bedroom as quiet as possible. If helpful, especially if needed to drown out other noise in the household, use a white noise maker to generate constant and peaceful ambient sound. Consider using ear plugs if necessary.

 

  • Your mattress, pillows, and covers should be high quality and as comfortable as possible. Pillow cases and covers should be cleaned frequently.

 

  • Keep your bedroom as neat and organized as possible. Your brain associates clutter with stress and organization with relaxation. For example, clothes lying on the floor and a disorganized desk actually makes falling asleep more difficult.

 

  • Keep your bedroom as clean as possible by vacuuming and dusting. Airborne particles negatively impact sleep.

 

  • Make your bed in the morning. Your brain is more relaxed at night getting into a made bed.
STOPPING THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL DURING A MATCH

STOPPING THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL DURING A MATCH

by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology

It’s love-all and the match is about to start. Practices over the previous week were productive, the player had a good warm-up, and the game-plan is clear—everything is seemingly in place to play at a high level throughout the entire match. Unfortunately, however, the match often doesn’t proceed as planned or desired. The player makes a few mistakes in short succession and the result ends up proving disastrous; he or she becomes frustrated, angry, and begins a downward spiral of negative emotions, poor shot-selection, and error after error. Before you know it, the match is over and confidence is now at an all-time low.

The first error or mistake usually doesn’t derail the player (unless he or she is particularly fragile), but often the next few errors or poor decisions cause a domino effect of mistake after mistake. At what point during the match is a player most susceptible to beginning a downward spiral? It depends on the player. For many, a downward spiral is most common after being up in the match by a considerable margin, maybe while attempting to close out a set or right after winning one. For other players, the downward spiral tends to happen after the opponent gains a slight lead (going down a break perhaps), during the big moments in the match, a streak of good play by the opponent, or even right near the beginning if the player doesn’t have a “perfect” start. The downward spiral is easy for onlookers to recognize, as it’s almost always comprised of negative displays of emotion, pressing or being tentative, poor decision-making, bad footwork, and tightness.

The downward spiral rarely happens to the best players in the world as they are able to quickly calm down, analyze the situation with clarity, and get right back on track. Susceptible players are too fragile, fearful, and perfectionistic to consistently play at a high level and win matches they are otherwise capable of winning. A couple of mistakes cause worry and fear, usually expressed as frustration and anger. When the player first becomes aware of the mistakes and feels the worry and/or anger, this is the critical moment—either go into the downward spiral or prevent it from happening all together. The goal is to prevent the spiral from happening right before it starts—as any coach or parent knows, when the downward spiral begins, it’s almost impossible to stop.

Preventing the downward spiral

Before discussing with players my method for preventing a downward spiral from happening, I like to tell a brief story originally told my Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning, with some adaptations to make it relevant to tennis.

One afternoon Josh was walking east along 33rd street in New York City. It’s important to look both ways before crossing the street, especially in Manhattan. Cars run red lights and many bicyclists ride the wrong way down one-way streets. Drivers are used to barely avoiding groups of pedestrians scattered all over the streets. Most New Yorkers seem untroubled by the continuous harshness of blaring horns, sirens, and speeding cars. Things usually flow just fine, but with a slim margin for error.

As he stood in the middle of the midtown rush, waiting for the light and lost in thought, he noticed an attractive young woman standing a few feet from him, wearing headphones and listening to music. He noticed her because he could hear the music coming from her headphones. Suddenly, she stepped off the sidewalk and right into the oncoming traffic. Josh imagined that she was confused by the chaotic one-way street, since he remembered that she first looked the wrong way down Broadway before crossing.

Right after she stepped onto the street, looking to her right, a bicycle flew toward her from the left. The bicyclist lurched away at the last moment, giving her a solid but harmless bump. This was the critical moment.. She could have walked away unharmed if she had just stepped back up on the sidewalk, but instead she turned and cursed at the bicyclist as he sped into the distance. There she stood, with her back to the oncoming traffic, screaming at the bicyclist who performed a miracle to avoid crashing into her. In the next moment, a taxicab then sped around the corner and struck the woman from behind. Josh continued on to his destination as the ambulance and police came, hoping that she would survive.

The woman’s first mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping in front of traffic. She was probably distracted by her music, and certainly was not present to the moment. Instead of reacting with clarity to the bicycle nudging her, she became angry and her judgment became cloudy. After a player makes an error or two, especially if they are fragile, it’s easy to worry and become frustrated that things aren’t going as well as they were just moments ago. Top tennis players are able to see the mistake, stepping into oncoming traffic, as a wake-up call. They do not overthink the situation, but instead calmly and quickly analyze the situation with clarity. They remain calm, as they know there is no reason to panic. Top players simply step back up on the sidewalk, learn from the mistakes, and keep playing with confidence, calmness, and a clear mind.

If a player is habitually susceptible to downward spirals during matches, it’s important to practice preventing them the same way one would practice a forehand, backhand, or serve—with attention and repetition. Understanding the previous story and metaphor is a great place to start, but it’s just the beginning. First and foremost, if a player maintains a long-term instead of a short-term vision—see #6 in on Improving Our Coaching To Help Players Reach Their Potential—a downward spiral is less likely. Next, commit to systematically practicing stopping downward spirals from happening. After each match, the coach and player should calmly discuss and analyze what happened—helping the player come closer to understanding, locating, and noticing the origin of the downward spiral. During practice or a practice match, the coach can point out to the player when a downward spiral looks to be starting. The player needs to be open to the dialogue. As soon as the player makes a few mistakes and feels the negative emotions coming, he or she can take some deep breaths. Nothing is more simple and powerful at bringing your attention back to the present moment than focusing on the breath.

Because on-court coaching is not permitted at tournaments, the player needs a way to practice preventing downward spirals from occurring while in matches. Before the match, have the player take an index card and write some brief bullet-point notes to review on changeovers. The index card can remind the player to maintain a “long-term vision,” to “notice the signs of a downward spiral,” “breathe,” and to simply “step back on the sidewalk.” After the match, the coach and player should analyze how well the player did with recognizing and stopping the downward spiral. With committed practice, players can get better and better at preventing downward spirals from starting, consistently play at a high level matches, and come closer to reaching their potential.

HOW TO GET PLAYERS TO IMPLEMENT IN MATCHES WHAT THEY ARE WORKING ON IN PRACTICE

HOW TO GET PLAYERS TO IMPLEMENT IN MATCHES WHAT THEY ARE WORKING ON IN PRACTICE

by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology

It is no surprise that players want to win when they play tournaments, but an obsessive focus on winning often severely hinders the development of their game and ability to improve. Tennis requires the development of finely tuned skills in many areas: forehand, backhand, serve, and volley technique, footwork patterns and movement, concentration, confidence, emotional control, shot-selection, strategy, and tactics. These areas are supposed to be continually improved in practice and then, hopefully, implemented during matches. Unfortunately, this proves challenging for many players. Over the years I’ve frequently seen coaches and parents frustrated when their player (or child) doesn’t seem able or willing to implement during tournaments what is being worked on in practice. I want to give some advice on how to help a player make this necessary change.

When training to be an elite tennis player and maximize your potential, it’s important to realize the difference between being in a competition state versus a building stage. During a competition state, the focus is on trying your best to win the match—using any tools at your disposal to get the job done and come away with the victory. But sometimes its important to have a time period for just building and improving. When you’re in these building moments, the right mindset is crucial. These matches need to be used purely as opportunities to get better—improving strengths, eliminating weaknesses, altering technique, and focusing on “playing the right way”—the way that is aligned with the player’s and coach’s long-term vision for their game. The focus cannot always be on winning—because if so, it will be impossible to make the necessary improvements to maximize potential and reach the top. Professor Cheng Man-Ching (1902-1975), considered one of the greatest Tai Chi masters in history, refers to this willing to sacrifice winning for improvement and focusing on a long-term vision “investing in loss.”

Unfortunately, too few junior players, and even professionals, appear willing to invest in loss—they continually make the same mistakes repeatedly during matches by reverting back to old, ineffective habits. Top coaches rarely make the mistake of not understanding the importance of utilizing building stages during tournaments (although it does happen), but many parents are unaware. If parents do not help send the message to the player that winning is not important during a building stage, the coach will be fighting even more of an uphill battle. Needless to say, step one is for coaches AND parents to understand the difference between competition states and building stages, and why building stages are necessary for maximum improvement and results.

Why are some players often unwilling or unable to implement in matches what they have been working on in practice?

Before fixing the issue, its necessary to first understand why its so hard for players to submit to the learning process and invest in loss. If this is not crystal clear in your mind, it will be challenging to deliver an effective message to the player. Players often attach part of their self-esteem and self-worth to their tennis results. If they win, they feel good about themselves as a person, and feel bad when they lose.

Players feel external pressure from their fellow tennis peers, who will often make comments such as, “How could you lose to him?”, “Don’t worry, you’ll beat her easily?”, or “What is your ranking?” These comments are just the tip of the iceberg of the pressure players put on one another. External pressure frequently comes from parents as well (even when parents don’t believe they are a source of pressure) and internal pressure from the player’s own insecurities. Many players are so heavily focused on the judgment of others that their primary objective, usually unconscious, is to look good in the eyes of their peers, parents, and coaches. When players get into a match, they stop focusing on implementing what they have been working on in practice and become consumed with winning. They are afraid to stop old habits because those habits are comforting. If a player is concerned with winning during a building stage, the body tightens up and reverts back to the old way of playing. They don’t learn from their mistakes—practicing and playing matches is motivated mainly because they just want to win. They have a short-term versus long-term vision. Refer to point # 6 in Improving Our Coaching To Help Players Reach Their Potential for more information on having a long-term versus short-term vision.

How can you get players to invest in loss?

The goal is to help the player understand the purpose of investing in loss, how well it will work, and to understand and overcome the fears getting in the way. How can you do this effectively? First, it’s important to explain to them the difference between a competition state and a building stage. Make the distinction clear. Let them know that you, as their coach or parent, are not concerned with winning during a building stage. The player needs to truly believe that you don’t care if they win—that the sole purpose of the match is to work on their game. If the players is especially resistant, do not hesitate to tell them that they will probably lose while implementing what is necessary to get better. Explain to them the importance of having a long-term versus short-term vision. Consider asking them if they had the ability to look into the future and trade months and months worth of first-round losses for winning the sweetest and biggest tournament they could imagine (perhaps even a grand slam), would they take the deal? The answer will invariably be a resounding, “YES.”

After being clear with the player, and making sure the parents are on the same page, use your relationship with him or her to ease the fears preventing them from “playing the right way” during matches. Let them know that you are aware of what they might be thinking or fearing. Tell them you understand that they are feeling scared to look dumb, lose, and be judged by others, but that it’s the best and fastest way to get exponentially better and reach their goals. Talk to them about giving into the learning process and doing the right thing without reverting back to old habits. Help them realize that most people do not realize what it takes to be the best—and that you and the player are a team, working together to reach greatness. State confidently and frequently that it does not matter what others think and promise them it will be worth it in the long run. And again, make it clear with your entire heart that you are not concerned with the result of the match—you just want them to work on the right things. Let them know that it will be tough at first, but you will support them endlessly and that it will get easier each match. Tell them to not worry about looking bad on the path to greatness, as the results will come soon enough. As said by one of my favorite masters on effective learning, Josh Waitzkin, “Great ones are willing to get burned time and time again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.”

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