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.

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