How to avoid ‘self-handicapping’ behaviour



Originally published on 01/07/13

Accepting defeat can be a difficult thing to do. By nature, as tennis players, we often analyse what we did wrong rather than what our opponents may have done right and while assessing our own performance is essential to learning and improving, it’s equally important we don’t fall victim to making excuses.

“I’m playing so crap today!” “I have never played so bad in my life!” “This is not how I usually play!” We’ve heard it all from the lips of club players, junior stars and some of those in the professional ranks. When the focus should be on playing better, or finding a way to beat your opponent while not at your best, tennis players often like to verbalise their excuses out loud in a hapless attempt to let their opponent and those watching know that they would not be losing if it wasn’t for how poorly they were playing.

“It’s what we call self-handicapping behaviour,” says psychology expert Roberto Forzoni. “When you put your excuses in before you lose a match by verbalising something going wrong you’re telling everybody ‘this is not how I usually play’. You’re giving excuses to people.

“Players I work with need to be mentally tougher where they don’t have to rationalise to spectators, coaches or other players why they messed up on the shot, they just get on with it. Part of it is to, almost, put a tape across their mouth. Whether you made what you deemed to be a poor shot or a good shot is irrelevant in the whole scheme of things. What’s important is that you play your best tennis for as long as you can.”

World No.1 Novak Djokovic was once a temperamental type. Unable to hide behind a poker face and disguise his emotions, the Serb’s feelings used to play out in full through his body language, facial expressions and verbal outbursts. While many credited his gluten-free diet for turning around his fortunes, others acknowledge his new-found mental strength.

“He has a short memory now,” Pete Sampras once said of Djokovic. “He used to be temperamental and would let bad points linger in his head. But he turned it right around.”

Similarly to working on technique, fitness, agility and strength, players should also spend time working on their mental game.

“It’s about education,” says Forzoni. “The real issue is discussing it with the player and looking at how this negatively impacts on their performance. Take a video of their match and show them, ‘look, this is where you blew up and as a consequence four times out of five you lost the next two points’. Giving them an education on how badly that effects them is important.”

Understanding how negative body language and words affect performance is one of the first steps to improving your mental game. Until you acknowledge it, you can’t begin to work on it.

Sport is all about being as good as you can be throughout each and every moment and having the concentration and confidence to use your skills to their full extent in spite of the pressure. This philosophy requires bravery, the bravery to control your fear and to play freely without the tension that fear imposes – to PlayBrave.

This article appeared in tennishead Volume 4 Issue 3. Subscribe to the magazine today or download tennishead on iTunes.


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