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Mental Skills Training for Tennis Players: An Added Skill Set for the Strength and Conditioning Coach

Greenwald, Jeff H MA

Strength & Conditioning Journal: August 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 4 - p 94-97
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181b0b2a6


Mental Edge International, Corte Madera, California

Jeff H. Greenwald is a psychotherapist and sport psychology consultant with Mental Edge International, Corte Madera, California.



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Given the individual nature of competitive tennis, helping junior tennis players develop a sense of autonomy, personal mastery and intrinsic motivation critical to their long-term success in the game. In one study conducted by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, coaches reported that an excess focus on winning was the number one parental factor impacting the players they work with (9). As parents and players appear to be more focused on outcome than ever, strength coaches are in a difficult yet opportunistic position to help their tennis players shift focus from outcome to mastery. Applying the following strategies may enhance strength coaches' understanding of the parent-athlete culture and offer them tools to enhance performance and reduce parental control.

Increasing a player's sense of autonomy, enhancing task focus, and improving the emotional connection between the strength coach and the player may increase the likelihood of success and enjoyment among tennis players and their families. Given the limited research on the relationship between strength coaches and tennis players and the application of mental skills in this milieu, this article draws on studies done among coaches, players, and parents. Tennis coaches and strength coaches have similar objectives-developing positive relationships and training protocols that facilitate performance.

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Self-determination theory (SDT) has become a popular motivational framework for studying sport-related issues. SDT is built on the presumption that human behavior is motivated by 3 primary psychological needs: autonomy, competency, and relatedness (7). For example, when players feel they are choosing to engage in specific activities on their own, without the presence of external pressures, they are satisfying the need for autonomy. As players train their mind and body in this way, they will improve and will see an increase in their level of confidence. The increased perception of competence and self-determination that comes from a sense of autonomy will, in turn, raise their intrinsic motivation (8). Managing intrinsic motivation is relevant to strength coaches because they have the ability to influence players to spend the countless hours they need to become physically fit or to practice their skills for many hours a week, sometimes without immediate reward. Most importantly, players' intrinsic motivation levels can be directly affected by their support team, such as feedback received after performance or during training, or by specific mental skills interventions discussed at the end of this article.

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Researchers consistently identify parents as having the most influence on the psychological development of children. As a result, children develop beliefs in their abilities, maintain certain standards, and acquire sport-related value systems based largely on the influence of their parents (14). Parental support and praise have consistently been found to enhance children's perceptions of their athletic ability, enjoyment, and positively influence their interest and involvement in sport (3). Alternatively, unrealistic high parental expectations, pressure, and criticism have been linked to decreased enjoyment, interest, and beliefs in athletic ability, less intrinsic motivation, and more stress among youth athletes (12). In fact, one study found that interpersonal relationships have an impact on adolescents' fear of failure (6). The parents of these adolescents described themselves as demanding high levels of performance from their children at a young age.

In another study, 61% of junior tennis players revealed that their parents have caused them embarrassment during tennis matches while 88% of parents reported that they became at least moderately upset with the athletes (15). The same parents indicated that they did not realize the impact that winning had on the young players' emotions. A child who views winning a tennis match as the most important goal due to his/her parents' expectations and negative behaviors is at risk for a loss of intrinsic motivation and diminished sense of autonomy.

Therefore, it is increasingly important for the entire support team working with junior tennis players to be positive role models and understand the stressors of their athletes. Strength and conditioning coaches have a unique opportunity to act as a “buffer” when this type of pressure becomes apparent and can help athletes develop more resiliency through effective communication and mental skills used during training sessions (e.g., imagery, relaxation, and positive self-talk). These skills have been found to facilitate performance.

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It is suggested that effective communication between strength coaches, athletes, and parents is one of the most critical skills in becoming a successful coach. In some sport psychology literature, this skill is described as “communication competence” (10). As more and more players are subjected to parental pressure and extrinsic rewards (such as rankings, college scholarships, and opportunities in professional tennis), the coach must be able to identify players' perceptions and emotional state to optimize physical training protocols and facilitate performance. For example, strength coaches are likely to find themselves in situations where they must motivate athletes following a loss, manage differing expectations among players and parents, and provide tennis-specific strength and conditioning to address key improvement areas, all of which are enhanced with effective communication skills. Specifically, the communication variables considered here are reflective listening, perceived ability to self-disclose appropriately, and the use of positive reinforcement.

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Strength coaches' listening skills are improved greatly through reflecting and empathy, which is described as the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others and understand how they might be feeling or thinking. Empathy is regarded as a fundamental skill that facilitates effective communication. In one study, adolescent athletes reported that they preferred a coach who was empathetic and supportive (4). To improve empathy, it is suggested that strength coaches focus on listening to their athletes-in both content and body language-particularly following a loss. During physical training sessions, strength coaches can communicate an understanding of the disappointment an athlete might feel first before offering any statement intended to motivate him/her or change his/her mood state. For example, a strength coach might say, “it sounds as though you poured your heart out. I can imagine that was a tough one to lose after all the hard work you've put in.” Empathy can also be useful in defusing the defensiveness parents may feel when confronted to change their behavior. Acknowledging parents' commitment to their child's development (empathy), while setting appropriate boundaries (no-parent policy during training sessions), may be the most effective approach to help increase players' autonomy while diminishing excess parental control.

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Many coaches and players report that parents place too much emphasis on winning (9). As a result, players appear to be externally driven at a very young age. This extrinsic motivation has been positively linked to increases in anxiety among athletes (7). Players also receive constant instructions on how they can perform better and improve upon past performances. Periodic and appropriate self-disclosure-the communication of personal material relevant to the athlete's circumstance-can help normalize players' negative feelings, reduce anxiety, and create an important bond between strength coaches and their athletes. Coaches who possess the ability to share personal setbacks will likely gain more respect from their players and be perceived as encouraging. Male coaches in particular who can express themselves emotionally, both verbally and nonverbally, may be perceived as having more skill in balancing the needs of their athletes and effectively implementing their own communicative agenda simultaneously (10).

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Strength coaches can create interactions that increase players' self-confidence by praising players' demonstration of autonomy. Some studies demonstrate that how players perceive coaches' behaviors may influence their level of enjoyment (2) goal involvement (16), achievement motivation (6), and self-perceptions (1). Some coach training programs conducted in the United States have demonstrated that coaches who changed the quality of their interactions with their athletes by becoming more encouraging and supportive have seen an increase in self-esteem among the athletes (5).

Autonomy-supportive coaching includes such practices as giving athletes more choice in the context of a workout, providing more explanation for the purpose of particular tasks and training guidelines, avoiding the use of criticism, acknowledging the athletes' feelings and perspectives, providing opportunity for athletes to act independently, and avoiding behaviors that promote players' extrinsic motivation (5). Strength coaches who recognize the importance of providing athletes with these opportunities can diminish the potential negative impact of parent's behavior.

The most influential coaching behavior that appears to be linked to self-confidence is praise for autonomous behavior. In some studies, this supportive style of coaching has increased a sense of competence among athletes. Praise may be a particularly effective coach behavior as it indicates a very clear and direct communication between a coach and player that may signal the closeness of the relationship (relatedness) and the coach's acceptance of an athlete's performance or ability (competence). Process-focused praise that highlights behaviors (e.g., “great job finishing that last exercise”) instead of the person as a whole (e.g., you're a fit player) is now believed to cultivate a sense of mastery in adolescent athletes. In contrast, praise that tends to compare young players with one another, focuses too much on outcome or makes players question their ability, can undermine intrinsic motivation and self-confidence (5).

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Goal orientation has also received a tremendous amount of attention in the past decade. Many athletes have reported that thoughts not connected to the task at hand interfere with what should be their only focus-personal performance. Known as cognitive interference, a task irrelevant, self-preoccupied style of thinking appears to include components of worry over performance (11). To help strength coaches better understand the motivations of their players, goal orientation will be explored to determine whether intervention strategies may be useful in the context of the strength coach-player relationship.

According to this theory, people define success differently. Some concentrate on learning, mastery, and self-improvement, where the task is the major focus (task orientation). Others emphasize accomplishment and social comparison, where the presentation of the self is the point of reference (ego orientation) (11). In general, task orientation in comparison with ego orientation, especially when players lack some confidence, has been shown to be a more productive developmental path. It is proposed that an ego orientation can hurt performance when players spend too much time judging their ability because they drain their mental resources that could be better applied to the task at hand.

It is common to see a decrease in motivation for players following a loss. While some brief disappointment is normal in the competitive arena, it is important to pay attention to the degree of players' reactions and how well they are able to sustain effort during physical training sessions. Negative body language, poor effort, or derogatory self-talk may be indicators of an ego orientation that is developing in the context of their competitive tennis experience. Addressing these reactions during training sessions through effective communication and mental training can help young players focus on what is relevant during performance so that they can ultimately succeed.

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To accomplish these developmental tasks, it is suggested that coaches consider integrating the following strategies to impact players' motivation.

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Teach players to improve their self-regulation skills with the use of a heart rate monitor during training sessions. Athletes should monitor their heart rate between exercises and use diaphragmatic breathing when there is sufficient down time. To accomplish this, strength coaches can teach athletes to master diaphragmatic breathing, which is a task focus that effectively shifts their attention to an activity within their control. By teaching players to lower their heart rate in the gym, they will be better trained to use this strategy on the court between points. Diaphragmatic breathing requires players to breathe in through their nose on the count of 4, holding for 1 second, and releasing out through their mouth for a total of 6 seconds. To use a shortened version, a 4-second inhale and 4-second exhale will also be beneficial. It is recommended that players use this technique regularly between sets or specific cardiorespiratory exercises or after the workout while stretching. Strength coaches may also have their players use diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes prior to the workout to promote mindfulness, reduce tension, and improve the quality of sessions. Meditation practice through breathing practice has been shown to enhance neurobiological activity in the brain that can help players sustain focus over a longer period (13).

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Use teachable moments through positive “reframing” or self-talk during training sessions when players express negative self-defeating thoughts to promote autonomy. Reframing is a process whereby the coach would offer alternative viewpoints of the same situation that expands perspective. For example, when pressed during physical training sessions, it is common for players to tell coaches that they cannot perform a particular task due to fatigue or lack of confidence in their ability or fitness level. It is suggested that strength coaches reframe this negative belief by stating something like, “You can do it” and then asking the player to repeat this statement.

When the player is successful, there is a golden opportunity to then use praise, “You can accomplish more than you think,” to increase players' sense of autonomy through an experience of mastery. In addition, it is suggested that strength coaches consider filtering out and reframing all ego-based communication from athletes and parents (results, comparisons, etc) and reinforcing only task-related information that promotes intrinsic motivation and mastery.

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Practice using empathy and listening skills with players and their parents to improve rapport. This skill does not preclude you from establishing important boundaries (i.e., specific guidelines for the degree of parental involvement you will accept or player behavior during training sessions); rather, it is an overarching communication style that you use to optimize impact with your players. To be effective with this approach, strength coaches will want to use open-ended questions to help them better understand their players and follow-up with statements that demonstrate what they heard. Given that some studies are highlighting a gap between coaches' perception of how clear they communicate and what athletes report as being the case, an interpersonal approach that engages clients more should increase satisfaction and quite possibly performance itself.

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As only a small percentage of competitive junior tennis players progress to the professional level, it is important that strength coaches while training the athletes to reach their maximum potential also cultivate a healthy environment in the context of competition. While it is true that top-ranked tennis players have climbed the rankings with significant external pressure from parents and coaches, it is believed that the majority of players would benefit from positive relationships with their coaches, enhanced intrinsic motivation, and a style of coaching that teaches mastery and task focus.

Strength coaches who communicate clearly with a supportive style while integrating mental skills into their training protocols should make a significant difference in players' motivation, performance, and ability to effectively manage adversity on and off the court.

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parental pressure; intrinsic motivation; autonomy; self-regulation; mastery; junior tennis; communication; self-efficacy

© 2009 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association