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Mental Strength Needs Workout

Published: 02 Jun 2008 - 09:33 by raystrach

Updated: 03 Jun 2008 - 09:24

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How does a professional sportsperson miss a simple shot? We have all seen it:

  • The golfer misses a short put
  • The tennis player misses an easy put away volley
  • The Squash player, a simple drop shot
  • the cricketer bowls a wide 2 metres outside the stumps
  • the basketballer misses an easy lay up.
  • The football player misses a penalty shot

these are skills that the individual has played and practiced perhaps tens of thousands of times and yet, in a pressure situation a miss often occurs. The skill is usually done with extraordinary accuracy, so why does it happen?

As with any skill, there are some who have natural ability, but others are not so good. And just like other skills, mental skills needs to be practised and trained to improve. Added to that, there are many variables which affect mental abilities and, like a calf muscle or a hip flexor, there can be  injuries.  There needs to be a period of rehabiliitation.

Take Ramy Ashour, our most recent Squash prodigy. There seemed to be nothing stopping this teenager from taking the mantle as World number 1. The confidence with which he played was astonishing. You only needed to watch a few points of one of his matches and you could see the confidence that oozed from his persona. He had been a winner all his life - always better than anyone in his age group. He was virtually untouchable.

Then came a couple of injuries. He apparently recovered quite well, but shortly after,  got injured again. Another comeback, then probably his first shock loss to a lower ranked player. The question is, how much of the loss can be blamed on his lack of match fitness, and how much on  the damage all this has done to his confidence, not only in his ablility, but also the condifence in his own body to stand up to the rigours of pro Squash.

Talented young players often come through the ranks, taking all before them. They build up a very hard shell of confidence that can get them through tough situations, including the occasional loss. But what happens when that shell is cracked?

It all depends what is underneath the shell. Sometimes, not a lot. We do see some prodigies disappear as fast as they appeared. It can be evident with some of the female tennis players. Tiger Woods was winning majors at an incredible rate when he first hit the scene. Then he missed the cut in the British Open a few years back and struggled for a little while after. Whilst he has recovered to still dominate, his dominance is not as great as it was. He is a little more fragile and the other players know it.

Roger Federer has been in a similar situation recently. Evidently he has had glandular fever, which would have affected him quite badly. It will be interesting to see if it has any affect on his dominance in the longer term. Perhaps he has had the advantage of not really coming of age until he was mature enough to handle the success. Time will tell.

I am writing about this because i have been in the same boat for quite a while. I used to consider myself mentally tough. For a person without any talent whatsoever and with not a hell of a lot of athletic ability,  i was usually mentally tougher than my opponents. I got  the most out of myself.

As I started to play people with genuine squash talent and athletic ability that were a lot fitter than me, that mental shell would sometime crack. But as I played the top players more often, it helped toughen it up again.

More recently, I have had trouble with this part of my game, but right at the end of last year, the confidence started to return. I can best describe this confidence as CLARITY. Whilst I have lost a little of it in the last couple of months due to the lack of regular tough match play, I know that it will return.

Playing the top local player a few days ago, whilst being competitive, I missed a number of very easy opportunities, purely due to mental wekaness or lack of clarity. Depsite my loss, the team won into the final. With any luck, the vanquished team will win through the prelimary final this week to meet us again. We will see then if my confidence of an improved showing is justified or whether the shell needs further repair.

Whatever happens, I know that the continued competition will toughen me up more, and make me a better player.

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From rippa rit - 03 Jun 2008 - 07:53

Well, this sounds a bit like life.  It helps a lot if you can just get out of bed!  Now let's talk about sport or squash.

Each Monday I play social comp - an easier ball game - table tennis.  The negativity that is shown in some opponents, even though they are OK players, makes it difficult for them to win because of their lack of "fight".  I notice these little traits:

  • They often lead for 70% of the match and then when you really settle in to get all the ball back, retrieve their winners, they crack. 
  • Then little words come out of their mouth "I am not playing well"; even when they have lead 5 nil at the beginning. 
  • When the chips are down the opponent will try to do tricky serves and give away a few more points.

If this sounds like I am talking about you, click on the Mental Skills link and you will find hundreds of little hints to work on.  Take just one aspect at a time and try to bring it into your game until it becomes automatic. 

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