Train your brain – The mental game

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by Charlie 1 Comment

What are athletes thinking in the heat of competition? What goes through an athletes head before a game winning shot? Wouldn’t we all like to know what Kane is thinking before a match or during training? What was Ben Croft thinking on the brink of his first tour win? In a way, we will never know. Perhaps the mystery is more intriguing. Here is my take on the mental game:

This subject is broad, challenging, interesting, and vital to our games. We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s 90% mental, 10% physical”. But what does that really mean? Is our brain so powerful that we are able to win or lose based solely on our ability to focus? Is my physical training not that important? After all, it is only 10%, right? Perhaps I should focus my efforts on the 90%, where it really matters. In reality, it is not exactly 90% mental, 10% physical. The physical training is just as important as the mental game. In fact, they go hand in hand. Your brain needs to be trained just like the rest of your body.

Much of our training is mental instead of physical. Every shot you hit, every sit-up, and every speed drill you do is strengthening the signal from your brain to your muscles. The more you practice, the more efficient these signals become, resulting in your brain using less energy to tell your body what to do. Each jump you take on a jump rope is telling your calf muscles to contract and pop yourself back up. The more we do this, the more efficient the signal becomes. We become better at things because of repetition, just like walking, eating and breathing. These activities take very little thought because of how much we do them. The same thing goes for sports. The more you practice something, the less you have to think about it, allowing you to stay calm in crunch time. One of the greatest coaches of all time once told me that the person who trains the hardest will always be victorious in a close match. The reason for this is that your body reacts to the severity of the moment. In a close tie-breaker, the body reverts to what it has been taught. As a result, the player who is more prepared is also more relaxed, doesn’t over-think, and executes the right shots. The player is comfortable because they have practiced  and pushed themselves to the point of mental exhaustion over and over again. This is the relationship between hard work and the mental game.

My least favorite drill to do is speed drills, which is why they are probably the best thing to do. The reason I dislike them is because I am only given 10 seconds in between sprints to help simulate a racquetball match. 10 seconds is not a lot of time when you are running full speed, try it sometime. This is where the mental training comes in. What is going through your head when you have 10 seconds in between rally’s? Is it positive? Does it change? Are you thinking at all?

Here is what I do: I focus on breathing, relaxing, and recovering. I take deep breaths in through my nose, out through my mouth, being one my body and recovering one breath at a time. I can feel the oxygen spreading throughout my arms and legs. I focus on getting rid of whatever pains I might have. My thoughts are simple and positive. “Breath, recover, etc”. Block out the bad, fill yourself with positivity. It has taught me to find my center as soon as possible. I have noticed that my recovery time has shortened and mentally I am ready for the next drill much sooner.

Practice these 10 seconds. Master them and be mentally strong. This time-frame is something we all share as racquetball players. Find your way of recovery. This is mental training.

For me, the mental game has been a learning process. I recently discovered that my weakest asset in competitive racquetball was my mental toughness. I wasn’t putting any effort into it, or at least didn’t stress the importance of it until recently. Once I became aware of how vital the mental game is, I realized that it was what separated me from many top players on tour. I decided to be more attentive to the my mental game as well as others. Here are a few tools that I have learned to use:

1) The Break Down
2) Visualization
3) Quiet Time
4) Positivity
5) Mental Warfare

1) When you think of all the mental collapses you have had, what comes
to mind? When did they take place? Before, during, or at the end of the match? For me, it is either the beginning or the end. The beginning is usually do to my lack of training. If I have not trained well enough I lose confidence before the match. On the other end, I find myself losing in tie-breakers because I am tired, mentally and physically. That is another result of me not training to my full potential. A good training technique to avoid this mental breakdown is to physically exhaust yourself before working on your shots. Do speed drills, core training, weights, or whatever you like to do for training. Then, practice all your shots. In doing so, you are forcing your brain to focus what little energy it has on each swing you take. This is not physical training, this is mental training. You are breaking yourself down to build yourself back up. Stay strong through the drills. Hit the ball hard, low to the ground, bend your knees, and make game-winning shots. I think you’ll find yourself feeling more comfortable in all stages of a match.

2) Practice visualizing yourself hitting shots. You can do this before the match, before bed, or any time you want. Close your eyes and picture yourself in the court hitting great shot after great shot. Feel it in your body when you do it. Forehands, backhands, serves, everything. Visualize the win. Visualize yourself hitting the winning shot. Strive for that moment.

3) Before I play I like to find a quiet place away from everyone else. This gets me back in my own head, more introverted. I am not the type of player that can socialize before a match. I need my space to unwind and mentally prepare. I like to listen to music to block out everything around me. I take deep breaths to help me relax. Many of us tend to stop breathing when we are nervous or anxious. It is ok to breathe, in fact, it is necessary. Remember to keep good positive posture. Allow yourself to fully sink into the zone of competition. Be mentally prepared before you even step on the court. Go over your gameplan and just relax. No wasted energy, just slipping into your own thoughts. It is the calm before the storm.

4) Stay Positive! It is no secret, positivity goes a long way. A simple way to stay positive in any setting is to repeat something simple like the word “Yes!”, or a phrase like “Get this point!”. This not only keeps the mind and body positive, it allows you to simplify your thoughts and stay calm in pressure situations. Try it for yourself. Find your positive word or phrase and repeat it in your head when you play. See what it can do for your game.

5) Practice the art of mental warfare. It wasn’t until I discovered the importance the mental game that I realized that my opponents had a mental game as well. In a game of momentum swings it is important to have control of your head, but equally as important to have control of your opponents head. Even the simplest comment to your opponent can break their concentration and end a momentum swing. Some like to call this “trash talking”, but it doesn’t have to be mean, or insulting. In fact, it can be nice. Even cracking a joke is a simple way to get your opponent smiling and a little too relaxed.

To me, there are two types of mental players in racquetball:

First, we have the player who plays better when irritated. This type of player needs that certain spark to fire them up. They like a fast pace match and get bored when it slows down. As an opponent to one of these players, it is your job to keep that spark buried and control the pace. Slow down the ralley’s. Do not allow the player to get in a rhythm. Try to be emotionless. Try to be their friend. Tell them “Good shot!”, or “Sorry!” after a hinder. We call this technique “Killing with kindness”.

Second, you have player who plays better when they are relaxed. They like to play their match with a controlled pace and no controversy at all. They like to keep their cool and get a friendly victory. As an opponent to one of these players, it is your job to make them as uncomfortable as possible. Be vocal, intense, and arrogant. Control the tempo of the match. Push the pace and get them frustrated. Be a pest, dive for everything and crowd on every shot. Remember, this player wants an easy win, so make it tough. Show them that you came to play today.

I am the first type of player. I play better when the pace is fast and the atmosphere is intense. The battle for me, and everyone else, is playing my own game. An example of this was the 2011 US Open. I played Alvaro Beltran in the round of 16. He won the first two games 11-5 and 11-0. It was not looking good. I felt off balance and out of rhythm. He was completely controlling the pace. Every serve, every shot, and every rally was played his way. In between the second and third game I came to the conclusion that I needed to play my game. I stepped up my power, I started yelling and I started diving for everything. Alvaro was looking to finish one more game and go home with an easy win, I could feel it. It couldn’t have worked out better as my change in attitude led me to win the next three games 11-3, 11-1, 11-5. I was shocked, to say the least. It was probably my biggest win to date, and I knew that it was nothing I did physically, it was all mental. I won because I countered my opponents style with one of my own. What is the lesson here? Control the pace and play your game.

What type of mental player are you? Discover it, learn it, master it.
The brain is a powerful thing.

Bonus material

As the referee for the tour I have been fortunate to officiate over 200 matches in my three years on the job (some may argue how fortunate I really am, but that is beside the point). I have clocked in almost 500 hours worth of officiating, that’s about three weeks. Through this experience I have noticed many things about the game. Unfortunately, these things do not involve the physical part of the game. When I am officiating, I am not watching for tendencies in players, I simply can’t. I am looking for two bounces, avoidable hinders, skips, etc. So if you were to ask me the tendencies of certain players, I would not be able to tell you any better than the other pro’s. The other thing I do besides make calls is control the flow of the match. What I mean by controlling the flow is that I need to control the time between ralley’s, timeouts and games, but I also need to keep the players calm and focused if possible. Let’s face it, bad calls happen, and what I’ve really learned over the years is how a match can change on a dime do to a questionable call. In my 500 hours of referee experience, I have seen meltdowns, incredible comebacks, injuries, fatigue, frustration, and everything in between. These moments do not stem from something a player is doing physically, it is something they are doing mentally. I have seen matches where the better player lost because of a mental
breakdown. I think we have all been there, I know I have. As a bonus, I often find myself taking criticism from the players, usually out of frustration. If a player is frustrated with the way the match is going, they direct their problems my way. This is like a front row seat inside the mental game of a player. It is a chance for players to express their frustrations, and I am all ears.

This is a teaser for my next blog: “Officiating on the IRT”

One Response

  1. Federico Alvarez says:

    Has being a pro referee made you a better player? If so, how much?
    How many hours do you practice by yourself on the court daily?
    What is the highest ranking you think you can achieve and how long do you think it will take you to get that ranking?

Leave a Reply