Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl’s Mindful Psychological Techniques


Did you know that Andy Murray learned mindful mental techniques from Ivan Lendl? Read my Huffington Post article on
why Murray should reconnect with what Lendl taught him in order to overcome his mental lapses and win Slams again.

Also, get my free report The Mindful Guide to Tennis Confidence by signing up for my Mindful Tennis Tips Newsletter via the sign up box on the right of your screen.

If you have any questions about Mindfulness-Based Tennis Psychology (MBTP), feel free to email me here.

All the best,

Neil

Tennis Psychology

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Recent developments in sports psychology research are bringing fresh insights into tennis psychology.   There is now a significant and growing body of research evidence demonstrating that mindfulness meditation techniques enhance overall sports performance by increasing an athlete’s ability to function ‘in the zone’, by sharpening concentration and awareness and by improving accuracy.  In contrast, the old model of tennis psychology is based on Psychological Skills Training (PST), which research shows does not significantly enhance sports performance and can lead to a deterioration in performance.

PST theory suggests that athletes perform best when they are able to control their thoughts and emotions. In order to develop this ability, athletes learn PST techniques which seek to modify negative internal experiences and replace them with positive ones. But this approach simply encourages more cognitive activity (thinking), which draws the athlete away from flow states, and makes it less likely that he/she will enter ‘the zone’.

The Mindfulness-Based Tennis Psychology approach takes the opposite view – that athletes will perform to the best of their ability when they give up on trying to control internal experiences, and instead hold thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental awareness, accepting whatever their internal experience is at any moment. This non-judging acceptance frees the athlete to place his/her attentional focus on the task in hand, rather than grappling with thoughts and feelings.

In the mindful approach to tennis psychology, we accept that we cannot control the initial frustration we feel when we double fault or slam a smash into the net. With practice we learn to simply experience that frustration and any associated thoughts (ie. ‘Not again! What’s wrong with me today, why can’t I play? I’ve practiced that shot a thousand times’ etc) before choosing to refocus our attention on the task in hand – the next point – rather than ruminate between points about how badly we’re playing, or how we’re going to have to practice extra hard after this match is over to make sure we don’t hit shots like that again.

Gradually, by practicing the mindful approach to tennis psychology, you will find that your negative responses to missed shots and lost points decrease, and that you are increasingly able to brush off mistakes and get on with the job.

Djokovic’s Mental Strength

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Novak Djokovic may be the mentally toughest player in tennis, and the secret to Djokovic’s mental strength is mindfulness meditation.  The Serbian world number one reveals in his recent book Serve to Win, that mindfulness meditation enabled him to overcome self-doubt, recover quickly from mistakes and fulfil his potential as a tennis player.

Djokovic writes that since practicing mindfulness meditation he is now able to notice negative thoughts and let them pass by.  He explains that he can now focus fully on the present moment, processing pain and emotions without getting caught up in unnecessary thinking.  Djokovic’s mental strength, brought about by mindfulness practice, has resulted in him being the most consistent of the big four players since 2011.

Djokovic’s use of mindfulness meditation has also helped him become one of the greatest comeback players of all time.  His remarkable victories from match point down against Roger Federer at the US Open in 2010 and 2011, and against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2012 French Open were only possible because of Djokovic’s ability to remain calm on the big points and allow negative thoughts and fears to be there without engaging with them.

Djokovic’s mental strength, underpinned by mindfulness, is also expressed in his impressive sportsmanship.  Djokovic is the only one of the big four to regularly applaud excellent play by his opponents. In defeat, Djokovic is generous and dignified.  Despite tough losses this year to Nadal at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadow, and to Murray at Wimbledon, Djokovic offered warm and genuine congratulations to both, and expressed appreciation for the privilege of playing them.

Any tennis player can learn mindfulness meditation.  By practicing the meditations in the Mindfulness-Based Tennis Psychology course, you will be able to enhance your mental strength, as Novak Djokovic has.

How to Overcome Tennis Anger in 2 Mindful Steps

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Go to any tennis club the world over and observe people playing.  Before long, you’ll see rackets thrown to the ground and screams of frustration and self-criticism at missed shots.  Tennis anger is common, and all tennis players experience it to some extent.   Even if we don’t lose our temper, or show outward signs of anger on court, we often get angry inside.  But as I wrote in my last post about John McEnroe, anger can limit our ability to play to our potential and can seriously dent our tennis confidence.

So, how do we overcome it?

Overcome Tennis Anger Step 1 – Notice and Acknowledge Anger

Before we can overcome anger, we need to become skilled at noticing when anger arises.  Most of the time we’re on automatic pilot, and we experience our thoughts and emotions in a kind of foggy blur.  To get out of autopilot, the next 3 times you play tennis, commit to the intention of noticing anger.  When you realise you’re angry on court, acknowledge it by saying silently to yourself, ‘there’s anger’.  Then take a few moments, before playing on.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong with anger.  It’s a normal human emotion, and we don’t have to get rid of it.  If we try to suppress it, it’s likely to re-emerge with more force later.  So, when it arises, just let it be there.  All you need to do is notice and acknowledge it.

You can continue this practice off the court at any other times when you feel anger arising (for instance, at work or at home). Practicing off the court will help you notice anger more effectively on the court.

Once you’ve practiced this step over 3 consecutive tennis sessions, move on to Step 2.

Overcome Tennis Anger Step 2 – Redirect your Attention

Now, whenever you play tennis, after doing Step 1 (noticing and acknowledging anger), redirect your attention to your breathing for 3 breaths.  You can tune in to your breathing in your nostrils, in your belly or in your chest, or anywhere where your breathing is vivid to you.  After the third breath, simply continue playing.

So, the whole practice now looks like this:

a) Notice Anger
b) Acknowledge Anger by Saying Silently, ‘There’s Anger’.
c) Redirect Your Attention to Your Breathing for 3 Breaths, Before Playing On.  

Practice Step 2 for a few weeks, and you’ll notice a real difference in how you respond to tennis anger when it arises on court.  These 2 Steps can be enhanced by regularly doing mindfulness meditations, which will help you develop your skills of noticing anger and redirecting your attention, as well as improving your on court concentration and ability to play in the zone.

John McEnroe and the Mental Game of Tennis

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No player exemplifies the mental challenges of tennis quite like John McEnroe.  His epic outbursts  provided colour to many a match, and the infamous ‘You cannot be serious!’ episode at the 1981 Wimbledon has gone down as one of the most iconic moments in sports history.

But would McEnroe have been a better player without the tantrums? The great man himself certainly thinks so.   He writes in his autobiography, ‘Serious’, that if he had had the ability to remain calm, he would have performed better.  Of course, one might say that with 7 Grand Slam titles to his name,  McEnroe was already performing to the top of his ability. But after his golden year of 1984 (42-match winning streak + victory at the US Open and Wimbledon), McEnroe never again won a singles Grand Slam.  Although he often played well in his later years on tour, he never made it past the semis in any of the Grand Slams, and had difficulty getting to grips with the high power games of younger tennis stars like Boris Becker.

McEnroe’s Temper – A Sign of Nerves and Fear of Losing

In fact, McEnroe is the first to admit that his temper often disrupted his rhythm, and was often an indication that he was about to choke.  He sees his anger as a response to nerves and a deep-seated fear of failure.  Unlike his rival Jimmy Connors, who diffused tension in matches by joking around, McEnroe expressed tension by losing his temper and lashing out.  In ‘Serious’, McEnroe displays great humility by apologising to all those who bore the brunt of his anger. Indeed, McEnroe reveals in his book that he often apologised to players and umpires after matches for his behaviour.

McEnroe’s book offers some intriguing insights into both his personal psychological make-up and tennis psychology more generally.  Beneath the tough exterior is a sensitive man, with ultra high standards instilled in him by his parents.  His drive to succeed is intense, as is his contempt for failure.  He describes his 1982 Wimbledon (reaching the final but losing to Jimmy Connors) as a ‘lousy’ tournament.  Hovering around 8 or 9 in the world rankings during the last 6 years of his career qualifies as ‘world class mediocrity’.  McEnroe judges himself so harshly that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

McEnroe Never Enjoyed Competitive Tennis

It’s interesting to note that as a child, McEnroe would burst into tears whenever he lost, but never lost his temper.  Like Andre Agassi, McEnroe admits he never really enjoyed playing competitive tennis, finding the stress and loneliness of the sport hard to bear.  Every match was haunted by the fear of losing, especially at the height of his success when he was expected to win against all but the very best players.  Victory brought relief, rather than pleasure.

McEnroe had great natural ability and worked hard.  This translated into many years at the top of the game and 7 major singles titles.  He also spent more time engaging with the thought stream in his head than many other players, and I wonder if, ultimately, this prevented him from reaching his full potential.  His famous defeat by Lendl in the 1984 French Open final is a case in point, where a loss of mental composure cost McEnroe the title.

How many more Grand Slams might McEnroe have won had his mental game been stronger? Might he have been the Federer of his day if he had been able to disengage from his thinking and focus fully on playing each point?

How Andy Murray Can Improve his Mental Game and Win a Grand Slam

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Andy Murray deserves his place among the elite top four players in the game, as he recently proved by winning three Asian Swing titles in a row, adding to his two Masters 1000 titles this season.  Murray can and does beat anyone.  In 2011, he’s beaten Djokovic and Nadal in finals, and remains one of the few players to have a winning record against Federer.

Yet unlike his elite rivals, Murray hasn’t come close to winning a Grand Slam.  His three major final appearances all ended in straight sets defeat, with the Scot unable to play to his potential on the biggest stages.  Likewise, Murray has put in lacklustre performances in crucial Grand Slam semi-finals, notably against Nadal the last two years at Wimbledon, and again at this year’s US Open.

Murray’s Mental Game

So, he’s capable of beating anyone, but can’t do it when it counts the most.  Murray’s friend and rival, world number one Novak Djokovic, has said that the only thing standing between Murray and a first Grand Slam win is his mental game.

There was no doubting Djokovic’s wisdom after Murray’s defeat against Nadal at Flushing Meadows.  Early on in the fourth set, Murray had the edge on Nadal, but when he netted a straightforward backhand and lost his chance to break Rafa in the second game, he slumped never to recover.

Murray spent time between points commentating on his own play, vocalising his frustration and trying to talk himself into playing better.  A similar situation arose in this year’s Wimbledon semi against Nadal, when Murray, leading by a set, missed a simple forehand, which sent him into irreversible decline and another defeat at the hands of the Spaniard. It’s clear that this negative, self-critical approach doesn’t work for Murray, yet he keeps doing it.

Learning to Disengage from Thinking on Court

What can Murray do to improve his mental game and win big? Learn to disengage from his thinking.  At the moment, when the pressure’s on and the stakes are high, Murray gets lost in his thoughts, trying to ‘work things out’ in his head.  This approach compounds his problem by increasing cognitive activity (thinking) and thereby making it much harder to play with flow and instinct.  In tennis, or any other sport, it’s simply not possible to think your way into the zone.

Rather than engaging with the thought stream in his mind, Murray needs to learn to let his thoughts be just as they are, and refocus on the task in hand.   A good way to do this is to develop mindfulness skills.  By regularly practicing short, daily mindfulness meditations, you can learn how not to get carried away by thoughts, and thereby remain fully focussed on whatever task you are engaged in.  If Murray developed such skills it would be much easier for him to let go of the negative thoughts which arise when he misses an easy shot at a crunch moment in a big match.

By not engaging with his thoughts, and refocussing his attention on his present-moment experience, Murray could free himself to play to his potential – and there’s no doubt that he has the potential to win one or more Grand Slams.