Daily Battle: Matters of the Mind
By Greg Bach
During 30-plus years of coaching tennis as a certified professional, Bill Patton has seen all types of players.
And helped them overcome all sorts of challenges, many linked to the mental side of competing.
“The team I’m coaching now had the most negative energy at the beginning of the season of any group of players I had ever coached anywhere,” Patton says. “It was this daily battle of showing them that if you’re fighting yourself and the guy across the net, then you’ve got two opponents. So, it’s about eliminating one of them, because the mental part of every game is so important.”
Patton is the author of PLAY SPORTS RIGHT YOUR WAY and the just published THE ATHLETE CENTERED COACH, which are aimed at helping young athletes and coaches to take more ownership of their experiences and get more out of them, regardless if they just want to enjoy playing or coaching at a recreational level or if they have aspirations of playing in high school or beyond.
ACT LIKE A WINNER
The mental side of competing is incredibly important in all sports, but in perhaps no sport is that more evident than tennis where momentum, matches and mindsets can swing drastically within the space of one rally.
It’s where one moment a backhand winner can infuse confidence, and the next a netted forehand collapses it.
“One thing that is just universally true of everyone is mistake management is really important at every part of your life,” Patton says. “In tennis, every game you are bound to do something that is less than optimal and you’re going to have to move on from that quickly.”
Dragging negative thoughts into ensuing points sets players up for losing them, as suddenly one mistake has now impacted a string of points.
“What I teach my athletes to do is no matter how they are feeling inside is to always act like they are winning,” Patton says. “Even if they made a horrible mistake I want them to put their head up and take a deep breath and refocus their mind on what comes next.”
Patton, who has also coached basketball and recreational soccer through the years, advises coaches to always be on the lookout for athletes showing any signs of weakness.
And to address it right away.
“If you can catch it early, then you can keep it from becoming a downward spiral,” he says. “If you can catch it immediately, helping them to identify and readjust their thinking you can keep them from going down the toilet.”
Boys tend to harbor more negative energy than girls, Patton says.
And he has seen that throughout his coaching.
“Generally, you are going to get more boys who put more meaning into the competition,” he says. “They are hard on themselves because they’re expecting to be perfect.”
Pulling kids out of that mode of unrealistic thinking takes time and effort by coaches.
“Our minds just tend to be negative,” Patton says. “Over 70 percent of people’s self-talk is negative, so the default in our minds is to think negatively.”
So, going into practices knowing that many athletes are wrestling with negativity and competing with their confidence tanks running low places a premium on coaches strengthening kids’ mindsets.
And carefully choosing how they are communicating with them.
“If coaches could just stop and count to 10 before they say anything,” he says. “Then see if you can start with a praise, then give a constructive criticism, and then sandwich it with a ‘you can do it, I believe in you’ type message.”
A YOUNG ATHLETE’S PATH
Patton wants all kids to have enjoyable experiences in sports.
And he wants them to be the decision makers for their journey and not be steered in directions that aren’t in their best interest.
“What kids really need is exposure to different sports and time just to run around,” he says. “I don’t know how many kids are being forced by their parents to become a quarterback or a pitcher because they have a plan, but it’s a square peg, round hole situation. Players really need to be exposed to more sports so they can find the one they love.”
So he encourages parents to enroll their kids in sports, and then let those who volunteered to coach do just that.
“Sign your child up and trust whoever your child’s coach is and if they let you down then go someplace else,” Patton says. “It’s pretty simple. But if you are going to go and try to micromanage the coach, that’s a problem.”
Instead, be supportive.
And savor watching your young athlete compete and find what sport tugs at their heart.
“It’s their path to walk,” he says. “Let them discover the sport that they love.”
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