The Mental Game

Rituals, Superstitions, & Quirks – Oh My!

The photo above is from my 15 year old son’s room.  His shoes are lined up perfectly – perfectly spaced, perfectly aligned – what 15 year old boy does that???  And, yes, the rest of his room, as well as his racquet bag, is similarly arranged.  During tournaments, he eats the exact same thing for breakfast each day, the exact same thing for lunch, and the exact same thing for dinner.  His before-bed-during-a-tournament ritual is well-rehearsed and impeccably executed each night, too.  When I, jokingly, asked him about all this craziness he said, “Mom, I’m a tennis player,” as if that were all the explanation I needed.

According to noted sports psychologist and author, Allen Fox, superstitious behavior is extremely common in tennis as well as other sports. “I believe it comes from the fact that the athletes are very concerned with their performance and winning but can’t control these things. They are surrounded by stressful uncertainty. So they look for outside help. Superstitious behavior may give them some slight comfort in countering the uncertainties. It leads to the feeling that outside forces are working in their favor. This, in turn, can reduce their stress levels.”

Without these rituals and quirky behaviors, Fox says, the stress level could red-line very quickly or the unthinkable could happen – the player could choke.  The outcome of close matches is uncertain and these matches become stressful. Fox tells us that our normal emotional response to prolonged stress is to reduce the stress. This is the reason players tank, lose focus, become angry, or make excuses. It’s to reduce the stress and escape the dilemma of wanting to win but being uncertain of their ability to do so.  These urges have to be consciously countered, which the great players do. Watch the between-point and serving rituals of Maria Sharapova or the careful arranging of the water bottles by Rafa Nadal.  These habits become an ingrained part of the player’s game and a necessary piece of the puzzle in their ability to stay focused on the task at hand.  Many articles have been written and YouTube videos posted about these player quirks.  Maybe my son is onto something???

In sports circles, having these rituals is part of  developing Mental Toughness.  In my house, though, we refer to it as – and I mean this in the most loving way possible – crazy.  🙂

I would love to hear about some of your junior player’s rituals – please share them in the Comments box below.

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