Sport Psychology for Achieving Optimum Experience

(The information in this article was taken or adapted from the High Performance Coaching Program Study Guide.)

Another benefit that sport psychology offers tennis is that it promotes the best possible experience for the athlete. You can use it to help players have more fun competing; develop competence, self-esteem, and independence; and find true meaning and fulfillment in participation. Although improving the athletic experience is valuable in itself, players who remain excited and committed to their sport also gain a competitive edge.

The following are recommendations for you to help your players achieve and maintain an optimal tennis experience. 

Positively Reinforce Players

You can enhance the athletic experience and performance of your players by recognizing and adhering to one of the oldest learning principles in psychology: positive reinforcement. Rewarding appropriate behavior, or catching people doing things right, is much more effective than punishing negative behavior, or being predominantly critical. When a player does something right, frequently reinforce the behavior by giving the player rewards that she or he values. Since each player finds different things rewarding, you have to know your players. A common way to discover appropriate rewards is to simply ask your players directly!

Don’t reward positive behavior every time, as this may undermine the effect of the reward. Psychological studies show that people produce greater effort and persistence for occasional positive reinforcement than for continuous reinforcement. For example, in tennis, players would probably see positive comments and praise that are given about half the time after good behaviors as greater rewards than if praise were given automatically every time. However, positive approaches to behavioral change are highly motivating and enjoyable for players. Researchers in sport psychology suggest that 80% to 90% of reinforcement from the coach be positive.

Punish Properly When Necessary

Although a positive approach is usually preferable, you may sometimes need to use punishment to eliminate undesirable behaviors. Punishment is the application of a stimulus that tends to decrease the occurrence of a behavior. For example, if a coach strongly criticizes a player for staying back rather than attacking the net on a point, the player might decrease baseline play on subsequent points.

Punishment has been shown to effectively eliminate undesirable behaviors, but it may create additional problems, too. A major drawback is that punishment may arouse a fear of failure or a desire to avoid defeat rather than approach success.  It may also draw increased attention to undesirable behavior, thereby reinforcing it.  Finally, punishment may also create an unpleasant and aversive learning environment.

A better way to shape behavior is to offer no response to undesirable behaviors and to positively reinforce desirable behaviors. To promote a healthy athletic experience, avoid using intimidation, criticism, sarcasm, physical abuse, or guilt. 

When punishment is the only alternative, administer it properly to maximize its effectiveness and reduce potential harm to players. Weinberg and Gould (1999) provide nine guidelines for administering punishment:     

  1. Be consistent by giving everyone the same type of punishment for breaking similar rules.    
  2. Punish the behavior, not the person.  Convey to the individual that it’s his or her behavior that needs to change.
  3. Allow athletes to have input in making up punishments for breaking rules.
  4. Do not use physical activity as a punishment.
  5. Make sure the punishment is not perceived as a reward or simply as attention.
  6. Impose punishment impersonally – do not berate the person or yell.  Simply inform him of his punishment.
  7. Do not punish athletes for making errors while they are playing.
  8. Do not embarrass individuals in front of peers.
  9. Use punishment sparingly, and enforce it when you use it. (p. 122)

Promote Intrinsic Motivation

Tennis players are motivated by both external and internal factors. People with intrinsic motivation strive inwardly to be competent and self-determining in their quest to master a task.  External rewards are valuable and reinforcing, though they should never be the sole reason that an athlete participates in sport. Here are six ways to make tennis training more enjoyable and to contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation (adapted from Weinberg & Gould, 1999):

  1. Provide for successful experiences.  Structure tennis practices to fully challenge the player, and make sure to allow for successful experiences to increase perceived competence.
  2. Provide rewards that are specifically tied to proper performance, including good play, effort, and sportsmanship. Make it vividly clear to the player that the rewards (e.g., praise, extra recognition) are specifically for doing well and that the coach is not attempting to control the player in any way.
  3. Use both verbal and nonverbal praise.  Brief comments such as “good job” or a pat on the back are good examples.
  4. Make sure practices are interesting by frequently varying the content and sequence of drills and competitive situations. Dull routines or lack of variety detracts from intrinsic motivation. 
  5. Involve players in decision-making.  For example, allow them to contribute in offering suggestions for practice sessions and pre-match strategy development.
  6. Make sure that goals are realistic and tied to performance rather than only to outcome. Achieving performance goals (e.g., higher first service percentage, fewer unforced errors) is a demonstration of competence that enhances intrinsic motivation for the player.

Motivate Toward Success  

Tennis players are motivated by many factors, including fear of failure, hope for success, or a combination of these two. While there are times when fear of failure is helpful (for example, to prevent overconfidence when a player is expected to win easily), it is healthier to approach competition from a “success” rather than “fear of failure” perspective. 

Fear of failure is a weaker form of motivation because it increases worry and negative thinking (“I better not lose this match”), detracts from performance focus, and centers thoughts excessively on outcome. Players with this fear enjoy competition less and are at greater risk for leaving the sport. By contrast, players who approach tennis from a success orientation welcome tough challenges with less fear, and they view competition as an exciting opportunity to improve their skills and display their competency.

What can you do to help players adopt a success orientation?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Every match has some elements of success, regardless of the actual outcome. In reviewing the matches, focus on the positive aspects of the performance, rather than the negative. Help the player set and achieve short-term goals to increase the behavior needed for continual improvement. Attaining these goals provides the player with a rewarding sense of satisfaction, regardless of the competitive outcome, and it leads the player to focus more on “success” rather than “failure.”
  • Convey an attitude to the player that the most exciting and enjoyable moment of competition occurs when the match is close and on the line. Encourage the player to thrive on these challenges, for it provides her or him with an opportunity to overcome difficult obstacles and to achieve even greater success.
  • Arrange practices and competitions so that the player gains experience in “going for it” under pressure. By expecting to perform even better in tight situations, rather than holding back due to insecurity, the player gains greater control over her or his actions. This attitude promotes a healthy motivation toward success and enhances feelings of competency.  

Prevent or Reverse Burnout

Burnout is often defined as physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, but it is also described as the distress resulting from such exhaustion.  It often occurs when a player competes and trains for an extended period of time without adequate rest or relief.  In short, the player is worn out, tired of tennis, and may never want to see a racket again!

Burnout usually develops slowly over time rather than suddenly. It also may be more of a problem for women athletes than men as, according to findings described in Weinberg and Gould (1999), women appear to have higher levels of perceived burnout than men. 

Let’s briefly examine four of the most common causes of burnout, with suggestions on how to reverse the onset (Murray, 1998a). You may need to combine these solutions to meet individual needs.

Pressure to win.  One cause of burnout is extreme pressure to win.  Too much pressure to win (from others or self-imposed) can be extremely frustrating when the results do not come as quickly as expected.  It’s a vicious circle in that the player’s ambition and drive to succeed actually causes performance to decline.  The best solution to this problem is to rediscover the “process of performance” in tennis. Encourage players to focus on the intangibles such as striving to learn, finding meaning in activities, and seeing success in performance rather than winning.  With pressure removed, winning often takes care of itself and burnout is reversed.

Feeling overworked.  Another cause of burnout is feeling overworked.  Coaches and players often become overly intense and serious about performing well, spending all their time on tennis with no time left to live.  You can help by encouraging such players to schedule other activities into the day and reduce the time in training.  Promote their attendance at social activities and other events not related to tennis. Cross training in another sport or pure rest are other possible suggestions. 

Loss of joy.  If tennis is no longer fun for the player, search for ways to make practice and training more enjoyable.  As the joy returns, the player’s attitude often brightens, and greater creativity emerges too.  

Poor social support. A final factor involved in burnout is poor social support. The player might have poor relations with coach, friends, or family.  In these situations it is often difficult for the player to remain motivated. You can provide a great service by just listening to the player, engaging the player in dialogue, or trying to facilitate connections with significant others.  Try planning a coach/player/parent meeting away from the tennis facility. 
Other tips to combat burnout include these:

  • Set short-term goals for competition and practice.
  • Take frequent breaks during training.
  • Teach the player to use mental skills such as positive self-talk, imagery, and goal setting.
  • Offer support to the player after the match regardless of the outcome.

If the player is completely exhausted mentally and physically and has already reached burnout, the only real solution is time off. If burnout persists despite all the best efforts, you may want to recommend that the player seek professional assistance.