Dr. Larry and Coach Johnny observe the 2019 US Open and discuss factors that are determining the outcome of matches. The guys talk strategies on how to manage the stress and chaos of a Grand Slam in the Big Apple.


J: Welcome to the compete like a champion podcast. You're here with Dr. Larry Lauer, mental skill specialist and coach Johnny Parkes with the USTA player development. Today we are live at the open and we're going to go into discussing some observations and thoughts all centered around what we're seeing at the US open this year. Larry.

L: Johnny.

J: We're here. We're in New York.

L: 7:00 AM in New York.

J: Yeah. When you come to New York do you, well outside of the open, which takes up the majority of the day, do you like to get out into the city?

L: A little bit. It's a little, a little hectic for me, but I go out to get some dinner sometimes. So. There's a lot of great spots here, so you've got to get out and taste the local culture. You know, some of the local eats. Where do you, where do you like to go, Johnny?

J: I like to hibernate in my room.

L: Is that right? I don not believe that.

J: I'm not a big city fan. No. I lived in London for a couple of years and no good for touristy and living. It's the big city. It's hectic, it's crazy. But it's kind of electric. Like the atmosphere here is, it's so cool when we come here, everything is centered around the open. You know, so we just, we finished qualifying just recently and now we're into the main draw. So what was some of your observations from qualities?

L: Well first, I will say that the food at the Open has gotten better and better over the years. So if you don't want to go into the city and you want to eat, you can find plenty of things to eat out at the Open and still watch tennis late at night. I think we finished last night after 10 o'clock. Definitely a, was not out in the city last night, was in bed at a, at a solid time. So we could do this podcast everyone. Uh, but yeah, after the first day of, of main draw. I'm watching the qualities. I me, I think one of the things that jump out right away to me, Johnny, is the, uh, just the athleticism of the players and just the ability to move and to be balanced, uh, as they move and create power from different positions is quite impressive what these, what these athletes are doing out there, positions they're putting their body in and still having to produce a shot. I don't know what you've seen from that, you know, cause you're really the guy that the works more on the, like, development side. What are your thoughts on that?

J: I mean, yeah, I mean the movement's pretty impressive out there. What was impressive to me was, again, all that, the physical stress that under the conditions that they're having to play in during the qualities couple of those days, they're really hot, really tough conditions and um, to see the type of physical stress they're putting theirself under, along with the, I guess the environmental stress was good to see. I mean the area that I think players are doing a little bit better is playing in and out of the corners a little bit better. That's always an area. To me that defines sort of a player rarely is how they get in and out of a corner. That's a really tough physical stressor. So how do they make decisions when they're in the corners? Right. And usually they've got perceived less time to make a decision to out what they're going to do. If they do make a really wrong decision, then they are toast because good opponents are going to make them then go into the other corner or really put them under more physical stress. So it's what decisions are they making when they're pushed so far into these corners when they are under the utmost physical stress?

L: I think you see players, especially when they are struggling or when they're nervous, those decisions start to change. They have this urgency to want to change the direction quickly or to win the point outright or get out of that situation, not have to chase down another ball. Right? Because it is stressful. And when you feel like you're being thrown into the corners and you're going to have to potentially go to the other corner, right? And that's not a comfortable feeling. So a player needs to be able to stay disciplined with their shots, the decision making and what they're doing in their court position in these situations. Or they're going to make their lot a lot more difficult. And when you're talking about the heat that we had last weekend in the 90s also very humid, some of these matches, we're going almost to three hours. You were starting to see players suffer physically. We even saw some cramping on court as well, which isn't surprising. This is kinda like the cocktail for cramping, lots of heat, humidity and then you add the stress of trying to qualify for the US open and what that means, the 50 some odd thousand dollars that you, that you receive if you qualify. And obviously the dream of playing in the main draw of a grand slam. So you see players, I'm starting to maybe pull out of those decisions a little bit and start to try to get the quick win by changing the direction going down the line, which is not always the best play.

J: The great thing to see is there's a lot of plays ready using the shot clock. So using the full amounts of time in between points. I mean that there's some long points going out there whether having to run a lot under that heat, all those conditions combined to really, you're out of breath pretty quickly when you're having long points. Same players, you know, I think every player now uses the towel. It's rare that you see apply and not using the towel. So every player's using the towel. But what are they doing when they go to, I know we've talked a lot about routines, but you seeing a lot of deep breathing through the nose, out through the mouth, you know a lot of sort of trying to calm that body, calm their thoughts and then they turn around to the court when they're ready. But it's just, it's good to see that people are already using the shot clock. And I wouldn't say, especially in qualis, you have to use it this talk of pro players that maybe almost abuse it sometimes, but I think it was absolutely essential to see players like using the full amount of time that they have in between points so that they can bring themselves back down, calm that thoughts, calm their thinking so that they can then approach the line and make decisions, I guess, in a more well-informed way.

L: Well, yeah, and I think that's been a development over the years that you're seeing players use more and more routines. And you know what I like to see out there, Johnny, is when a player is in an anxious, stressful situation and they're taking their time, going to a towel, preparing for the next point. I mean, at its essence, you exert yourself and then you recover, right? Let's, that's what we do. Whether we're in a work hour, in a training session or we're playing a match in a very small, my new way. Every point you exert yourself, you recover. And if you're rushing in between points, you don't give yourself enough time to recover so that physically you're not bringing down the heart rate, you're not slowing the breathing. That stress level elevated over time really is a problem for players. When you talk about the stress, the heat and the humidity that they're dealing with and the qualities and even some, probably later this week, it's going to get hotter again. And then secondly, emotionally and psychologically recovering from the last point because your job mentally is to move on from the last point, be focused for the next point and have a clear plan. You're committed to it, you have positive energy, you're ready to go. And if you don't take that time, you have no chance of being ready. And I think what you, the obvious thing that you see is that players at rush often missed the first serve and have less commitment with what they're doing with the serve. And secondly, typically you're making these kinds of quick errors because if you're going fast between points probably is because things are speeding up in your mind and you're probably gonna play fast during the point as well.

J: That's a really important point because again, under those conditions, if we do rush, we know that those percentages come down in their first serve, second serve and then points one of those. But that's where it's so important that at the start of the points and have to be so dialed in with that plan, the surplus ones, but then they have to be really dialed in with taking every opportunity they get on the return. So the second serve returns, when they get a little bit of a sniff, a bit of a look, they have to try and really go after that. Otherwise they're going to go through long games, right, where they may struggle on their serve and they may have a chance on the break but don't quite get it. It's really important that they're focusing and they're very, very clear at the start of that point in order to be able to get through their service games, I wouldn't say quickly, but with relatively more ease than obviously going through the advantage, deuce, advantage, deuce cycle, which can wear them down. Which then puts them under a little bit more, you know, if they do want a break or they need to get a break, it puts them under a little bit more pressure to try and get that break. So we want to get through our service games and in order to do that we got to make sure that we're very clear on what it is that we're trying to do so that we can optimize our service games so that we can then put a lot of our efforts into the breaks. That's something I saw as with those conditions too, is making sure that we're taking care of those, the start of the points so we can take advantage of our return games.

L: That the first point of the game is huge, isn't it? That sets up the rest of the game. And then what you're talking about Johnny, is the rhythm that you get on your serve and very difficult to get in a rhythm and you see a player's confidence suffer when they're having to play long deuce games on their serve and they're spending so much energy just to hold serve and they're feeling them under pressure that you often see them on the return of serve, feeling the pressure there as well to do something they end up making quick mistakes or going for things that maybe they don't need to at that point. You know, I think one of the things as you take a look at specifically on the men's side, you have to be able to hold your serve most majority of the time if you're going to have a chance because you're just not going to get that many looks from a lot of the men's serves and you want to be getting that first point on your game to set you up to get in a rhythm of a good service game versus always playing from behind. For example, one of the things I saw, now again, you've got to look at the whole environment. So the heat, humidity, the stress of plant, the US Open playing for a lot of money. When you qualify points, everything that comes this opportunity, you put that all together and then you're, you're behind and you're trying to chase the match the whole time. That's a problem. Now you do see players free up and play a little bit better when they're behind. Usually in the second set. The only issue is that you're constantly chasing the match and if your opponent, like you're talking about is taking care of his or her business, you never feel like you're on even ground. Like you're in the match.

J: Yeah. It's interesting. I'm reading this, uh, I'm reading this book at the minute and it talks about flow and being clutch and how flow, a good example really how I can use this as, have you ever played that guitar hero game?

L: I've seen it. I have not played it.

J: What about you Mich of you, have you played on the guitar hero?

M: No, haven't played that.

J: Okay.

L: He plays the real thing.

J: So basically when you're on, when you're playing this guitar hero game, right? You're going through it and you get a lot of correct, you know you do it right, you press the right buttons correctly enough, you then get up to like getting in the zone, right? And when you're getting the zone, whole screen flashes and then every time you make a correct thing, your points double up. So essentially then you get into like this Twilight zone because you've built it, you've built up the flow of it to hit this Twilight zone and then you're just going for it, right. And getting your double points. So that's my example here. In tennis we're trying to build up that flow. You're saying that rhythm and so that when you're building up this flow that actually can help build the confidence so that when you get into those then types of situations that can help you then get into the clutch zone because you've built up this state of flow, the state of rhythm. It's helping you build your confidence. You may not be getting the breaks, but you're getting through your service games pretty well. You're getting chances on the return. And then when things get a little bit tighter, a little bit closer, hopefully that then that confidence can lead to playing clutch down the stretch. And so I think, you know, I think we had a couple American players, we had a couple tough losses in the, in the qualities, but we also had some really good wins down the stretch. And so obviously doesn't hang true for all of it. You can go through this rhythm and this flow and then all of a sudden you just lose a couple points here and there and, and you've lost the match, which is tough. But I think it's just trying to find that rhythm and that flow so that when you do go under those pressure situations, you're at least going into it with the most amount of confidence that you've been able to build up until that point. So that you can approach it in I guess a proactive positive way.

L: Yeah. Well it goes to the up and down nature of tennis. Right. And if you're riding that emotional roller coaster and the highs are high and the lows are lows is going to be challenging to really sustain your focus and get into a rhythm. Right and this goes the importance of, again, we talked about this all the time on the podcast, you're in between points, routines because that's your rhythm, right? The way you do things before you step up to serve what you do when you're at the line. Same thing with the return, what kind of rhythm you get into to create that focus only, in single, on the ball and on the server and the importance of not getting disrupted from your routines is so important. If you want to get in that rhythm, into that flow and eventually be clutch. And I think one of the things you see about the players who move on and qualify and and do well in the main draw even in watching yesterday is they're not easily disrupted from their routines, from their game even, even though they maybe they lost a game easily. Maybe their opponents' holding serve, maybe they did not convert on some break points. They stay with the process, they stay with their plan, they stay with their routines. There's a consistency about us so they can be in that rhythm and so when they do double fault it's not like, okay well I speed up and rush and go online and try to make it right right away now. Okay go through my routine, be prepared, come back and do it again. Right. Cause there's a trust that's been built into this process that you have this routine that you have and I think that's a separator to be honest. For players who are performing well and who are not at the moment, the ones who are performing well, they're sticking to their routines. Now it's not a hundred percent formula because sometimes you see both players distracted and off their routines and off rhythm and some don't even have routines really by the looks of it, but up and down nature of tennis, because it's a sport where you lose a point, you win a point, you lose point, you win a point. You have to be able to cut through that and be consistent. So you're constantly ready to play and this, this all works together folks. Hopefully we're not making this too cloudy and complicated. You have to get ready to play each point with optimal level focus, readiness, energy, right? So you're there and your routines get you there and you can't let the things outside of that, whether it's a scoreboard or what your opponent's doing or the crowd or whatever get in the way of that. That readiness.

J: And I guess this leads into my next question here is a lot of players here, this is their first main draw us open, whether it be American players or not, right? There's quite a few players in the main draw for the first time. How do they possibly prepare for this stage, for this environment? Because it's really tough to emulate that. Like I've seen some American football practices and they, they're going through their downs, first down, second down, third down, and then when they get to that third down they blare crowds, you know they have the speakers out there and they're blaring the crowd noise through the speakers because when they go to game day, they know the opposition's fans. If you're playing away from home or going to be blaring so loud, right? Cause they're trying to distract the quarterback's call on what play they're going to make. And then that's why you see either a lot of fumbles or some bad plays. Right. So you see that in practices or I've seen it in practices where they're just blaring that noise and, but we can't really do that. I guess you can. I've actually seen coach Kathy do that in the indoor center when they were preparing for fed cup. So that was really cool. But how do some of these players individually preparing for the U S open really prepare for all these external factors that come into play that they really have never been exposed to before?

L: Yeah, well I think it is a challenge to be honest. And I think you need to get out here to New York and experience it, uh, from, you know, the city to the traveling in, uh, to the time it takes and maybe, uh, not getting there exactly the time you want and the first time that your car is late or the shuttle. The bus is running a little late. You don't want that to be on match day. You want to have gone through that. So I find that the, what the coaches try to do is get their players out here, get them aclimatized to the environment, the noise, it's very noisy on the grounds. Um, during quality's they're, they're sound checking Arthur Ashe stadium. People are moving in and out of the courts randomly during points, during games. So there's a lot of challenges and noises from the other courts. People cheering. I was on, uh, watching court five yesterday and sitting above court six and people are cheering for court five above court, six in that line of, of courts there. And uh, that does have an effect on the players. So the ability to be able to refocus is very important. But I think you need to get out here. You need to experience the environment. You need to get on the grounds and see what it's like. It's hard to prepare for this unless you've been here. You need to understand what kind of beast it is. There's a ton of energy at the open at in New York as you mentioned, to start, you want to embrace that. You want to use that energy to really push yourself to be your best versus using it like a 600 pound reel on your back. Like, Oh God, you know, everything runs late here, or it's so busy, there's so many people, I'm under stress, everything's stressful. It's very easy to get into that approach and I think you need to intentionally to minimize your focus on sort of the chaos of New York. Get into your routines, get into your schedule, get comfortable with, with sort of the environment and then keep it normal. Keep it simple as much as you can, follow your routines as you would off the court and on the court. And one of the biggest mistakes that our young players make is they get to the open and then it's so much fun, right? And they want to hang around and watch matches. Remember it was in the 90s it was humid. It's draining after you've practiced, you've worked out and you're standing out in the sun watching other matches. We've seen players make those mistakes before, so you do need to get out here and do your thing and get back at a decent time. If you're not playing that day to make sure that you have enough time to recover, get enough sleep, have a good dinner. But definitely getting into your routines is very important in this chaotic environment.

J: Because of the distractions. It can be so easy to deter away from that, but I think that's why with the younger players that we really try and maybe overemphasize, which is a good thing that they have to find their individual routines and your individual routines are going to change every way you go depending on what you've got available to you and where the gym is located, where the courts are, where you're practicing or where your hotel is in proximity to the center and where there is to go eat. And so even getting just really detailed with the off court habits I think will then really help with the on court because we always hit, you know, we talk about coaches going, it's just another tournament, just another match. Just go through the process and all that, but then you've got, you know, you see the eyes like wandering around a bunch and so it's really, really important to get into that routine, that established routine as quick as possible in your new environment that you're at in that tournament. And especially here in New York where you have to take a bus and the bus is dependent on that. The traffic care, which has a, well everything, everyone knows what New York traffic is like, but we have to figure out that routine as quick as possible so that we can settle down and then I think it's also really important that players are telling themselves that they've earned their way here, they deserve to be here and so it's just another tournament that they can go through to gain an experience and to take their shot. They got here playing a certain way and therefore keep following the same process, the same routines where they sit down with their coaches and discuss the game plans or what it may be, but they have to establish that pretty quickly.

L: One thing psychologically what you're doing there is you're creating this routine that allows you to feel comfortable in a chaotic environment. So I know where I eat breakfast, I know where I lunch, I know how to get to dining. I know how to get to the stringer, I know how to get to the courts, the locker room, it's the little dumb things people don't think about, but I know where to get a towel. I know where to return a towel. I know where I can go, where I can't go. And so you start to feel comfortable in your environment, which I think is very important. And then I think as a species we like to have our safe space, our our place where we feel like it's ours. So that's why you go in an office space and people have their desks, they have their place, you know, and they try to make it theirs. I think when you go on a road, you try to do the same thing with your hotel and with your room. That's kind of your safe space. That's your place for that week. For those two weeks that's yours so you can feel comfortable. That's where I can just let my hair down, be myself.

J: And switch off.

L: and switch off. Yes. So what I tell players is look, you know, first establish a routine, get their early, establish a routine, get to know where everything is and then create your safe space. Bring things that make you feel in your, in your space, things that you enjoy to do that if you can bring them, maybe Mick can't bring his guitar to New York, but uh, you know, you bring things that, that allow you to be sort of turned off from tennis, quiet your mind from tennis, and then you can just begin to be yourself in your hotel room and relax. So I think you're creating this comfort in an uncomfortable environment. And part of that is bringing little things from home that allow you to feel comfortable, but also getting comfortable with the environment you're going into by just walking the grounds and finding out where everything is and figuring out the quickest way to get to and from things and what the bus ride is going to look like and saying, Hey, you know what? It could be 10 minutes late. That's normal here.

J: Well, I think that's a good, you just used the word earlier. That was chaos. I mean, I think chaos creates confusion, but if we learn how to control the chaos, I think first part is we have to embrace chaos. Chaos happens at these events, at these tournaments. Everywhere you go, there's things that will deter you away, but it's how we control the chaos in a manageable way that it's more on our terms. So that's what you're saying. So we know where the stringer is, we know where to get something that we need, and if it's not, then that chaos just creates confusion. And then that's where the mind goes into a little bit of overthink, overload. Now, if that's happening off the call, that could definitely transfer on the court. If we're very clear, we need to control the chaos and control. And that chaos starts with when you wake up in the morning and you know exactly where to get what you want. That's again part of your routine that you've established when you've got to the environment. And so I think control chaos I think should be the goal when players are coming here, how do they control the chaos on that terms?

L: And I think what you see from the veterans of the US open is a, not that they're overly comfortable because it's not the most comfortable environment, but they know what to expect. They're comfortable enough with the uncomfortable, they know what's coming. And so for them, not only because they'd been here multiple times and they know what to expect, but it does become another tournament in some ways because they're able to say, look, I've done this five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times, so I know what's coming. It's another US open. It's an awesome opportunity, a great experience, but it's not the end all be all. And I think that's the challenge for the young player who has not been in this environment. Let's get you out here, let's get you comfortable. But mentally, the challenge you're going through is also don't make this bigger than it is. It's a huge opportunity obviously. And they know that. We can't ever tell them like, Hey, this isn.t Important, but as you said, Johnny, at the end of the day it's still tennis, the lines are in the same spots, the same dimensions. Uh, the surroundings might look differently, but you're not playing in the surroundings. You're playing on the same court that you did at home. So now let's dial into the same routines in the same game. And I think that's important. So I love the idea. I know, and hockey players do this a lot. Get there, go sit by a court, take it in and start to visualize how you're going to play on that court. You're just creating again, that comfort level in an environment that's uncomfortable. It's new to you. And I think the more you can do that, and obviously then getting on the court and hitting. And one of the things though, J P and I don't know what you see with this though, in an environment like this, players get very hyper sensitive and aware of how they're playing, how the ball feels. And that can be a true struggle going in, especially for a young player,

J: Do you mean like thinking more technically about that game versus tactically how they want to play?

L: I think it draws the mind away from tactics. And one of the things I've seen from players who are again succeeding here is they are tactically aware but at the same time in the lead up getting so hung up on how the ball feels coming off the racket that it could be technical or it could just be how it feels, but their threshold for getting frustrated gets really low because they're starting to see how, Oh wow that you know, I don't feel good on a forehand or the serve doesn't feel good so they're now their mind is shifting towards I'm not playing well. Is this going to happen on match day and I think helping the players understand that the lead up, just like the other tournaments, you may feel great, you may not, that's just a way of things, but you can still go out on on match day and compete and do what you need to do if you commit to your game plan and commit to your routines and just compete every single point.

J: It's funny you say that because you know yesterday was watching all day and there's a lot of players out there that they miss a shot and they just shadow swing and they're looking over at their team. Don't look very happy and they're shadow swinging as if the going through technical adjustments or trying to figure out technically why they're missing balls or not missing balls. And I don't know what the research suggests Larry, so maybe give me some insights here, but if you're thinking about technical things on the court, I've never, it's very rare that you see players problem solve through trying to fix things technically on the call in the heat of the moment because the minute you start thinking about that, that really does get on your mind a little bit to make those little adjustments are not quite right in are quite completely. Then takes you away from your game plan. You can't be thinking about technical adjustments, physical things, technical things going through your mental processes as well. It's just too much right in the heat of battle on top of all the stressors, the external, everything combined. It's just, it's too tough. So what do you see, what is the research saying in terms of thinking about technical things when they're in the midst of these battles on court.

L: That people usually underperform when they focus on the technical. And if you think about it, when you, when you automatize something, a skill hitting a forehand and backhand, a serve, a volley and you begin to bring that to your consciousness, right? You start to think about the pieces and the parts, you start to slow down, you start to process things cognitively, which takes more time than just allowing your body to do what it knows how to do. So you, your players talk about hesitating and overthinking and when you start focusing on the technique, usually you bring your attention to the movement of something. How, where it needs to be in space. Typically it slows it down, gets a little bit off, it doesn't help things usually. And what I find works can have simple performance cues. You know, for example, on the serve thinking like going up and out are kind of up a silo and then hitting out to where, you know with the forehand, you know, players talk about just accelerating and ripping through it or you know, having these kind of more powerful feel meaning kinds of cues is helpful. But you don't want to be thinking about where your elbow should be in relation to your body or where the hand needs to be or the grip or you're just gonna overthink things and you're going to slow down. You're gonna start processing things you don't need to process and your performance will suffer for it.

J: So Larry, we run out of time here because we've got to get over to the open and go watch some matches. Yeah man. So we got, if we got any players listening to this right now, you're going, uh, and actually thinking about this in terms of their coming to the open for the first time. I actually look at a lot of our juniors at national tournaments that may be going to a national tournament for the first time. And to them that's their U S open. They go there and they, they go going through similar, similar feelings, similar thought processes, right? That's their US open and, Oh wow, I'm in this bigger facility and playing at a national event and I've seen on paper those players doing well and they elevate the importance in their mind, which is obviously very tough and that, that the youngsters are starting to learn that process. I know, but same for them. So any juniors out there that are listening to this or any pros that are about to go out there, what's your big advice to them going into that new experience? What's the one biggest takeaway you can give to them right now?

L: Well, I think understand that you're going to be nervous and that's normal and you're trying to normalize things that a, what I'm feeling is normal in this environment. I can't control the environment, the noise, the distractions. So I need to accept it and embrace it if I can and really focus my mind on what I know, the work that I've done, what I can control, right? The game plan, the things I want to focus on tactically and put your energies into that and put your energies into competing every single point, following your routines. So to me it's very easy in this environment to get frustrated and angry and upset, even embarrassed because so many people are watching. There's so much energy, it's so big. But the more that you can focus in on what you can control, keeping things normal, accepting the outside stuff because you can't control it. So the guy who's on his cell phone five feet away from you, nothing you can do about it. What you have to do is do a great job of staying in your zone between the lines, control what you can control and stay there.

J: Embrace the chaos.

L: Embrace the chaos.

J: Control the chaos on your terms.

L: Well, you know, and I think again, what you see going back and thinking about what players are doing here at the open is they are not getting taken off course by the little things. The guy who's making noises on the sideline, they're not gonna let that get to them. They're going to stay in their zone. And it's not like they don't hear it, they hear it, but they're, they accept it and they move on. They stay with their routines. And I think for young players, because it is such a chaotic environment, those things are so outside their norm. They have to create it as a norm. Like I need to expect the chaos and be okay with it and understand the other players are going through it as well. If you've trained in you prepared, then you're, you can handle this. You can deal with this. Don't expect it to be easy. Don't expect it to be overly comfortable, but do understand it's very normal. Awesome.

J: Well, that's been it for this week's episode of compete like a champion live from the open, Larry, we're about to head out there and watch some more exciting matches, uh, today and the rest of this week. But thanks for tuning in. We'll be back next week for another topic. Until then, Dr. Lauer, we're checking out