Embrace Your Fears and Focus on the Mission

March 15, 2019 02:21 PM

Dr. Larry Lauer, Mental Skills Specialist, USTA Player Development

Fear is a powerful feeling that can hijack the physiology of the body and mind of a person. All attention is centered on the fear creating stimulus. The sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, hair rising on the back of your neck, racing heartbeat, fast and shallow breath all serve to remind you that there is an impending threat. Nothing else exists in the world at that moment.

Why is fear so powerful? It is our species’ evolutionary instinct to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Thus, the brain is designed to keep you safe and to be competent in your environment. The fear response prepares you to take action. To either fight, take flight or unfortunately sometimes freeze.

The issue is that fears can be irrational and devastating in life and in tennis. They dictate our behavior in ways that can we know are not good for us, but we are unable to stop, anyway. To minimize the impact of our fears we cannot ignore them. Fears are too powerful and will drive you away from what you want. To truly live life by your values, goals and expectations, you must embrace your fears so that you can focus on your mission. This is one of David Rutherford’s (ex-Navy Seal) main messages; fears unchecked create actions that are off of the mission. And you won’t be living the life that you want.

Origin of fear

Fear comes from uncertainty. Not knowing creates a concern that something threatening exists. That is why so many people, especially children are afraid of the dark (also known as nyctophobia). You cannot see what might be lurking around the corner. This relates to tennis uncertainties such as results, how someone will react to you or what they are thinking about you, or your chances of career success.

We have many uncertainties in life and in tennis. This is normal and as it should be. If I see a dark alley and then something moving in that alley but I can’t tell what it is, my brain is going to inject fear so that I can remain safe. In this case it is good to be fearful, but it’s not always productive or even rational. A fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or even close spaces (claustrophobia) can have profound negative consequences on a person’s life and yet the likelihood of the person being harmed is remote. Such is the case with tennis fears.

Physiology of fear

When the brain anticipates a threat the amygdala (a small organ in central area of the brain) signals the autonomic nervous system to engage the fear response. In turn you experience the fight or flight response - heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing accelerates and is shallower, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. The heart is pumping blood to your arms and legs preparing them for action.

The main issue is what happens to your brain. Essentially you are unable to analyze the situation or plan ahead because the cerebral cortex of the brain is disengaged. Your thinking is impaired! This is why when someone tells you to “relax” you know you should, but you feel you can’t. When experiencing this fear related stress the focus becomes narrow on the threat providing an opportunity for doubt and anxiety to kick in. When performance suffers, doubt and anxiety grow, and other emotions get involved such as anger and frustration. All in all, it’s not the best cycle to be in. The good news is we can and have learned to manage the fear response.

Click here to learn more about the physiology of fear.

How to Embrace Fear – Take Action!

Too often we perceive threat in a variety of performance situations such as closing out a set when in fact we are in a good position. As the fear takes over and the fight or flight response continues we struggle to think clearly and focus. The best remedy is not to wait for the moment and try to deal with it. Instead, prepare a new way of responding by engaging in the following actions.

  1. Create an Awareness of Fear – list the things that scare you. At first you will be hesitant but just write. Anything that is scary and preoccupies your mind. It can be spiders or flying… But, make sure you also get to the fears you have in tennis. Then, share these fears with someone you trust (i.e., a mental coach, parent, trusted coach). In doing so, you will most likely feel that others also have these fears or similar ones. **If you’re going to do this exercise, pick the right person to confide in and be prepared to receive help!
  2. Accept Fear as Normal and Stop Avoiding It – we often try to suppress and ignore the things that make us afraid. Do the opposite when it comes to tennis fears. Talk about them and learn to realize that they are normal. Label the fears. Normalizing the fear of losing a lead late in the match helps you to accept the feeling and refocus on in the present on the task at hand.
  3. Change Your Thinking and You will Minimize Your Fears – follow these steps to reframe and counter fear-based thinking, and you can lessen the grip that fear has on you.
    • Check Reality – is the fear I am experiencing rational (I could lose today) or irrational (If I lose it would mean I’m a terrible player not capable of being a successful pro)? This is important because the rational fear can be accepted because it is a normal occurrence in tennis, and you will be ok. The irrational fear is creating extra anxiety around a thought that is not fact. You can begin to overcome irrational fears by reminding yourself that it is not real, not fact.
    • Stop Making Mountains out of Molehills (Catastrophizing) – often our fears are related to some great consequences that we often create irrationally. Take the previous irrational fear example. “If I lose it would I’m a terrible player not capable of being a successful pro.” Is this really the case? Or, are you overstating the consequences of losing? Most likely you are creating catastrophic consequences in your mind whereas the reality it is one match along the path of hundreds or thousands of matches.
    • Control What You Can, and Leave the Rest – understanding what you control over and do not control allows you to accept and move on. If you have a fear of flying, for example, you must accept that you don’t control what happens and you are putting your faith in a highly trained pilot and crew. In this case, you don’t have control so there is no use in dwelling on the fear or letting it consume you. In tennis the fear of making mistakes often looms large. The reality is you will make mistakes at times even when you do everything correctly so understand that you don’t have total control over the outcome of the shot. Instead, focus on what you do control. Decisions that are made on court. Effort to run for every ball. Body language and energy. Following routines. These are the process things that create victory and are under your control. When you focus on what you control and leave the rest you begin to feel liberated from overthinking and extremely harsh self-criticism.
    • Stop Creating a Future Stories - We all create narratives or stories in our mind about our lives. You know it. It’s the “this is how my life goes…” kind of thinking. While a positive story is usually a good thing, one based in fear can have harmful effects. For example, buying into the story of always losing a lead becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear hits you, occupies your focus, and you change the way you play. And, then you lose the lead. When you begin to play out the fear story in your mind be aware of it and remind yourself to be present and commit to your strengths. The next recommendation will help you do this successfully.
  4. Practice Mindful Breathing to Stay Present – our fears live in the future. The “what if’s” and the uncertain future. While it plays an important role in our functioning as a species it is not necessary in tennis. Staying present on the task is the best way to manage fear. And, the best way to become present on the court is through breathing. Taking deep, rhythmic breaths counteracts the fear symptoms such as shallowed breath and heart racing. It also can create a focus in the present.
  5. Face Your Fears – if you want to embrace a fear first you must understand it. Next, make a choice to challenge the most important fears, especially in tennis. Then, you must create a plan for how to deal with it. Finally, you must expose yourself to the fear-inducing stimulus in a gradual process. If you have a fear of double-faulting, begin by visualizing yourself dealing with the fear in a more composed manner. Be relaxed and focused on something simple such as placement of the serve or pushing with the legs. Then, bring this into serving practice. Next, work on it in point play in practice. Progressively add more stress to the serve and as it holds up and you execute the old fear begins to dissipate.

Focusing on the Mission: Values, Goals, and Expectations

Using the previous recommendations you can develop a plan to embrace your fears. Then, fear will no longer dictate your behavior. You can begin to really aspire to your mission. Overall, what is it that you want to achieve in life and in tennis? What values and expectations do you want to live by that create success? What are the goals long-term, intermediate, and short-term you want to achieve in life? In tennis? Let these be the drivers of your behaviors and you will be living the life you want to live.

*Much appreciation to David Rutherford for starting this discussion on fear and helping me organize a plan of action.