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Mental Equipment
November 2001 Article

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Mental Equipment Archive

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The Importance of Belief in Tennis

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Dr. John Murray

Talent, desire and mind-body skills all work together to enhance performance. This increases the probability that success will occur, but the opponent has to cooperate before winning actually takes place. Remember -- higher performance never guarantees success, but only increases the probability.

In providing sport psychology services to athletes at many levels, I've found that one particular mindset is useful in unlocking true potential in a person. It is the attitude of the beginner's mind, open and trusting, that seems to work well. No matter how accomplished an athlete may be or how much they know, an innocence and almost naïve trust in our plan together is what sets the stage for learning and excellence. Let's call this attitude belief.

Scientists usually scoff at the notion of belief in their research and knowledge creation. After all, we've sent men to the moon and discovered the cures for many diseases not by believing, but by analyzing and thinking in an extremely critical fashion. This healthy doubt is the hallmark of the scientific revolution and serves us well in creating knowledge, but doubt in an athlete's mind only sidetracks progress and interferes with performance.

The problem with doubt for the athlete is that an awful lot of energy and left-brain thinking is required to analyze critically and consider the many possibilities of action. Doubt creates distractions that disrupt flow and focus and reduce confidence. To perform with grace and efficiency on the tennis court requires an almost single-minded and simple trust in the chosen training method.

In working with an athlete, whether as a coach or sport psychologist, it is essential to establish trust up front and spell out the benefits that occur by letting go of control and believing in the plan. This is not to say that every word out of a good coach or sport psychologists' mouth is scientifically based. Far from it! A good part of any coaching and counseling is art, based upon intuition, smart risks, trends and hunches.

Still, it is often the athlete's belief, as well as the precision of their knowledge, that leads them to progress. Much has been written about the placebo effect in medicine. A sugar pill will often cure pain as effectively as an established pain medication. The mechanism here is belief. This placebo effect is equally important in getting an athlete ready for peak performance.

Here are some guidelines in helping promote belief in an athlete. Whether you are an athlete, coach, sport psychologist or highly involved tennis parent, you will find these useful:

  1. Whatever you are doing, make sure that your approach is based on sound principles. Although belief is important, belief alone will never suffice. Part of the challenge in establishing trust is showing how what you are doing is credible and state of the art.

  2. Paint a total picture for the athlete from the outset. Show the person what it takes to achieve high performance and how goals will be accomplished. Only after showing the overall plan is it time to get specific and address details.

  3. Simplify your message. Rather than trying to accomplish too many things at once, focus on one skill at a time until mastery occurs. Confusion rarely enhances belief or performance.

  4. Never promise victory, but always promise higher performance. There is no way to absolutely control the outcome of an athletic event. False promises only reduce belief.

With solid knowledge and a total belief in the program and goals chosen, the athlete is more confident, uncluttered by doubts and free to express their own creative genius. Teach belief as much as you teach skills and you'll unleash a force with few limitations. Good luck and I'll see you next month...

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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