‘The statistics are overwhelmingly in favour of players who win the first set.’
‘It often seems to be that the closer players are to losing, the more relaxed they are.’
Mats Wilander made these two mental skills statements whilst commentating for Eurosport on the 2018 Australian Open. They point to a problem that players often have, which is that relaxation happens seemingly randomly as a result of external events during a match.
The two external events that Mats pointed out were ‘winning the first set’ and ‘being close to losing’ and in both cases, but probably for different reasons, players are more likely to respond with a relaxed mind which leads to a better physical performance.
If a player wins the first set, they have something in the bank on the scoreboard and they have proved to themselves that winning is possible. From an Inner Game perspective, there is less interference as anxious thoughts recede and with this, better focus leads to maintaining or improving performance.
Players who are not such good front-runners often respond with a little too much relief after winning the first set, relax too much and lose their focus. Although their performance may dip and they may even lose the second set, there is enough self-belief from winning the first set to help them find a useful state of relaxation and refocus to win the final set.
Being close to losing can lead to relaxation because the anxiety that comes from a close match with a good chance of winning is no longer there. The losing player seems to just accept their fate and begins to just play on automatic and their game picks up. Again, there is less interference and so relaxation and performance increase. This is one of the things that makes approaching the winning line all the more difficult for the player who is ahead.
Underneath these observations is the fact that relaxation and focus are connected and have a crucial effect on the outcome of a match. The question is, are they skills that can be learned so that players can call on them throughout a match and not just as a result of what happens during a match.
It has to be safe to say that sports psychology research would answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’ – the next question is how much of your time as a coach do you spend helping players to train relaxation and focus?