I've received lots of inquiries over the past year from frustrated amateur and professional athletes, seeking advice on how to break out of a slump. One team captain recently stated that her teammates were very frustrated, and tired of constantly coming off the court and saying "we could have and should have won that match." As a clinical and sport psychologist, I would be lying if I stated that any simple solutions to this problem exist.
Much of my work involves spending quality time with people to evaluate and treat complex performance problems such as these. The optimal approach is to work one on one, with group meetings with a team second best. Each person truly has a unique and complex history with unique needs for improvement. Although I cannot possibly meet you all personally, let's look at some general principles that can help you bust out of a slump.
Trapped in Negativity
Nobody enjoys losing. Even more confounding is to lose repeatedly over a long period of time. Before long, this pattern takes on a life all its own, becoming an even greater foe than the person on the other side of the net! As Lindsay Davenport so accurately said, "the game with yourself is often tougher than the battle against any opponent." Rather than just playing tennis, players on a losing streak often dwell too long on their results and begin to perceive themselves as being trapped or stuck.
Trying too hard to pull out of the slump makes it even worse, as the player's mental skills are often severely disrupted. For example, I see people losing confidence (even though this is completely controllable), becoming overly intense, focusing on irrelevant thoughts, and setting totally inappropriate goals. The bottom line is that the momentum of losing often leads to a distress all its own, and this continues the pattern of losing. It's a vicious cycle of negativity.
Causes of this Mess?
Why does a slump happen in the first place? There are many possible answers to this question. Competition is very delicate and complex, and momentum plays a huge role.
It may be that you simply lost to a better opponent six times in a row, and delude yourself into thinking that you should have won each match. Then when you should win, you lose! Momentum takes over. Another problem is being distracted by off-court issues.
Expectations have a great impact on performance too. Just as it helps to remain confident (always expecting the best), the reverse holds true too. Expecting the worst usually gets you there. Negative self-talk leads to negative performance and results. The mind cannot stay focused on the bad and the good at the same time.
The equilibrium that is disrupted by trying too hard to overcompensate, or giving up out of despair, must also be considered. Athletes need to remain optimally focused and energized. Too much fluctuation in any direction over a short period of time leads to lapses in attention and problems with consistency. It's hard enough to play a solid tennis match without having mental skills disrupted too. Throw in the inner turmoil caused by frustration and you have a tangled mess!
Cleaning up the Mess
How then do you dig yourself out of a slump? The first thing to do is take a short or long break from the sport. This might be a weekend retreat or several months, depending upon your situation and needs. Do anything to leave the performance situation for a while and calmly approach a solution. Nothing can be accomplished if you do not first reduce the intensity, change the scenery, and reflect.
After finding the time and place to do some repair work, here are some specific tips to follow:
Much of our behavior is habit and momentum. It is often just as difficult to change a winning streak (the New York Yankees are a prime example) as it is to change losing. Having a slump is nothing unusual. It is simply time to take stock, refresh the batteries, and see the picture from a slightly different angle. In time, you'll be back in the saddle and enjoying the competition as much as the victories. See you next month...
- While in a calm state, spend 30 minutes taking a complete inventory of why you love your sport. If you cannot find any positives, you are ready for a much longer break from your sport!
- Tell yourself that for the next three months after you begin again, that you will simply play for the reasons you listed in #1.
- Find other physical activities to go along with your sport. For example, if you are a tennis player, play basketball a couple hours each week, or take up softball once a week. This type of cross training will help recharge your tennis batteries.
- Begin to focus on a completely different aspect of performance. For example, take a look at your focus, independent of how well you are hitting the ball or whether you are winning or losing. You might, for example, make a goal to improve your focus over the next two weeks. You rate how focused you were throughout your match on a 1-10 scale. Each time you perform, you try to raise the level of your focus. By the end of two weeks, you have accomplished success in mental skills development if you can consistently achieve a 9 or 10 in focus. This is completely within your control, as opposed to match result, which is not. Your focus is on focus, not on outcome!
- Change your training routine. This might include a new practice court, new hitting partners, or a new strategy. The main thing is to inject freshness into your sport. Change clothing, grip tape or shoes. These minor adjustments often contribute to renewed enjoyment for the sport.
- Take all the pressure off by forgetting about winning and losing for a while. Set goals to perform better rather than to win or lose. Change your focus to skills and effort, while letting the outcome take care of itself.
- If none of these tips works after a couple months, give some serious thoughts to sport psychology counseling! This never indicates weakness. This is simply a search for excellence.