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Psychological Profiles of Peak Performance

How does emotional arousal impact tennis performance?  This topic has been explored for decades in sport psychology.  Early research suggested the more arousal, the better an athlete would perform.  This was called “drive theory.”  This theory worked well with sports such as weight lifting and football where more intense levels of emotional arousal were correlated to better performance.  However, this theory did not apply so well to other sports.  A second generation theory, the inverted-U, was developed.  This theory specifically looked at the relationship between arousal and performance.  Research here suggested that both low levels of arousal and high levels of arousal contributed to poor performance.  As an example, if a tennis player was overly nervous/anxious, the performance would be low.  Conversely, if the player was unmotivated and not interested in playing, the performance would also be low.  Moderate levels of arousal were deemed to lead to peak performance and thus the goal of sport psychology was to help athletes figure out how to regulate their thoughts and feelings to create a moderate level of arousal.  For instance, a player who was focused and motivated without being overly nervous would have an ideal mental state.

While there is research to support the inverted-U model of performance the latest research suggests that people and various sports differ too much to suggest there is one mental profile and the goal is to make every athlete be the same.  While there can be some common mental traits between athletes who are performing at their peak, there is no single ideal profile.  Some athletes play well while they are angry, while others seem to crumble.  On the tennis court, some players thrive when the competition is personal and there is an “edge” between players while others do their best when their opponent is cordial and friendly.   Some players prefer a familiar court with a familiar foe while others get energized by playing new players in new places.

The latest research suggests each person has an individual zone of optimal functioning or IZOF.   Think of this like an equalizer on the stereo system.  The equalizer of a sound system has many different channels to fine tune aspects of a sound such as the bass, treble, etc.  A person can add a little more bass and decrease the treble to make the sound optimal.  The same concept applies to a person’s individual zone of optimal functioning.  One tennis player might have an optimal performance profile that includes high levels of aggression and intensity, or a 10 out of 10 on their “equalizer.”  However another tennis player might play better when their aggression and intensity settings are at a 7 out of 10.  The goal of sport psychology then becomes helping tennis players figure out their IZOF and develop techniques to regularly create this profile.

So what does this mean for you?  Think of times when you were playing your best.  Why were playing that way?  Did you put a lot of pressure to play well, or did you say “I’m going to have fun today?”  Also, notice what emotions you had that day; what thoughts did you have?  What do you do to regulate your thoughts and emotions before and during a match?  Here is an example:  Allison was playing a tough competitor, someone she lost to several times before.  Before the match she found herself feeling tense and worried.  As a result she was making many unforced errors during the warm-up.  Her opponent looked even more relaxed and acted like Allison was no threat; this made Allison more annoyed and her play become worse.  In this case her equalizer was off and her play was “noisy.”  She took a few deep breaths to relax and body and before the match started she spent a few minutes mentally rehearsing her last match when she played rather well.  This helped to increase her sense of control and confidence and lowered her anxiety about defeating what she perceived as the “Goliath” of her tennis life.  This was how she adjusted her “mental equalizer.”  Her opponent started the match with a strong service game.  Rather than mentally beating herself up and over-thinking, Allison made the choice to focus on the next game and accept the result of the first game.  She held serve which increased her confidence and she continued to practice breathing between games to keep her anxiety in check.

Rick Van Haveren, Ph.D.

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