Our psychologist, Alan Hely, has over 30 years’ experience working with individuals and teams in sport & performance psychology, including working with elite athletes. Here he writes about the role of performance psychology in professional sports like tennis and cricket, and describes several skills you can use to enhance your game.

As the Australian summer of professional tennis and cricket rolls on, consider the mental skills of the world’s top players. How did they get to be “mentally tough”? Why do some players seem to have the “right stuff” and others don’t?

If you follow the players closely during interview and read magazine articles about them, you will see the occasional hint regarding their well-trained mental skills. Many of them work with performance psychologists, but few of them refer to this in public.

Let’s listen into the thought processes of some of the world’s best players:

1. Rafael Nadal

Consider the pre match preparation of Rafael Nadal, one of the world’s best tennis players competing in the Australian Open. In his book “Rafa. My story”, he describes his pre-game ritual which helps to move him into his own personal Zone:

Forty-five minutes before the game was scheduled to start, I took a cold shower. Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return; the first step in the last phase of what I call my pregame ritual. Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow. I’m a different man when I emerge. I’m activated. I’m in ‘the flow’, as sports psychologists describe a state of alert concentration which the body moves by pure instinct, like a fish in a current. Nothing else exists but the battle ahead.

Notice the reference to “flow” and sport psychologists. He obviously works on his mental skills with professionals.

2. Jordan Speith

Jordan Spieth’s competition preparation was revealed when he was interviewed on television immediately after winning the Australian Open Golf in Sydney on 20 November 2016. The interviewer commented that Jordan had now won the tournament twice and also finished second. Jordan replied:

Yeah I love it here, we love coming back here, changing golf courses (different tournament venues), very different golf course but we embrace the challenge, we got in kind early, we were out at the course here Sunday before, a week ago, really trying to learn what we can about a new place.

3. Milos Raonic

Pro tennis player Milos Raonic explained how he dealt with the enormity of his opponent’s reputation when he defeated Roger Federer in a semi-final at the 2016 Wimbledon Tennis championships. In a subsequent press conference, he said:

My attitude kept me in the match and I think that’s what made the biggest difference, I was quite vocal but I was always positive and I was always looking for a solution. Two years ago I bottled up all the difficulties I had on court and never got it out, today I found a way to keep plugging away, keep myself in the match, and then sort of turn it around I was quite more vocal and a lot more positive on court. You’re playing who Roger is today, not who he’s been every, the past few years, so you try to focus it on that and on what you need to do and try not to spend too much time and attention thinking about him, because, especially for myself, I gotta always worry about myself first.

This style of thinking should be utilised by those who have to play an opponent with a big reputation or higher ranking. Think Australia versus “Lionel Messi” in the World Cup.

4. English Bowlers

Finally, the opposite to mental toughness was found when top level bowlers in English cricket were interviewed by psychologists. They were asked about what happens in their minds when they choke, get nervous or tighten up. The results were very personal and included thoughts such as:

It’s happening again. I really panicked then. It felt like the ball was stuck in my hand. I was telling myself when to let go of the ball and of course you can’t do that, it’s too late.

I was totally aware of my embarrassment, I couldn’t concentrate; my mind was full of panic and confusion.

I looked like I didn’t have any coordination and I hate people thinking I am not coordinated. I am very self-conscious. I like to look good and do everything well. I like things to go right. I want to impress people and it’s all to do with the level of importance that you attach to people.

Performance psychology has now superseded Sports Psychology and includes the latest research in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Skill Acquisition and other more specialised applications in psychology.

You can learn to improve your game with several mental skills that have now been defined and developed into learnable techniques and processes:

1. Motivation

Powerful research and understanding in CBT show us that motivation is best conceptualised as the process of working for a reward. The essential issue is to identify the reward that will drive you to work the long and painful hours that are necessary. When the long-term reward is powerful enough, you will endure the pain of long training sessions.

2. Concentration

Now regarded as the contents of your attention at any one point in time. This sounds obvious but as the cricketers above showed us, thoughts that were task irrelevant crowded the mind and produced poor results. Learn what it is that you focus on during practice when you are performing well and then consciously keep these thoughts in mind when playing. With practice, this mindset will become automatic and you will not need to consciously attend to swing thoughts and movement instructions.

3. Confidence

The long history of research into skill acquisition tells us that skills are automated with practice and that in conjunction with the above concentration skills the desired movement will be produced when required. Confidence then becomes an expectation that you no longer have to attend to movement mechanics and this frees you brain to focus on the strategies and variables in the current game.

4. Control

Emotion regulation is essential in the production of both gross and fine motor skills. The research on “Inner zones”, technically referred to as “Flow” during sport has demonstrated two main topics for application in your sport. Firstly, psychology can train you to enter a zone of perfect concentration, but this doesn’t instantly produce superior performance. Secondly the act of centering your emotions, neither too high nor too low, creates a more optimal mental state which allows for best mental activity. You can then utilise your freed up mental capacity to plan strategies, take mental notes on your opponent, attend to course management and other sport relevant activities. Extremes of emotion, whether high or low, actually reduce mental clarity and allow for more mistakes, which then creates the vicious circle of mistake, emotion, reduced clarity and more mistakes.

As an example, after defeating the 4th seed Carolina Garcia in the 2023 Australian Open, Polish tennis player Magda Linette attributed her winning performance to 6 months of working on her “emotional management”.

5. Finally…

Use the power of role models and vicarious experience when watching the world’s best to energise your next game.

Interested in using performance psychology to enhance your game? Our psychologists at Sydney City Psychology can help. Get in touch today to find out more, or to book in with Alan or one of our other psychologists.