Dr. Jorge Valverde
Most great champions developed the ability to push themselves to go through all the challenges they have to go through during their careers. And inner motivation is the main reason why they are able to do so. Inner motivation is the ability to draw from oneself all the physical and emotional energy necessary to face every challenge on the way to the achievement of a goal or dream. This inner drive is usually developed early in life due to the desire of a child to be like somebody else, a role model, in particular, when this desire is reinforced positively by those who are close to the child (family and coaches) without the imposition of expectations. The moment relatives or coaches make a forecast of what their children or players are capable of achieving, they are not only putting unnecessary pressure on them, but also are robbing them of the opportunity to discover their own potential, a powerful source of inner motivation. Pressure is produced because children/players will feel the need to meet that expectation imposed on them and they will feel like a failure if they don’t. By not discovering their own potential, children/players cannot create their own expectations and they cannot own their own goals and dreams. The following are some examples of imposed expectations:
“You are the total package.”
“With your talent, you are going to go very far.”
“You are better than most kids in your group.”
“You will be able to make it to the top 20 of your age division.”
“You are better than your opponent, you can beat him/her.”
“You have an easy draw, you can get all the way to the final.”
Obviously these phrases have the intention to motivate, to move the listener to accomplish something significant – to increase somebody’s confidence! However, these kinds of statements produce the opposite results in the long run. Initially, in particular when children/players are young, before the age of 13, it may motivate them and make them believe that they can do it. However, by the time these children/players develop their ability to reason at a higher level, usually during puberty, they become very concerned about all the expectations that have been imposed on to them. These concerns eventually develop into tension, stress and performance anxiety – the inability to perform well when it counts. Consequently, some of the following situations are very common:
- Playing great in practice but not in tournaments
- Lack of consistency between points, games, matches or tournaments
- Difficulty in keeping a lead
- Choking – fear of success
- Being injury-prone
- Negative body language
- Lack of enjoyment when competing
- Inability to figure out the real reason(s) why a match was lost
- Great comebacks but failing at the end
During matches, players appear to be rushing between points but moving slowly when playing the points – they cannot get to balls that are within reach. They give the impression that they do not care enough about the match when in reality it is the opposite.
Obviously, the cause of these difficulties is mainly psychological. However, most players usually try to overcome them by working harder on the physical part of their game – more hours on the court, more physical training, etc. This approach leads them to higher expectations which produce higher stress and low self-confidence (after failing over and over again regardless of the extra efforts).
What players and parents need to understand is that these difficulties are not overcome by just waiting for the child to mature, in fact, the longer this kind of challenges go on, the more difficult it is to deal with them later. I have worked with many players who successfully learned to cope with these difficult situations. Some of them used to cope by crying on the tennis court, others were considering quitting. Parents of some of these players could not even watch them compete any more because it was so stressful for them to watch their child perform so poorly and be under so much stress. The solution lies in a sound approach that focuses on finding the players’ inner motivation; on teaching them mental strategies to stay calm and aggressive under pressure situations; on developing a deep sense of belief in their abilities; and on helping them to concentrate on those things that are crucial to perform at the highest levels.