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How to Maintain Focus Under Pressure Part 1

By Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc. M.Sc.(Hons) B.Ed.

The most talented player doesn't always win the match - it's the player who has the mental edge on their competition. How many times have you seen top seeds down two sets to love, being absolutely thrashed by an unseeded player ..... only to win the next three sets? How many times have you personally been defeated by someone you 'know' you should be able to beat, but they somehow always seem to have the wood on you?

The above scenarios are all about intimidation - being able to affect your opponent with your own intent, and of course, learning how to 'immunise' and shield yourself against such attacks.

Intimidation is not just about physical size, emotional outbursts, or verbal sledging - in fact the best intimidation tactics are the strong silent type that insidiously gnaw away at your opponents confidence, expose their weaknesses and undermine their abilities.

The best way to think of this concept is to begin with an example from the martial art of Aikido. When someone attacks you, there is a moment in which they gather their energy prior to expending it in the form of an attack. So there is a very small window of opportunity prior to an attack, in which you can take control of the situation.

This is identified physically in the person attacking by their taking an 'in-breath'. Before we can expend energy, we have to first gather energy in. Try it yourself - draw back your fist and arm as if you were going to punch someone, and notice how as you do, it's natural to take a breath in. Then you expel it as you punch.

This concept doesn't just apply to combat - in order to achieve anything, to do anything, there is a period of gathering energy first - then the expenditure of energy. For example, think of a tennis forehand or a golf swing - you first take back the club or racquet in order to develop the power to hit the ball. In Nature, and even in business, there are periods of withdrawal prior to bursts of growth or activity.

The idea for the Aikido exponent is to be aware of the movement of 'energy' in your partner, (through attention to their breathing and other non-verbal signals), and to blend with their attack at the point just prior to it happening, so as to re-direct their movement and energy to your purpose.

However it's not just the physical action that happens in someone attacking - a worthy opponent will also attack with their mind.

So we take action to 'catch' an opponent's arm or wrist in that window of opportunity before the completion of their in-breath and their attack, but it also means 'capturing' their mind; to blend with their attack at the point of intention.

What I do when I 'capture my opponent's mind' is to enter into their thought space and take control of their point of intention. So that just as they intend an action, I have already blended with that intention and turned it in another direction.

While this may sound very esoteric, I'm sure you've already experienced it, many times. Every time you've competed or interacted with someone and been able to somehow know - beyond logic - what they were going to do, is an example of this.

Also you may have been on the receiving end of the process! If you've ever felt totally controlled by someone else, or totally unconfident around them to the point where you're not acting or performing in your normal manner - they've captured your mind; or rather, you've allowedthem to capture your intention point.

Try the following exercise :

EXERCISE : Capturing Your Opponent's Mind

1. Begin with a short relaxation and imagine around yourself a bubble of positivity. [ An excellent six-step format for doing this is outlined in all the Sportsmind audio tapes ]

2. Now picture your opponent, see them in your mind's eye and associate into them: get a feel for how they move, what they see, and what they hear or say to themselves when they're playing.

3. Now simply intend to capture their intention - to know their plans, strategies and intentions.

4. Return to yourself and reflect on the exercise.

CASE STUDY : Cyclist

The above exercise is excellent for taking charge in a competitive interaction - and you will also want to know how to shield yourself against it, if someone applies it to you! A professional female cyclist asked me for some help in dealing with a situation in which her opponent was staring her down just prior to the start of a race - and this was putting her off.

Through using this process she was able to block her opponent's attempts to psych her out, and shield herself from her influence.

To some people, this concept of 'capturing your opponents mind' and the exercise I've just described may seem 'evil' or dishonourable. If this is the case, let me ask you two questions: Firstly, if it's OK to compete and struggle against someone physically during the game, then why is it any different to apply such mental pressure? What makes it all right to compete physically, but not mentally?

Secondly, when does the actual competition begin? Does it begin when the officials blow the whistle to begin, or while you're warming up, or when you first step onto the playing field? Many people think of a competition starting at the 'official' starting time of the first serve, or play, or whatever - but I would argue that it begins days, or even weeks before.

Give yourself an advantage in every competition by starting the game well before your opponent.

Deliberately smile at them and then ignore them. Prior to the game deliberately imagine them as puny, unfit and clumsy, then forget about them. They aren't important - YOU are.

Focus on the most important person - that's YOU. Remember all the training and hard work you've done to get here. Deliberately recollect and relive the best matches you've ever played: come from behind victories; easy closeout wins; times you served aces and returned powerfully; the cross court and line winners you've made; confident put-away volleys; etc. Highlight your best performances, and make them large and close in your mind's eye.

Now picture capturing your opponents mind. See yourself as an intimidating player.

[ The above article has been excerpted from my new book, Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings, that shows you how to develop the thinking and feeling strategies and techniques of champions. For more information see www.sportsmind.com.au or contact Jeffrey Hodges at jeff@sportsmind.com.au Phone (07) 5445 7994 ]

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed "Sportsmind - An Athlete's Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training" and "Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings"; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph's College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
SPORTSMIND , 77 FLAXTON MILL ROAD
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
email : jh@sportsmind.com.au
website : www.sportsmind.com.au

By Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc. M.Sc.(Hons) B.Ed.

A two-part series on concentration and mind calming techniques for successfully coping with pre-performance nerves, anxiety and competition pressure.

Part 1 : Positive Emotional States Positive emotional states - such as one-pointed concentration, enthusiasm, tenacity, motivation, and even happiness - are influenced by three important factors: your physiology, your ideology, and by the environment. Your state is under your control, and if you want to prepare yourself - emotionally - for competition, you will want to understand these three factors.

STATE

One of the most important concepts in performance psychology that every tennis player and coach wants to know about, and master, is the idea of state. State is all about how you're currently experiencing the world, emotionally. You know, and have experienced many different states : anger; sadness; boredom; jealousy; happiness; determination; excitement; and so on. Yet states don't just 'jump' on you out of the blue, do they? You don't suddenly experience violent rage, or deep loneliness, for no reason do you?

States are effects - they are a consequence of something you're doing in your mind. States are also processes, they're not static - you change 'state' regularly throughout the day don't you?

Now we can ask two questions about state that are particularly important to all sports people: Firstly, what states are most useful for success in tennis?; and secondly, how can we deliberately create those states in ourselves? Think about those questions for a few moments.

Some examples of states that sportspeople usually mention are : Relaxed; Confident; Positive; Focused; Determined; Aggressive; and Hungry to Win. Feeling a sense of Enjoyment, and Happiness or Fun when playing also rates highly for most successful players.

However, few people ever answer the second question - how do I create those states in myself? This is because, for many people, their state is not under conscious control. They just 're-act' to external circumstances and situations rather than choosing a state that would be most useful to them in a given context, and deliberately building that state in themselves, prior to performing. They just leave their state to chance, and 'hope' they perform well.

This just isn't good enough. It's important to know how to create states in ourselves, so you can manage your state .... so you can deliberately build the most resourceful and capable states in yourself before you even step onto the tennis court. So let me ask you to stop and think again - how do we create states in ourselves ..... what are the 'building blocks' of state?

BUILDING BLOCKS OF STATE

I've identified three major building blocks of state, and whatever answers you came up with, you'll probably find that they fit into one of the following three categories : Physiology; Ideology; and Environment.

The building blocks of our emotions - our states - are our physiology, or body posture, breathing and movements; our ideology, or what you're imagining, and saying to yourself; and the environment around you, both the physical and social environments. Lets look at each of these in more detail now.

Physiology . It's easy to recognise how our physiology - our body posture, breathing, facial expressions, and the way we move - affects our state. For example, think how differently you feel if you hang your head, breath shallowly, slouch, and slowly shuffle around ........ compared to holding your head up high, breathe deeply with an erect posture, and move quickly.

How is your state right now? Are you feeling energised and enthusiastic about your life, and about your tennis? If you're not, try changing your physiology now. You can change how you feel, quickly and easily simply by changing how you move, how you breathe, and how you use your facial muscles - the habitual facial expressions you hold.

Take a few moments right now and stand up straight .... take five deep breaths .... and walk briskly around for a few moments. It's a simple thing, but changing your physiology is one of the quickest and easiest ways to change your state, isn't it?

Let's move on to ideology. Your ideology is the combination of what you're imagining and saying to yourself in your mind - and again, this has a powerful impact on your state. For instance, for someone to feel nervous and unconfident about asking someone out on a date, what kinds of things would they imagine? What would they say to themselves? If you imagined being rejected, or worse still, laughed at when you asked them out, and you said to yourself "Oh, they'll never want to go out with me ... I'm not interesting enough", it's easy to see how you could quickly create that negative state, isn't it?

Now relate this concept to your tennis. Think of a time you were playing really well, and were feeling confident and focused. What kinds of things were you saying to yourself? What did you imagine? Why not do these things deliberately to create the kinds of positive states you want to experience in your game, every time you play?

What could you imagine and say to yourself to create more confidence? More hungriness to win? More relaxed and positive states? What could you imagine and say to yourself to feel more enjoyment in your training and competition?

Recognise that changes in your thinking don't just relate to changing the content of your thoughts, but changing some of the visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic submodalities you use in your thinking can have a profound impact on your state. It's not just what you say, or imagine, that affects your state, but also how you imagine the pictures, and how you hear the words.

For example, I'm sure you have at one time or another, criticised yourself for something ... a silly mistake, an oversight, a poor performance, whatever.

Take a moment to recall that critical voice, and as you do, notice the direction it comes from. Do you experience it from your left or right, from in front or behind you? How far away is the voice - does it seem close, or far away? How loud is the voice, and what is its tone like?

Now, just as a bit of an experiment, change each of those submodalities and hear your voice say the same thing in a different way. For instance, if the voice seems to come from just behind your left ear, up close ..... then move it further away, and hear it coming from out in front of you. If the voice is loud, make it softer. If it has a high pitched, whining tone .... change it to be a deep throaty voice. What happens when you do this? It's hard to still feel lousy when your internal critic sounds like a sultry paramour out in front of you, doesn't it. I mean, if you're going to critique your performance, why not have it sound like Tina Turner or Demi Moore?

Likewise, if you have a poor performance and you continue to picture that up close, big, bright and right in front of you .... how do you think it will affect your state? Or if you put in a personal best performance, and you remember that as a tiny, black and white, postage stamp sized picture, behind you .... how much effect will that have on your state?

One of the consistent things I've found in all champion performers - whether they be athletes, or business people - is that they do just the opposite to this. Champions remember their good performances as big, colourful, bright pictures, up close and nearby to them. And of course, this gives them the confidence to attempt their next big goal - and succeed. When they have an off day, they let it go by seeing it small, and dim, and they deliberately push it away and out behind them so it no longer affects them.

How do you think about your good and not-so-good performances? Realise that how you're thinking may very well be holding you back. Deliberately choose the type of words and pictures that are going to build those positive states I spoke of earlier.

Lets move on to Environment. Environment consists of all the other things around you that can influence your state. It includes the weather conditions; the venue; your opponents; the officials; the audience; your coach and team mates; your equipment; your clothes and personal grooming; and so on.

To give you an example of how environment can affect performance, imagine competing in a place and it's a cold windy day .... and the venue is dirty, and littered with papers .... and the equipment is old and poorly maintained .... and the officials disorganised and inefficient .... your team mates slovenly and disinterested .... and there's half a dozen bored looking spectators barracking for the opposition. Maybe you've even experienced times like that!

Compare how you would feel in that situation, to another day ..... where its warm and sunny with a light breeze blowing .... and the venue is clean and fresh looking .... all the equipment is new and well maintained .... and everything is run like clockwork by the officials .... and your team mates are sharp and dressed smartly ..... and there is a huge crowd of your supporters buzzing with excitement. It makes a difference doesn't it?

Another example of how environment can affect your state is given by the person who is playing really well ... until they notice one of their relatives, or close friends, or someone they really want to impress, in the audience .... then their game falls apart!

I think it's important to also recognise that, while environment can affect your state, it does so only in as much as you allow it to affect the other two - your physiology and ideology. Really, the environment can only affect your state through its influence upon your posture and your thinking - and by attending to building positive states using strong physiology and a positive ideology, you can maintain peak performance states regardless of the environment.

Having said this, I think it imperative to point out that the effect of the environment is often very subtle and unconscious, and so giving some attention to building a positive environment for peak performance is a good way to encourage positive states - particularly in those athletes who have not yet developed the ability to consistently self-manage their own state.

This is precisely what the English Rugby Union team did when in Australia for the last world Cup: their dressing room was decorated to look just like their home dressing room at Twickenham, so wherever they played, it 'felt' like a 'home game'.

TRIGGERS

One of the best ways to develop this personal facility of control over your own state is through the use of what are known as sensory triggers. A sensory trigger is simply a physical stimulus that you train your body to associate with a particular state, and which you can use to 'switch on' that state in yourself as required, by using the trigger. It's what is know as simple 'stimulus - response conditioning', and it works in the same way as a light switch. You train your neurology to automatically respond in a precise, positive way to a specific stimulus - in the same way that flicking the light switch turns on the electric light.

In the second part of this article I will discuss how to build these positive triggers for yourself.

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed "Sportsmind - An Athlete's Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training" and "Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings"; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph's College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
SPORTSMIND , 77 FLAXTON MILL ROAD
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
email : jh@sportsmind.com.au
website : www.sportsmind.com.au

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