I’m sure you know the story of Victor Frankl. His career as a psychotherapist and neurologist was interrupted by the Second World War and the Holocaust. He spent three years in four Nazi camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering lll, and Turkheim. He lost his wife Tilly, and his father, mother and brother in the camps. Surviving, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and I quote a paragraph to you:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the hut comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offered sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you will become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become moulded into the form of the typical inmate.
I hope you don’t find it too big a jump or even disrespectful of me to relate the experience of Frankl and the thousands upon thousands of other victims and survivors of the Holocaust, perhaps one of the most hideous expressions of human behaviour in history, to something so comparatively unimportant as the sport of tennis. However, if you can stay with me just a bit longer, then perhaps we can explore the amazing message in Frankl’s words and how we can apply it to our “everyday.”
As a coach and father I’m always encouraging my students and my own two boys to think positively and that our attitude and mindset is truly a choice. Even for those we label as positive thinkers, negative thoughts, images, fears, anxieties will invade the mind. Why? Because we’re human! Far more esteemed and knowledgeable people than me, such as Dr. Steve Peters with his “Chimp Paradox,” have done extensive work on what is fundamentally the unevolved “reptilian” part of our brain that is constantly on the hunt for danger—our flight, flight or freeze responses. Just listen to the honest and humble interviews of Rafa Nadal, who after winning 14 Grand Slam titles is still only too aware of his “chimp” within. The key, however, is whether we submit to these thoughts and emotions and let them control us (Peters would call this the chimp running riot) or whether we exercise our freedom of choice and respond in a different way which gets the chimp back in the cage.
The sports psych guys out there, especially those with backgrounds in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) will tell you: thoughts influence your emotions and your emotions influence your behavior—so catch, challenge and then change your thoughts! I entirely agree with this, but also sometimes think that the best way to change an attitude, emotion or feeling (they’re all linked) is to “fake it until you feel it!” In other words, is it easier to think your way into a new way of acting or behaving or act your way into a new way of feeling (and therefore thinking)?
The saying “Where your attention goes, power flows” is directly linked to these ideas. Whatever my attentional material, the more I focus on it, the more power I will give it. Best then that our attentional material, which is so often from an internal perspective, our own self-talk, is constructive and helpful in nature. Can we move from: “This is too hard” to “This may take some time and effort”; or “I’m no good at this” to “I’m on the right track”; or “I give up” to “What new strategies can I use?”
The great thing about our sport of tennis is the numerous opportunities it provides us to “fail.” We lose points, games, sets and matches and in these “failures” (if we choose to call them that), and we have the opportunity to choose our attitude, to exercise our ability to respond in a different way.
A bit like life really…
Author’s note: This article is an excerpt taken from Michael James’ new book Everyball (Panoma Press), which is available on amazon.com.
Michael James is a performance coach and consultant who is passionate about unleashing human potential to maximize performance and improve results. In his new book Everyball, James delves deep into his own tennis experiences, first as a child growing up playing on the “murram” courts of Kenya, then to the hard courts of Tucson, AZ, and finally to a 22-year coaching career in Great Britain, to bring alive his coaching philosophy. He currently serves Director of Tennis for Halton Tennis Centre (An LTA High Performance Centre) and the founder of its coaching brand Everyball Tennis. For more information, visit www.coachingbymike.com.