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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Getting inside your opponent's head

This post has been delayed for two main reasons. First, Coach Lawrence has a been a bit under the weather needing a visit from Dr Greg House for a diagnosis. Second, while I’m waiting for this unlikely visit, I’ve been able to have my annual dose of the Australian Open.

Few sporting events match Tennis Australia’s main event for providing coaching enthusiasts and professionals with the rich menu of mental, physical, technical and tactical challenges of world class tennis played out in the harsh glare of television coverage. Every facial tic, decision-making point, delivery of ground strokes, service reception and so on is laid bare. The glory of a Federer backhand, heads a long list of ‘if-only-I-could-do-that’ moments for everyone who has ever tossed the ball for a first serve.

In 1989, I had the privilege of working with the great New Zealand player, Belinda Cordwell in the lead up to the Australian Open and through to the semi-final and holding my breath on a match-point (what a wonderfully tough player). I learned many coaching lessons from that experience – things I thought I knew. My view has always been, never let your opponent know what you are thinking. In 1989, I deepened my understanding of how we can help athletes draw on their opponent’s inability to mind-read, to relax and bring new process-goal thinking to the next serve or return in ways that will keep your opponent guessing what you are thinking.

This is not, however, a sport psychology post. Rather it’s an approach to game thinking (and therefore practice thinking) an approach that all players can and should use. For the novice, it’s about controlling your emotions – “It’s only a game and you scored a goal” or “ missed a shot” – “No one will die”. These are early lessons (for coaches and over-eager parents). At the elite end of the spectrum, however, you are seeking two levels of control in the game. First, that cluster of physical, technical and tactical factors with which to dominate. Second, the ability to out-think your opponent in two main ways. To make observably better decisions at critical points in the game. Then, to sow the seeds of doubt in your opponent’s mind about their ability to counter and their growing concern that you will continue to execute winning plays.

Many coaches attempt to use pregame hype to play ‘mind games’ with the opposition. I say - attempt - as scant evidence exists to suggest it works. But the evidence is clear that ways in which players perform and carry themselves do get inside opponents’ heads. And the Australian Open sees that phenomenon writ large in every way possible – positive and negative.

Much of this is about drawing on your game experience and game plan. So far in the tournament, Simona Halep has been startlingly accurate about where her opponent’s second serve is going. In the quarter-final against Pliskova that was important when added to Halep’s decision to attack Pliskova’s forehand who committed 23 errors on that forehand.

Halep and Federer were both in difficult situations three and five games into their first quarter-final sets. Both out thought their opponents to achieve unlikely wins of the first set – the rest (as they say) is history. Halep and Federer were emotionally on top of their highly fancied opponents by taking unexpected tactical approaches and executing winners when the smallest opportunity presented itself. Perhaps unkindly, commentator John McEnroe wondered whether Thomas Berdych’s off-court injury break was in pursuit of a psychiatrist rather than a physiotherapist! Casual and armchair expert?

And don’t expect too much from media conferences. When asked about how he intended to play in the semi-final against South Korean rising star, Hyeon Chung, Federer said “Right now, I couldn’t tell you how I need to play him. One thing I know is I’m going to be playing aggressive. I don’t know how I’m going to do that exactly yet.” Give the media some words “I’m going to be playing aggressive….” (then, note to self – “…but adopt the best plan for the purpose as I see it”).

What does playing more aggressive even mean? Serve the ball harder? Shorten the rallies? Play to the body more? Force him more onto the backhand? Run him off the court? Given Federer’s history of playing big games, he’ll do all of the above and more. We may see his patience of years in maintaining the rally and then pouncing when the smallest opportunity arises. He’ll respect his opponent, but most of all, he’ll keep his thinking to himself and his opponent guessing. You get inside your opponent’s head most effectively by what you do in the game and by how little you let your opponent know about what you are thinking.

Some will point to McEnroe and argue how histrionics never seemed to stop him being a great player. True enough: but how much greater player could he have been. He certainly distracted his opposition.

(photo source: World Sport Star)

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