sports psychologist & clinical psychology

SOCIAL OBSTRUCTION IN TENNIS

Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Nov 1, 1999 – Dr. John F. Murray – What would happen to your game if the whole world suddenly stopped what they were doing to scrutinize your next tennis match? That’s right, the ESPN truck pulls alongside the court just as you begin warming up.

If you’re on the pro tour, you’d probably seize the opportunity. The limelight is great and this is your chance to display your awesome power and deft touch, and perhaps secure a new endorsement package!

On the other hand, if you are beginning to learn tennis, you might ask to use the restroom and never return! Novice players are much more vulnerable to the effects of pressure caused by observers.

Let’s take a look this month at what I’ll call “social obstruction,” the reduction in performance produced by onlookers. This is contrasted with the more well known improvement seen in front of others called “social facilitation.”

The Effects of an Audience

Perhaps closer to reality, what if your girlfriend, father, and ten friends decide to attend your next challenge match to watch you show off your newly learned forehand? You might be excited at first, but will this really help you perform better?

Research has demonstrated that athletic performance improves in front of a crowd and most world records are broken in front of massive crowds rather than in practice. However, this social facilitation effect works primarily with simple tasks or advanced performers. Energy levels rise with the presence of others, making it more probable that well learned habits and skills emerge.

If your forehand is new, or if it just went through a major overhaul, more onlookers rarely helps. On the other hand, if the task were to run faster or jump higher, crowds would likely inspire you to perform better. The difference is that tennis is a very complex sport requiring a relatively low level of intensity (recall my article Optimizing Arousal in Tennis. You need every ounce of your mental equipment directed to the task at hand and rising arousal levels are often distracting and unnecessary. In sum, unless you’re very skilled at tennis, realize that social obstruction is a more likely outcome when the world shows up to watch you play.

Embarrassment

One fallout of social obstruction is often embarrassment, and this can escalate into an even poorer performance! I’m not trying to scare you here, just pointing out some of the potential landmines so that we can defuse them.

With an increasingly larger crowd, or your favorite onlookers present, players want to make a good impression. This “impression management” takes a life of it’s own and competes with your need to perform naturally and effectively. After making a mistake, players will often become flustered by their inability to impress their fans. The thinking becomes increasingly self-reflective, and may go something like this: “The whole world is here and they realize that I did not do my part!” People are often terrified by the awareness that their public ineptness is observed and negatively evaluated by others. Once this happens, the problem becomes lack of confidence too (See my previous article The Art of Confidence further undermining performance.

Solutions

What can you do to cope more effectively with the potential nightmares caused by social obstruction? Here are a few tips:

Concern for what others are thinking is often the source of the problem. While this respect is encouraged and noble in most social situations, realize that it is impossible to concentrate effectively on two things well at the same time. If you are focused on performance, forget about the crowd. There will be time later to catch up, chat and compare notes. Learn to block external distractions from your awareness. One good way to do this is to practice hitting your shots while your partner actively tries to rattle you verbally. Switch roles and try to destroy your partner’s concentration so that he/she can practice this too. Review my article on Attentional Control in Tennis.

Lower your own unnecessary ideals. You want to impress yourself as well as others, but the problem is that you think your shots should look perfect, that you should never miss, or that you should appear really impressive. This is deep fantasyland. Tennis is a sport in which staying in the moment and reacting effectively to adversity is rewarded. There are no form points awarded and you only need one more ball over the net than your opponent to win the point. Work on your technique and style in practice, but once the game begins keep your mind on staying in the game and exploiting weaknesses.

Work as hard as possible to keep your energy level down in front of a crowd. Remember that the tendency is to become over-energized. Fight this urge by breathing deeply, slowing down your actions, and remaining focused on the task at hand. Refrain from doing too much with your shots. Go with the ones you’re comfortable hitting. Take your time and think in slow motion if you find yourself getting overactivated.

You are only as good as your practices. Once the match begins you’ll tend to reproduce what is already there, so trying to do more in front of a crowd is rarely helpful. After you’ve learned to defeat the demons of social obstruction, you may welcome all the major sports networks to your next match!

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