Mind over Matter

Two sports headlines in the newspaper today caught my attention as they showed a very interesting contrast:

"Resolute Dent glad to be back in swing”
"It’s all mental as Serb suffers Major letdown”

The headlines are about two tennis matches at the US Open. The news story under the first headline describes how unseeded Taylor Dent, after “enduring three back surgeries, spending substantial time in a body cast, being bedridden up to 23 hours a day for weeks at a time and hearing doctors say he’d likely never play tennis again and maybe not even walk again”, came back to beat a player ranked 158 spots above him.

The second is about how former world number one Serbian pin-up tennis player Ana Ivanovic slumped to a shock first round defeat.

Both headlines, especially the second, suggest that the mind had a lot to do with the results. Dent was “resolute” and “glad to be back”. Ivanovic’s loss was “all mental”.

What the players said after the matches lent support to the observations.

"The only word to describe it is ‘elation,’” said Dent. “But I can’t get wrapped up in it too much,” Dent said. “I have a second-round match coming up. I don’t want to just win one round here. I’d like to win a few.”

Contrast that with Ivanovic’s post-match reflection. “When I follow my instincts, I play great,” Ivanovic said. “Then I think I can make other shots and I feel maybe I should go a different direction: That’s when bad shot selection comes… My mind and my body, it’s not on the same level.”

Ivanovic’s words are worth further analysis. In his book “Smart Tennis”, John F. Murray wrote about how tennis players sometimes find themselves being “in the zone”. According to Murray, when players are in the zone, the feeling is “one of pure enjoyment and effectiveness”. Here is how he describes it:

"It is a sense of complete satisfaction and absorption in the present moment and a feeling of natural power. In the zone, attention is so efficient that the mind and body act together like one integrated unit on automatic pilot. This is actually the unifying theme of the smart tennis approach. Mind and body are really one and should act as such!”

Murray goes on to talk about how to achieve that state: “Begin by allowing your instincts to rule. Spend time on the court and off the court just experiencing tennis, withholding all judgment…”

It is funny how the poor Serb’s description of her state on the court was a complete antithesis of what Murray said about being in the zone. No doubt she was completely out of it.

Elsewhere in the post-match interview Ivanovic said: “I think it has also to do with the confidence… I just don’t trust myself like I did before.”

She was quite right. Murray has this to say about confidence, and a lack of it:

"Confident athletes entertain a rich variety of successful thoughts. The thought of failure rarely occurs. Confident athletes believe deeply in their abilities, love challenges, and feel strongly that they will prevail. Finally, confident athletes expect success and display it in their body language… Success is never certain, but self-doubt, negativity, and low expectations guarantee failure. Belief in oneself prevents harmful distractions such as anxiety, allowing for a more efficient performance focus. Confidence also adds security during slumps and helps the athlete sustain effort.”

Unfortunately, Ivanovic had two enemies in that match – her opponent and herself. She was her own worst enemy. Or should I say her mind?

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