FeedForward: Mental Skills Before, During and After a Match

By Amy Gross, Peak Performance & Mental Coach

The single most important thing athletes can do to enhance their performance is improve their mental game, so why do we spend the majority of our time on physical training? As Novak Djokovic said, “if we all trained our minds as much as we are training our muscles and physical body, I think we would achieve and maximize our potential.” Similar to the physical, technical and tactical parts of squash, the mental side needs to be practiced regularly to take your game to the next level.

Before Competition
If you spend too much time focusing on the “uncontrollables” (who you play, court conditions, the referee, the crowd), you risk flooding your mind with self-doubt, stress and anxiety which then depletes your brain of resources (focus and energy) that support optimal performance.

1. Conquer the controllables. Instead of dwelling on the uncontrollables, practice being extraordinary at the things that are in your control. This can be any task that helps your mental preparation: what/when to eat; getting a solid warmup; or visualization.

2. Identify your peak performance zone. Sport psychologist Yuri Hanin developed the individual zone of optimum functioning (IZOF) framework, which highlights athletes optimal playing zones. Some play their best with high anxiety/intensity, others need to be calmer/relaxed or somewhere in between. If you know your IZOF, you can customize your pre-match routine with a mental approach that helps you perform well more consistently. Once you’re aware of your optimal mental state, you can effectively customize your pre-match routine.

3. Manage nerves. Reframe the way you deal with pre-match jitters. Instead of labeling nerves as bad, identify the benefits (“I’m nervous because I’m excited to play” or “I focus well when I’m a little nervous.”)

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Amanda Sobhy (Before Competition):
“About five minutes before each match, I have a ritual where I read a note I wrote to myself at the beginning of the season to get me in the zone along with saying the words, confident, focused, and relaxed. This helps me mentally get into my best state.”

During Competition
Maintaining concentration during a match can be tough. You can’t sub out when you’re having a mental lapse and you may go twenty minutes before having a substantial break where you can regroup. It can be challenging to be present and make the necessary adjustments on the fly.

1. Practice the way you want to play. Similar to test-taking, simulating real match conditions can enhance performance during tournaments. Get a friend to be a referee who gives bad calls; play a match when you’re tired or in front of a crowd; adjust the score to help you practice coming back from a deficit or practice playing match points well.

2. Be constructive, not critical. Instead of getting stuck in the problem (“I shouldn’t be losing, I keep hitting the tin”), focus on solutions (“two things I can do to improve right now”). Bear in mind that you don’t have time to beat yourself up during a match, so shift your thinking to what you can do in the moment to maximize performance.

3. Set incremental goals. If you’re making mountains out of molehills, break the game down into more manageable steps. Feel frustrated or helpless? Set a task that is simple and achievable (“hit through the ball”). Focusing on the basics can help you reset and find your rhythm.

4. Leverage strengths. You may feel 40%, but even on an off day, you can find something that you’re doing well. Cater to that strength and focus on what’s working to boost confidence and help other aspects of your game fall into place.

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Nicol David (During Competition):
“Mental preparation is extremely important. Visualization, goal setting, staying calm, focused, and thinking at a high level can make a huge difference in your game. Rather than look for excuses, I believe in my ability to figure out what I can do to improve the next point, game, or match.”

Post Competition
A post-match/tournament recap is a valuable mental skill that is often underutilized. Taking a step back to reflect improves your ability to identify strengths, areas of growth, factors that are contributing to peak and subpar performances and provides clarity on the skills that need to be refined in the future.

1. Master motivation. Whether you win or lose, finding inner drivers will keep you motivated in between matches and after a tournament. For example, if one of your goals is to get fitter, think of the benefits playing more matches (consolation or main draw) will have on your endurance. Channel wins and losses in a way that is meaningful to you.

2. Feedforward. The term “feedforward,” coined by leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith, provides suggestions to improve performance going forward. Goldsmith observed that coaching feedback is often too focused on the past, which limits people’s ability to enhance their skills in the future. If you’re doing a post-match recap, don’t fixate on all the things you could have done better but instead expand your perspective and gear it towards infinite possibilities.

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Jenny Duncalf (Post Competition):
“When you lose, you want to sweep it under the rug rather than learn from it. Most important thing is being honest with yourself and facing up to the harshest realities. If you do that, you’re going to find solutions. If you ignore the problem, it’s likely that it’s going to happen again.”

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