I went to an exhibition tennis event awhile ago and got to talk in front of couple dozen kids about my tennis journey. Given that the kids were all in middle or high school, I decided to give them a little pump up speech about achieving their goals and getting into college they love, competing for a team and then…I asked how many of them had hopes of playing in college? The kids gave me a blank stare and no one raised their hand. Yikes. The event went on, kids asked questions, participated in the on-court clinic…all good.
Except…I could not get over the fact that out of a whole group of kids who trained daily/weekly, whose parents paid for their tennis lessons with private coaches..NO ONE thought they were good enough to play for college. I mean, there are different divisions, different levels, varsity teams, club teams…Even if you are not the greatest player in the world, you can find a spot for your talent, if you just believe in yourself a little more.
Now that I am a tennis coach and not a player, I can talk about confidence without sounding cocky (maybe just a little bit).
There are so many talented kids out there but when you ask them what their goals are or how good do they think they can be, they don’t sound too sure.
“Well, my opponent is really good, so I will try my best, but I really don’t know how it will go…”
“Yeah, I hope I can play for a university one day…UCLA, Stanford?-Oh no, those are too good…maybe I can get a scholarship at a D2 school in my home town…”
There is nothing wrong with a D2 school (those can be really good at sports and academics as well!) or with acknowledging your opponent, but you gotta aim higher! Lack of confidence and big dreams is the reason why many kids never get to the next level. They can perform great at practice, train with best coaches, but it is nearly impossible to become a winner until you get a mentality of “Yeah, I can do it! I have been training my butt off and I can’t wait to show my opponent what I am made of!”
Now…how do you become confident with yourself and your game? Remembering myself when I was about 14 years old, I was terrible. Not actually terrible at tennis, but I just could not win. I was still top something in Russia and won a lot of matches, but I could never beat people who a seeded higher than me. I had a phobia of those highly confident kids with amazing tennis skills, I did not think I could beat them, so i lost the battle before I even entered the court.
At the age of 16 things changed dramatically for me, I won my first professional tournament, realized who I am and what I can do and ever since then I feared nobody.
So how do you make that switch and help yourself or your child to get that confidence? There is no easy answer to this and no formula works for all, but here are some tips that worked for me.
- Stop putting too much pressure
Yeah yeah, parents and coaches, that one is mostly for you! When expectations are high and the player feels like they are never good enough, it is hard to go out there and perform with confidence. When every match feels like a Wimbledon finals, it is easy to get anxious and forget your game. People will say: “But in order to prepare for playing at Wimbledon one day, they have to learn how to deal with pressure!” -Absolutely. But not when they are 14 years old and are still very far from being a mental warrior. You have to be able to relax and enjoy the game-that comes first. And when you are enjoying yourself and performing great, the confidence grows, so does the ability to perform under pressure.
2. The world does not end if you lose…or win.
No matter how bad or good you play, you always have a next tournament. So you can’t get into a celebration mode for two weeks after a tournament win, or get extremely upset when you lose. Analyze what went right or wrong and get to training. I have a good story as an example. I feel like this was the turning point in my mental game, and helped me to focus on the present.
So my coaches before I came to America were pretty up-tight before my matches, trying to cram all the last-minute strategy tips, while I was just trying to go to the bathroom before my match. They made a big deal out of every tournament and I was always nervous. I came to U.S when I was 15 and started to train with a new coach- really laid back guy from Jamaica, Sly. Sly never seemed to worry about anything, was always in a good mood and made practice really fun. I went to play a tournament in Nicaragua when I turned 16 and won the whole thing, beating a top 400 player in the world in the finals. It was a huge deal to me, I was on cloud 9! My first pro tournament win in singles and finals in doubles, WOW!
So I get back to Florida and call Sly, dying to tell him the news.
-Yo, Whats up Yanaa?
-Hi, I am back!I won!
-Won what? The qualies? haha You coming to practice at 8 tomorrow?
-No, I won the whole thing, got two trophies!
-Ohhh, nice! So you coming at 8 tomorrow then?
I was speechless! All that excitement, and he is asking about coming to practice? But that made me realize that even though this was a great accomplishment, I still had to get up and train for more. And when I came back from a horrible tournament, he had the same reaction-come to practice! That was the time when I became more relaxed and became a much better mental player. This may sound like a funny story, but I really credit Sly for helping me to loosen up and play to my full potential.
3. Fake it till you make it!
Even if you don’t feel 100% confident, do not ever show that to your opponent. Someone asks you how pumped are you for the match? Very pumped! Don’t show your nerves, hide it and fake it until you actually become a confident beast. It may sound silly but it works.
My freshmen year we had a psychologist come in to talk to the team and he asked how confident we felt on a scale from 0 to 10. So everyone said 5,6,7,8…Then it was my turn and I asked: “10 is the highest, right? So, 10 for me!” The psychologist was really surprised by my answer and at the end of the speech wished us luck and that we could improve our confidence levels. He said: Maybe you can go from 7 to 8, from 8 to 9, and you, Yana, from 10 to 11!” So I gave him a look: ” You said 10 was the highest! If I knew 11 was possible, I would say 11.” Sounds cocky, but this was mostly just my humor. I wasn’t going to say anything but the max number, even if I didn’t feel like it. Show people that your confidence is a 10, but inside keep working on improving it to reach the max!
4. Work on yourself.
Not just in the gym and the tennis court, but work on your mental game. It comes from you and you are the only one that knows what can help you. Watch motivational videos, read a great book, listen to music that pumps you up. No love ballads in my pre-game playlist, Lil Wayne’s lyrics “Sky is the limit” get me going, so find songs that boost your motivation. Great website http://addicted2success.com/ has motivational videos, quotes and reads, where you can find something that you can relate to. Read a book by pretty much any great athlete to see what it takes to become great. I loved “No Limits” by Michael Phelps and “Eleven Rings” by Phil Jackson.
5. Find confidence in your other aspects of life
Very often athletes overlook the importance of life outside of sports. Focusing on your athletic career is great but when you lost after having five match points and you are feeling worthless, it helps to know that you are amazing at something other than tennis. It can be a hobby, a supportive group of friends that will take you out to movies, or anything that can help you feel great even if tennis is failing on you. I think a good way to find that inner peace is by reading books and volunteering in the community. It made me feel so good when we did fundraising events to help kids or got secret Santa gifts for the community…Even when I lost my match or got injured, I knew I did something important and no one could take that feeling away from me.