Back in my University days, something was wrong one day on the tennis court. My backhand has left me, almost stunned that there was no longer confidence in my ability to deliver a solid double-handed backhand drive, what was I to do? Watching the Mardy Fish Netflix documentary over the weekend, with mental health being addressed now more than ever, lets investigate that day I lost my backhand, and what does science say about this phenomenon in dealing with performance anxiety?
The yips are a term used in baseball, golf and other ball sports; focal dystonia is a real medical term used to describe neurological dysfunction in executing a specific chain of movement. I was helpless at the time yet coping with this debility by deciding to change my backhand completely towards a defensive slice, and never went back to the technique that served me in my junior years. The Netflix documentary reminded me that there may be many others that could benefit from my predicament.
It does start with that small voice in one’s head, most of the best performers out there know about this, and deal with it intelligently. It is said that the bigger the occasion, the more this conflict plays out therefore some greats have defeated their inner sabotage before breaking new barriers.
Those of you would want me to elaborate exactly what happened with my backhand that day. Quite simply I was blocking and snatching at my shots that put my confidence in my ability at an all-time low. It was like I was asking for the hitting partner just to focus on hitting on my backhand side until I got it right without quite understanding the “why” things were falling apart. It is one thing to get it right in a practice, but to never go into a match with this belief that I could keep it up more than a few times in a rally was all in my head, and I never talk the time to address what was going on.
The Mardy Fish not only showed non-sports people that the game of tennis can be too repetitive for one’s well-being, and in his story, he dedicated a period to improve his world ranking status that ended up being the number one American based player at the time, this all had an effect on his mental health for it was dealing with new stresses that were not generated in the past.
Not facing your “dragon” is what would be related to looking into the mirror and becoming the authentic person you were supposed to be can take a lifetime, and the periods of three or four seasons will take much time to process, in my case, it took 20 years to realize that my fundamentals were not sound and I cannot beat myself up with the expectations that I had set myself.
The coaches I had in my formative years were probably unaware of how I was learning the fundamentals, and a good example of my backhand looking OK during some of those early days may be because this weakness was never exposed to the point where I would need to decide “Do I fight this, or do I just let it go…and it will come back to me…”
It took me so long to realize my nuances because now with my golf swing, I had to address some fundamentals that got me thinking. It was a moment, and even still, it’s easy to fall into that habit or defaulting to behaviors that would lead to that snatch or that blocking mentality. It took me some introspection to realize that I was not shoulder rotating like I should, and golf exposed this lack of force that is required in precision performance.
It takes me back to that day, because when psychological stress begins in your mind, maybe it’s the scoreboard, the spectators or your expectation that raises the anxiety. Quite simply I was not doing the move that loads the right sequences in my tennis stroke. As I would freeze upon one error, the shoulder rotation of mine was gone, and then there is a reliance on your smaller muscles like your hands and wrists to generate the missing chain that your postural muscles provide. This was revolutionary to think of now, and to hear of focal dystonia being directly related to the pathways that would deal with fine motor skills like the above other side arm sports like baseball and golf. The baseball pitcher loads the respective sequence and releases through his finer motor controls and overuse will affect this release to the point where it becomes, “That pitcher is choking under the pressure, because releasing correctly with loose kinematics is the difference between 100mph curveball and the 85mph knuckleball”.
In golf, the repetition of blocked practice especially with putting can have cerebral implications. The golfer may rely on fine motor control of his right hand influencing the putting stroke and behold when he visits a sport scientist the recommendation of left forearm and equipment modification solves his yips, and hopefully this new pathway does not reach that point of fatigue.
It’s ok to be overwhelmed, the brain is taking in information all the time, and sometimes the objective reality gets in the way of someone making sense of the situation. I did not go on to succeed in tennis but found that coping strategy with daily tasks and what happens in the flow state are worth the mention. It is not the end of the world if I lose this match, this is either a learning opportunity or a confidence booster with the appropriate exposure I am embarking on. This is all music to one’s ears if you are currently in a slump. Learning a new language, confidence issues with technology, anxiety in public places are all part of the new normal.
My double handed backhand may be gone, but an understanding of the psychological stress and how it impacts your performance are serious as the local Police officer required to make an arrest or diffuse an escalating situation between two belligerents. The Policeman may be faced with multiple cues as the stimuli in his environment require a prioritized response to handle the situation. Blocking out the psychological stress and effectively moving into a objective reality of not being emotionally affected by a household that reminds him of his family, but his cognitive ability to react requires a state of being present that may be compared to a performance on stage that requires extraordinary moments in time slowing down with the physiological adrenaline boosting the body’s preparation to react, and knowing his training protocol mounting his firearm are all examples of autonomic reflexes that are requiring no cognitive ability. This is fundamentally understood, and the consistency of doing this under the highest of pressure trumps my flailing backhand that was put away never to open that pandora’s box ever again.
That was another insight into the study of Human Moves, any similar analogies you would like to hear more about, drop a comment, like, share and subscribe to this blog.