Sport Psychology: The Schedule for Emotions

Whether you play tennis, table tennis, racquetball, badminton, or squash, individual sports have similar emotional challenges. In coaching, once in a while you meet a student whose dedication becomes too intense. This is a letter to just such a student. Let’s call her Engrid.

Dear Engrid:

I want to thank you for the intense effort you bring to every minute on my lesson court as well as the studious approach you have to practicing your skills on other courts. Of all my students, you are the most intense about your tennis game and I want you to know that I appreciate how much effort you put into it.

Of course intensity is a two edged sword and has some disadvantages too. One is that it tends to put players at more risk of injury (your recent calf muscle experience is an example). Another is that you run the risk of what many sport psychologists call “Burn Out”.

Today coaches and psychologists use the term “Burn Out” to mean different things, but generally they mean that the sport or activity has become more often irritating or anxiety producing, than enjoyable. When that balance shifts negatively, a player either quits or at least notices a significant plateau in performance which is difficult to break through.
Players may ask, “how can a game I love like tennis ever feel distasteful or repulsive?”

In over 25 years of coaching at all levels of skill, especially at the elite athlete level, I have answered this question many times. This time Engrid my answer will be customized a bit for you.

As your coach and health care practitioner, I realize that you have some compulsive personality traits. It’s an intensely which strives to reach toward perfection in most, if not all, modes of expression. The good news for coaches is that for complex activities these feelings motivate you to bring a high degree of focus.

This is why I believe you appreciate my style of instruction. You enjoy when I break a motor skill down to its minute parts so that you may scrutinize and practice them in there bite size portions until you have mastered each part toward creating the better whole.

The bad news is that these detailed study, for some personality types like this, can become tedious, may negatively influence your mood, approach to outside activities, or perspective on those around you. When I hear you berate yourself, or express feelings on the court that others are not trying their best in practice, my alarm bell goes off telling me that tennis is becoming too much of a burden. That perhaps it has become a chore, or at least more trouble than it is worth. Their are two approaches to ameliorate this situation–one logistic, one attitudinal. Both will help make you a better player!

Logistically, I would advise that you schedule more recreational time off. Get away from the court. That time should be spent in amusement/relaxation and should be as carefully interspersed between your tennis workouts as if you were designing a cross training schedule with other fitness activities. The question arises, “How do I tell if I am successful enough at this?”

When you are getting dressed to PLAY you are well rested and as you walk toward the court, feelings of anticipation of the adventure you are about to have crescendo. Your heart rate picks up as the fun of the last great shots and disappointments of the correctable errors flood back to you as you get ready to hit the first ball. Now we have struck on our second method of amelioration–attitudinal.

Tennis must remain a game. It must remain PLAY in every sense of the word. It certainly has no components that should elicit feelings SIMILAR in intensity to a life or death struggle, that your survival is in the balance, or self esteem is at risk, AT ANY TIME.

It should not feel like work. It should not elicit feelings that are as intense as those you feel when you are busy or frustrated while trying to make a living and pay your bills. It should not elicit feelings as intense as, for example, if all your family were suddenly coming to visit. It should not make you doubt your own effort, your own dedication, and the unique skills and attributes that you bring to the sport. To let others worry about their own level of effort and intensity is a skill which requires practice. That practice can be done outside competition too.

You may not have met anyone like this, because I have not either, but there are many people who can’t leave their homes because they are afraid of failure. Of being hurt either psychologically or physically. They are physically fit enough but they can’t go out, can’t go shopping, can’t go to a movie, or go to a restaurant, let alone play sports. They are psychological “Shut Ins”, agoraphobics unable to go into public places.

The take home lesson from them is to treat each event in which you participate with a sense of gratitude. Embrace the idea that you are healthy enough to enjoy the risk of both good and bad performances.

In tennis, I would like to see everyone respect, if not relish the inevitable but temporary feelings of failure in themselves, as well as respect others who take these risks too. Be proud of the ability to risk your feelings in competition as a sign of a healthy life and healthy tennis life. As a sport scientist, it is sometimes difficult to communicate that this is a critical part of the process of improving motor skills.

The “Schedule for Emotions”

The great athletes when they miss a shot are well adjusted to this perspective. They PRACTICE handling it better than recreational players. With rare exceptions, they take 5 or 10 seconds to SILENTLY indulge in purely normal disappointment WITHOUT showing negative body language. The next 5-10 seconds to physically practice the proper motion or mentally note the proper decision for the next time the situation arises. Then in the next 5-10 seconds they move on to preparing for the next point.

That is what I call the “Schedule for Emotions” in tennis. Some coaches call these rituals to be employed before every point. Inevitably you have about 30 seconds to indulge silently and get your act together for the next point. If you verbalize, slump your shoulders, or take too long in recovery, your opponent will think you are about to loose several points if they just get the ball back. This makes their task very easy. Remember, psychological skills are like motor skills that require practice!

Missing a shot and making a shot are two sides of the same coin that fascinates us all with this game. It is as inevitable that you will have moments of elation as well as moments of disappointment. You can handle these feelings like a beginner or strive to handle them like the pros.

The best players demonstrate the above competitive psychological skills as often as forehands. They have taken to heart that the risk of having these temporary and illusory failures is actually part of the fun.

If this topic interests you further, I can pass along several articles by the top sports psychology people in the industry, one of which is Dr. Allen Fox. These articles have been required reading for scholarship athletes at USC and other teams I’ve coached.

Tennis is play time. Have fun!

Warmest Regards,
Jonathan

Racket Sports Biomechanics: Brain Function, Eye Skills, and Table Tennis

How closely related are table tennis skills to tennis? Can ping pong help my vision skills, reactions, and balance? Can table tennis help improve brain function or help me read better? These kinds of questions about the impact of table tennis on brain function and motor skills are starting to capture the attention of researchers. The author has some unique credentials to help bring the reader up to speed on these questions by first looking at the unique qualities of table tennis, then their application to brain function.

First, ping pong can definitely help anyone learn tennis and other racket sports. One rough measure of mastering a tennis movement is the creation of spin. With the exception of flat ground strokes, elite players prefer extreme spin to add control and can make the ball rotate several thousand times a minute. In order to do that the racket must pass steeply through contact. The more steep the path, the more spin is imparted, but as the path becomes faster/steeper it becomes less tolerant for error. That’s where better skill comes in!

Since ping pong helps teach players spin (its elite players also want fast rotation for control), that makes table tennis motions great preparation for learning spin for tennis. Further, these sports also use subtle forms of side spin, another rare stepping stone between these two sports. But table tennis can go much farther than good preparation for tennis.

The connection between the brain and visual/motor skills required to play competitive table tennis are useful to practically ANY other sport and even reading as noted below. Many athletic abilities are improved such as eye muscle tracking, recognition, decision making, response time, muscle activation, and rhythmic muscular response are all ramped up.

Eye muscle tracking skills may be the most unique set of physiological skills enhanced by table tennis. Most sports emphasize distances for eye teamwork beyond 15 feet, also called “Optical Infinity”. Within 15 feet the eyes work much harder to track, diverge, and converge on objects.

To prove this, stay focused on your finger at arms length as you gradually move it toward your nose. See how it becomes more difficult to keep focused until the eyes “give up” and create a double image? Most of ping pong’s tracking skills occur within or near this convergence/divergence range for the human visual system. At the same time, the basic manual task itself is relatively easy.

According to Dr. Gary Polan, a pioneer in the field of Vision Training (VT)/Sports Vision Training (SVT), eye hand skills like ping pong help stimulate the visual/motor system in similar ways to the skills needed for reading performance. Every day at his office he helps patients improve their reading challenges by exercising the visual cortex, the interocular muscles which control the lenses of the eye, and the extraocular muscles which control eye teamwork. Dr. Polan says that EVERY reader and athlete, even elite athletes, can improve performance with VT/SVT. Better eye performance makes better readers AND better athletes because–ALL eye skills are learned!

The attribute of “ease of use”, the usability of table tennis, has other huge advantages. Table tennis allows almost every first time user, from kids to seniors, to quickly feel competent. After that, its easier than most other sports to ramp up overall physical performance in the first few sessions, without coaching. This “ease of use” attribute has captured the attention of scientists too.

Some researchers are interested in ping pong’s influence on the brain, its ability to adapt, improve function, and ward off chronic disease. Dr. Mehmet Oz calls it his favorite “Brain Sport” because it improves cognitive function and motor function which, help prevent and ameliorate Alzheimer’s Disease. Nerve conduction speed actually increases, and with it, the ability to faithfully reproduce a motor program more quickly. It’s great brain exercise!

That principle for human muscle in sports medicine is called “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands” or the SAID principle. Like a skeletal muscle, brain function can be improved, IF it is pushed to improve, at ALL ages. We now know that the brain also responds to the SAID principle and reveals what researchers now call “Brain Plasticity”.

For rehabilitation needs in a small space, ping pong can be a potent tool. Remember the table tennis in Forrest Gump? To learn more about table tennis therapy, see the SAEF Table Tennis Therapy Program (SAEF.us). This organization is preparing to launch an in depth study of the effects of table tennis therapy on Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a fascinating and FUN form of physical therapy because almost ANYONE can “Be a Menace” with table tennis”!

Biomechanics: Can Racket Sports Skills Be Transferred?

Can ping pong help me learn tennis? Will racquetball hurt my tennis game? Can badminton help me play better table tennis? These kinds of questions about the transference of skills between racket sports come up all the time. The author has some unique credentials to help answer these questions. We will examine some of the mechanical similarities and differences between racket sports to help answer some of these questions.

To best compare the mechanics of tennis, table tennis, or other racket sports requires a bit of basic kinesiology. If you are standing relaxed with your hands at your sides, palms facing forward, you are in what is called the “Anatomic Position”. If you angle your fingertips away from your thighs, the max being about 45 degrees, that movement is called “Wrist Abduction”. Reversing that small movement is called “Wrist ADDuction”. Kinesiology students remember the difference by visualizing that this body part is being “ADDed” toward the midline, or long axis of the body and like to capitalize the first three letters for clarity.

Wrist posture is one very important difference between table tennis, tennis, racquetball, squash, badminton, and even fencing. Picture a fencer with a sabre or foil in their hand thrusting toward the opponent. In order to make the foil tip reach as far as possible, the wrist must be fully adducted. The wrist posture for table tennis is nearly the same but used for another purpose, not just for extending the reach.

In table tennis, the wrist is adducted to allow it to express whip during forward motion at contact. The legs, torso, shoulder, and arm start the movement and transmit momentum in what is called a “Kinetic Chain”. That chain of movement snaps the table tennis racket like a bullwhip at the ball. This kinetic chain of momentum from the ground, up through the body, then culminating at contact is actually common to most, if not all, contact/collision sports such as football and baseball. In contrast to table tennis, the wrist in tennis is usually “ABDucted”.

With the brief exceptions of reaching defensively to get to a ball or reaching upward for a serve or smash, the wrist posture in tennis is more like holding a hammer, much more “ABDucted”. This posture does several things for a tennis player. First, it makes bearing the extra weight and length of a tennis racket easier by it being above the hand vertically.

Second, an “ABDucted” wrist is a stronger, more controllable wrist posture. It is more able to resist the high impact forces of a tennis ball and also more able to resist the high twisting forces of off center impacts. Obviously, these kinds of impact forces do not exist in table tennis and learning this posture requires a great deal of practice and discipline. Unfortunately, as the author has found, that same “ABDucted” wrist discipline painstakingly learned to play better tennis is difficult to set aside when one tries to play ping pong with its “ADDucted” wrist.

This is THE main complaint of table tennis coaches, when teaching those who have come from tennis, that they must constantly remind them to “drop” or “ADDuct” the wrist. The author’s own ping pong coaches just smile and point now! In the authors theoretical and practical opinion, It appears that among racket sports, tennis requires the most discipline in terms of wrist “ABDuction”. Tennis, and perhaps ping pong, may also require more discipline in its strokes in general. Again, some additional basic kinesiology is useful.

From the “Anatomic Position” described above, if you bend your wrists so that your palms face upward, you are FLEXING your wrists. When you return your hands to the position in which your fingers point toward the floor, you are EXTENDING your wrists. When you rotate your forearms so that your thumbs are next to your thighs and your palms face behind you, you are PRONATING your forearms. The opposite movement is called SUPINATION. Both PRONATION and SUPINATION are defined by the two bones in the forearm rotating around each other, movements which are distinct but often confused with flexing the wrist.

Because the target for badminton, squash, and racquetball is so large, acceleration of the racket and contact speed is usually top priority. To do that, both flexion and pronation is used in the forearm to obtain the highest velocity. The target in tennis and table tennis is smaller than the other sports and maximum racket velocity is less often desired. The notable exceptions are the tennis serve and smash, but even those strokes generate racket velocity by almost exclusively using PRONATION, not FLEXION of the wrist. Pronation is also the dominant forearm movement in throwing a fast baseball.

What does this tell us about transferring skills from one sport to another? Does this make one racket sport easier to learn if you are already familiar with another? These are obviously difficult and complex questions even for a biomechanical specialist in racket sports, but if we isolate just the differences discussed here, one path to the answers can be found.
When it comes to the wrist and forearm discipline described above, we can assume that it is more difficult to acquire discipline than to suspend it. For that reason it follows that it is easier to learn racquetball, badminton, and squash AFTER learning tennis or table tennis. Conversely, it is more difficult to acquire the forearm discipline required in tennis and table tennis, AFTER learning the other sports which emphasize laxity of both forearm motions described here.

Beyond its biomechanical logic, this principle is born out in the author?s personal experience in racket sports and over 30 years of coaching. His tournament experience in racquetball followed that of tennis and it always seemed easy to relax the discipline of tennis to “snap” at maximum velocity at a racquetball. Over these years many students struggled to learn the additional discipline of tennis after the other sports. In short, the author recommends learning tennis and/or table tennis BEFORE branching out into the other sports that are dominated by whipping arm swings.

Exercise for Your Heart: Determine Your Target Heart Rate (THR) Without Gadgets

Ever wonder how to make tennis your exact cardiovascular workout? How fast should my heart beat during exercise? How long should my workout be and how many times per week? These are great questions and ones that more Americans should ask. This article will provide the basic answers to these questions and you don’t need expensive gizmos and gadgets.

THR is the optimum speed your heart should beat for maximum cardiovascular effect. Too fast and the duration of your exercise session suffers and injury risk rises. Too slow and the cardiovascular system is insufficiently taxed. Staying within a couple beats a minute of THR controls intensity properly.

Many exercise machines and gym posters come with a “zone” for your exercise session, but here are more exact calculations you do for yourself without gadgets. WARNING–it’s important that before starting a new exercise program that you CONSULT A PHYSICIAN. Assuming you are clear to start, there are three main elements to design your cardio workout–Intensity, Duration, and Frequency. Let’s begin with the principle of intensity, which is best controlled at THR.

Intensity of your exercise can be measure by how fast your heart is beating and you don’t need an expensive heart rate monitor of fancy wristwatch, just two fingers. There is a good chance that some time in your life you will need to find out if someone’s heart is beating, so this is a useful skill to practice on yourself. To find your heart rate, gently push two fingers into the soft area to the side of your windpipe or on the palm side of your other wrist below your thumb.

Press lightly until you feel the blood pulsing beneath your fingers or adjust your position until you do. Count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to get your pulse or beats per minute. Taking your pulse before you get out of bed is called Resting Heart Rate (RHR). Knowing your minimum and maximum pulse is essential to finding your Target Heart Rate (THR) during exercise.

Calculate your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), the fastest your heart can physically beat, by simply subtracting your age from 220. CAUTION–YOU SHOULD NEVER INTENTIONALLY EXERCISE AT THIS HEART RATE. Now that you know your resting (RHR) and maximum (MHR), you now know the range your heart can beat or Heart Rate Range (HRR) by simply subtracting the slowest (RHR) from the maximum (MHR) your heart can beat. Now you are ready to find your personal and accurate THR.

Sedentary individuals, those that do not exercise regularly, should begin an exercise program at 60% of their range. So, THR = (HRR x 0.6) + RHR. Active individuals, those that regularly exercise at least 3 times a week, should exercise at 65% of their range. For them, THR = (HRR x 0.65) + RHR. Elite athletes, or those with a background of endurance training, can exercise at 70-75% of HRR. Now for duration and frequency.

The duration of exercise at THR should be at least 20 minutes with 5 minutes of warm-up and 5 minutes of cool down. A good warm-up would include stretching of major muscle groups and gradually ramping up heart rate toward THR with the reverse for cool down.

The frequency of exercise at your THR should be 3-5 times a week for improvement and at least 2 times a week for maintenance of your present level of fitness. IMPORTANT–research shows that even lower intensity exercise can still have significant beneficial effects like longer lifespan, enhanced mood, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Controlling the intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise is the key to getting the quickest and most profound benefit.

Regular exercise and cardiovascular fitness have been shown to help prevent degenerative diseases like stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. It has also proved to help improve allergies, asthma, digestion, stress management, and sleeping disorders.

Interestingly, it is also at least as important to weight control as good nutrition. Plan two or more different ways, or modes, of exercise to promote THR. Whether you choose bicycling, yoga, table tennis, gardening, or even boogie boarding, regular exercise is easier to stick with when it’s fun. Good luck and have fun with your new exercise program!

Back Pain Relief: A Revolution in Chiropractic Care

Racket sports are asymetric. That means they yank and twist on the spine due to forces expressed on the body unevenly. What is a symetric sport you ask? Weight lifting is symetric as both sides of the body are active in a mirror image.

All this means that racket sports players get “pulled out of wack”! Well, our ship has come in.

You’ve heard of the revolutions in the Middle East and Wisconsin right? Well, there is a quiet technology revolution starting in Chiropractic, which allows soothing, potent treatment of chronic pain with no twisting, popping, or cracking of joints. Plus, the patient can now actually see documented progress and an end to treatment. That deserves a WOW!

If you are an athlete, especially those playing an asymmetric sport like baseball, tennis, table tennis, golf, or racquetball this is big news. This is also big news obviously for non-athletes with chronic pain, coaches, and personal injury lawyers!

Several of my clients told me that I must go see the new pain treatment machines at Dr. Mel Bahri’s Westwood Clinic (westwood-clinic.com) in Los Angeles. His reputation among my clients was swelling (he he).
Once there, I tested two new technologies (ProAdjuster and Myopulse) that can help eliminate the infamous stigma that has kept new patients away from Chiropractic treatment for many years. The two main complaints are the “cracking” of joints and the indeterminate “end of treatment”.

Over several sessions I tested the ProAdjuster (by Pulstar) and the Myopulse (by Advanced Biomedical Technologies). Both machines have been cleared by the FDA for treatment of chronic pain conditions. This article will describe the ProAdjuster treatments.

With this technology, the patient sits comfortably in a massage chair in an upright position without the need to turn the head or neck or even remove their shirt. The ProAdjuster applicator, called a Fras, contains a sensor (piezoelectric), which first sends a light tapping (percussion), into the spine at each backbone segment or vertebrae as a test force.

This force is reflected back from the body, like sonar from a submarine in water, to tell the computer about the position of the bone and stiffness of nearby muscle. The software takes the results of each percussion test from each vertebrae in the spine and INSTANTLY creates a complete and detailed picture of the spine on a large monitor.

That picture reveals the whole spine, its curves (or lack of curves) which gives the doctor and computer specific locations for treatment–the pre treatment data. The computer program then highlights the five most displaced vertebrae and tells the doctor, with a pleasant female voice, where to place the soft fingers of the Fras to administer the treatment phase for each displaced bone.

The body’s natural defenses cause muscles around displaced vertebrae to spasm or rigidly prevent greater misaligned bone from moving further from its proper position. Metered and specific GENTLE percussion is now administered by the computer through the Fras in a series of oscillating taps. These taps coax the vertebra into proper position which also relaxes the nearby muscles, enhancing range of motion, and relieving pressure on the adjacent nerves.

The treatment phase actually feels GREAT. For Chiropractors and patients alike, this is a revolution!

Post treatment re-analysis by the Fras allows objective measurement of changes in spinal position, which can be compared to other sessions and the pre treatment testing down the spine. The patient can actually see and understand the treatment with the doctor standing next to them. That, by itself, is a valuable physical medicine concept that is hard to understate.
The results are instant and easy for a patient to read. No delays, no specialist interpretations, no x-rays, no huge CT Scanners, scary MRI machines, or Sonogram Studies, etc. The software displays the percentage of improvement on the screen for both patient and doctor to objectively assess overall progress allowing BOTH to plan further treatments if needed. The patient, doctor, and computer as a instantly well informed healing team. What a concept!

Incredibly, it actually feels great the whole time. If the days of flinching and tensing up for Chiropractic cracks and pops are numbered, I can adjust to that!