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Coaches Corner - tip of the month

January 2011:


Professional football is mostly perceived as a very physical, violent game. All you have to do is YouTube “NFL violent hits” etc. and you’ll see what I mean, not to mention the recent recognition of the “concussion problem.” However football, despite the carnage, also has myriad psychological elements to it as well. One that has recently come to the forefront is the practice of team’s overt effort in attempting to rattle the state of mind of the opposing team’s field goal kicker. The tactic is referred to as “icing,” and involves the defensive team calling a time-out at the very last moment prior to the kicker, who is already queued up physically, mentally, and emotionally, and ready to attempt the kick when the outcome of the game is on the line.

Studies have proven that it is very effective in that kickers on average, when ”iced,” drop-off in their normal success rate by 15% - 20%! Nothing like disrupting the kicker’s preparation ritual by shutting him down and making him wait another few minutes, restart his ritual, and give him time to think some more about the ramifications of failure and the task at hand with 52 teammates, the violence dealing players who get their uniforms dirty, depending on the outcome!

In tennis, particularly in the important moments, the server experiences the same kind of pressure as the field goal kicker – the parallel is striking - particularly on points that are  pivotal in deciding a game or particularly in a match’s ultimate outcome.

Icing the flowTennis rules junkies love to spout off about how the receiver must play to the pace of the server. True, but only if that’s a “reasonable” pace of the server which is most often left out of the equation, i.e. you are not expected to resign yourself to being either purposely or inadvertently “quick served” prior to being fully settled in with your own return “walk-up” and ritual.

During these big moments make it a point to take that little bit of extra time – that’s reasonable extra time without violating the rules of sportsmanship – and make the server wait that extra :10 seconds or so while you legitimately, for example, take a moment to fiddle with your strings to insure that the grid is properly aligned, adjust your cap or visor while toweling your forehead off with your wristband, and take the long way around to your actual receiving court position. Note: answering cell phone as depicted in the accompanying image, if you’re a particularly creative competitor, is not an option!

At the same time, since the scenario is that it’s a close match that is potentially up for grabs, you’ll have a better opportunity to settle your Self to the task at hand while you are controlling the pacing, or time in between points, and giving the server a little ice time simultaneously.

Football teams actually rehearse icing their own kickers in practice so that they can experience dealing with it and render it ineffective. Back on the tennis court, if you reverse roles and put yourself in the server’s sneakers, and you’re being iced, you can learn countermeasures from two of football’s best pressure proof kickers.

Joe Nedney of the 49ers and Atlanta’s Matt Bryant, two of the best, embrace very different but effective strategies that work for them. Bryant typically drapes a towel over his helmet, once back on the sidelines during the time-out, and doesn’t even think about the game! Instead his focus goes to his family which he explains: “I try to find a happy place.” Nedney’s approach is more combative: “You want to ice me? Great. You’re still going to lose the game and you’re going to have one less time out. That’s the only mentality you can have.”

Personally, I can recall a close match, in my final year of tournaments years ago - I was aspiring to be #1 on the Florida USTA 35's circuit and doing well - with a respected opponent of some reputation.  This jerk, as it turned out that day, repeatedly insisted on walking 1-2 courts away – we were the only match playing on a bank of 4 courts at the time  – to retrieve the third ball when I was serving whenever the opportunity presented itself. This guy invented icing! When I confronted him in no uncertain terms he flipped his lid – I had apparently violated his presumed sanctity – and he, in a tantrum, demanded an on-court referee. I was lucky. I then did not have to come up with a solution that day in dealing with such blatant gamesmanship. The referee went ahead and enforced that he play to a reasonable pace. 

Nonetheless, pressure in sport is universally experienced. Even curlers have to deal with it – okay, that’s not really a sport is it. Nevermind. In any event, the term “mental toughness” was, in part, born out of it. Unlike the above described incident, you’ll have to be cognizant of coming up with a solution to deal with icing positively when you’re the one being made to wait. You’ll also be in control of those instances when you have an opportunity to fairly apply a bit of the icing tactic onto them.

Good luck. It’s your court, your tennis balls, and the opponent is there for you! Be selfish but be fair. Be in control, and stay in control, no matter what.

Questions and comments are welcome at anytime for all tips present and past via email.

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