Preparing for Nationals – Physically and Mentally

With the National Championships coming up next month, it got me thinking about how athletes prepare for their sport’s biggest stage. Preparation is the key. When you line up the eight fastest sprinters in the world on the line at the Olympics, the one thing that will separate each of these individuals is how they have prepared – physically and mentally.

If you want to play your best paddle, you must be prepared. As preparation goes up, so does confidence. And as confidence goes up, anxiety goes down. So how do we accomplish this? First, let’s take a look at the components of performance. Dr. Rick Jensen, world renowned sport psychologist, breaks down performance into three categories: Talent, Interference, and Luck. His equation gives us a chance to prepare more appropriately:

Performance = Talent – Interference +/- Luck

Talent can be defined as the sum of a player’s physical, strategic, and technical skills. Although a player’s performance on any given day cannot ultimately be controlled, his or her talent going into a match can be. Fortunately, talent is controlled by the quality of a player’s training program. A player’s training program may include a range of multidisciplinary areas, including instruction, practice, fitness, nutrition, etc. These areas combine to form a player’s talent. I think of it as the physical part of the equation.

The mental part is interference, which can be defined as anything that detracts from one’s talent while competing. One can experience external interference from weather, your partner, your opponents, the venue, court conditions, fans, the type of ball you’re using, your paddle, etc. Additionally, interference can come from internal sources, such as fatigue, distractions, emotional disturbance, anxiety, and fear. According to the performance formula above, players benefit the most when their interference score is “zero.” If you can keep your interference near zero, you give yourself the chance of performing your best. Learn how to manage internal and external interference now. You can’t wait until the tournament to implement new thought processes or strategies.

Luck is defined as the fluctuations in performance due to chance. Luck clearly plays its part in paddle. The most common display of luck in paddle is when the ball hits the net cord on the serve and drops in. This could be considered bad luck, or good luck, depending on what side of the court you are standing on when it happens. Any reasonable person would expect that, over time, luck will follow statistical laws of averages. When something bad happens merely by chance, recognize that luck DOES play a part in the game, accept it, and move on. Dwelling unnecessarily on bad luck only adds to internal interference. There is no psychological benefit to rethinking an act of bad luck. Condition yourself to respond this way, today! Don’t wait.

With the Nationals still a month away, now is the time to increase your talent. In order to be as prepared as possible, consider drilling with your partner on weaknesses, work on moving your serve to both corners or try changing speed, implement that backhand drive you are considering in your matches now so that it will be there on the day of the tournament. It does not magically happen. You must put in the hard work to improve your talent. There’s no magic wand for improving talent. Put in the hours on the court. and your confidence will improve. (And as a result, your anxiety will subside.)

Unlike talent, interference must be monitored and managed during a match. Players must take the time to identify the sources of interference that most affect their games, then design and implement coping strategies to deal with them. One way to deal with the anxiety of tournament matches is to embrace it. Sports are meant to raise the heart rate. People suffering from anxiety disorders experience the exact same symptoms as the ten players stepping on the court to start the Final Four. And who wouldn’t trade to be on that stage? Embrace the excitement and competitive anxiety of tournaments. It’s why we play!

As the National Tournament comes closer, prepare. Focus on increasing your talent level from now until then – no matter your current playing level. Learn how to limit or eliminate the interference you experience before or during matches. Recognize and accept what is luck. Do these things and no matter what happens on the court that day, you have prepared the best you could, and nobody can ask for more.

By Christian Buck

The author, Chris Buck, after 11 years on the American Stock Exchange, trading and brokering equity dirivatives, left “The Floor” and earned his Masters in Exercise and Sport Psychology. He is a provisionally Certified Consultant and member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). To learn more about Coach Buck visit