Anger Management in Tennis – An Interview with Steve Laurent

Lavie Sak

Tennis has always been a part of Lavie’s life. After several years as a management consultant, he decided to return to the game he loves, coaching, playing and eventually founding Shot Stats.

Steve Laurent Interview Summary

Steve is a board certified psychologist, specializing in sports psychology. He owns his own practice and has been practicing for 7 years. He, himself, is an avid, high-level tennis player. He has also published a book on anger management.

The motives for choosing Steve, as an interviewee, were to mainly to understand the depth of player psychology. Items to understand in particular are motivation, anxiety, and confidence.

  1. The most common example of psychological issues, on court, is anxiety. It can lead to poor decision-making and hesitant play.
  2. Keeping players motivated is not an easy task.
  3. Mental preparation is much more of a focus than in the past. Professional players now travel with their own psychologist.
  4. Tennis players are not in favor of change and quite particular about their equipment.
  5. Tennis is a very habitual game.
  6. Conscious understanding is not as imperative as sub-conscious and automatic understanding.
  1. Tactical understanding is as important as technical understanding.
  2. Positive reinforcement is proven and effective.
  3. Instructions can be emotional, confusing, or ambiguous.
  4. Numbers and quantitative data are simpler and quicker to comprehend. A “number is more specific than a shot”.
  5. Personal and private feedback from a device is easily accepted.
  6. Higher entertainment factors of gadgets/devices can improve the player-coach relationship.

The Interview

Lavie Sak: Ok, thanks Steve for the interview. The first part of this is for me to introduce the framework I want to follow. And then I want to tell you what parts of the framework your input is most important in. The topic is going to be framing the evolution of the design of tennis, the game of tennis. Since for interaction design looking at how the interaction between player, coach and equipment has change over time and how it has. The first evolution I’m proposing is that it was a material evolution, where rackets have now changed from wood to graphite to aluminum to composite. This has allowed the rackets to be lighter and larger, this allows the players hit the ball harder and with more spin and has changed the whole game of tennis along with the athlete themselves.

The second evolution proposing happened 20 years after the evolution of the racket itself is a new player centered design. Equipment is not being designed for the game, for the court, for the equipment, but in fact now being applied for the players, becoming a player centric design. Examples of this are under ten( kids) tennis where kids are half the size of a regular human being. They should not have to play on real size courts . Things like cardio tennis court where they realize some players don’t want to get better they just do it for fun and fitness and player health. Now there are new things, new devices, new equipment that deals specific for player health.

Lastly, the third evolution, the most current evolution the trend of personalization feedback and self identification, where players are using things like video quantitive measures to track and understand their shot and their playing ability.
Those three together is how I’m staging the framework and this is comparable to what has happened in other things like for example take shopping, shopping used to be brick and mortar stores and that you should go out there. But this thing called internet came out allowing them to go online and shop. That was the technology mature evolution and that one was the more user centered design. They’re making the online shopping experience enjoyable. They’re going out there and making it a pleasure, making it branded and lastly personalization feedback has applied also in shopping, in the fact that, now when you go shop there is recommendations and things that identify who you are and help you make the shopping experience more personalized. That in a nutshell shows dissertation. Your focus point on this dissertation is helping me understand better the interaction between player and coach and vice versa. And how that falls into play with this new innovation, new framework that connection between them has evolved the game.

Steve: What do you mean? Professional player or professional coach?

Lavie Sak: It’s going to be junior player, beginner junior player, advance junior player, and elite coaches and elite players, as much as you know about that. But really just if you can use persona just a generic tennis player see what they think about a generic tennis Coach.

To start out to some beginning questions, what is your experience in psychology? What have you done in your role in the field?

Steve: Well, I have been practicing for 6 or 7 years now and in private practice. I also worked in community mental health and in hospital settings. I initially specialized in chronic pain. I specialized recently in anger, just completed an anger management book and I continue to work in private practice.

Lavie Sak: Do you have experience in sports? Not psychology wise, but playing? Steve: Yeah actually, I play a good deal of tennis myself. I’m an amateur player, not a

good club player.
Lavie Sak: So now, what’s your experience now in psychology in tennis in particular?

Steve: Well, I have worked with some tennis players and had a lengthy discussions with my local coach, my club coach about how to integrate my knowledge of psychology to the tennis court and he and I have devised various applications and strategies for what players use to concentrate better and not get us busted.

Lavie Sak: If you are divulging any confidential information about patients with specific examples if not directly from the games of tennis, issues that you dealt with?

Steve: Yes there is a handful. The most common is anxiety on the court: fear of losing, fear of flopping the ball and its physiological and psychological effect can make players tired, cramped up, over conservative in their decision making.
Then after anxiety the second most common is probably irritability and frustration on the court. This is psychological issues on the court. The third most common issue that is not necessarily on the court but a broader issue is motivation, keeping players pumped up and motivated specially to train hard and to do all the extra hours to do all the diversive stuff of the court things like that and that’s difficult. Crisis of confidence is another issue off the court.

Lavie Sak: So in your experience in sports, how important is psychology in mental preparation?

Steve: Massively, I mean for example that last point about motivation can make the difference between someone who trains mild to moderately for 5 hours a day versus someone who trains intensively for 6 hours. And that difference can be the difference between top hundred and top thousand. Also on the court someone who is anxious, conservative and tired is going to lose on big points and that can make the difference in the business end of the set. And someone who can get totally frustrated will make impulsive shots and just let the game go out of spite. They start making balls irrationally which can sometimes work for some good player, but for most of us who don’t reach that level.

Lavie Sak: Do you think psychology is recognized or accepted by the players and coaches in tennis?

Steve: It’s only starting to be recognized to have just importance. I think over the last 15- 20 years, it’s been an emerging field now. There’s a lexicon even old school coaches can still talk about mental game and psychology of tennis and these days most top 20 players have their own mobile psychologist along with their therapist and trainer. It’s starting to become more widely accepted as part of the game. And now commentators or critics are all talking about the mental strength of Jockovich, Nadal and so, yes, I think it is quite widely accepted as very important. I don’t think there is anyone out there, even the old school coaches, that would say no.

Lavie Sak: So the evolution mentioned before about the equipment changes about the equipment advancements to player centric design, to personal fixation and feedback of their own stroke. What do you think about those threes changed the most in the mental aspect the most?

Steve: I’m not quite sure how they would affect the mental game. The first is the material change rackets get lighter and bigger, allowing people to swing faster and putting more on the emphasis on fitness.

Lavie Sak: What do you think that’s changed so a player with a new technically evolved racket versus someone using a wooden racket. When they first came out, the person who’s using it would have a sense of confidence…

Steve: If you, on the leading edge and had it before the others, but if everyone has it then it’s all equal. If you are one of the first among your peers to get one of the piece of technology that would give you an edge, that might give you some extra confidence and belief that you can win which might translate psychologically.

Lavie Sak: When everyone is so accustomed to wood then suddenly this metal racket comes. Mentally, what does it do to you to make that decision change?

Steve: It might make you a little bit uncomfortable. Anxiety provokes some people to change anything. I mean players at the elite level get very anxious about changing rackets to about 3 or 4 grams heavier, changing the strings. Club players can be lesser. The further damage attracts the less of the entrenched learning someone has the less habits the more they probably embrace change. At the top level, there might be a little bit of an adjustment.

Lavie Sak: Can you tell me something in a sentence or several about the attitude in tennis something you have mentioned already, the first one is confidence.

Steve: Huge, on and off the court.

Lavie Sak: Trust between the player and the coach.

Steve: I suppose trust could be two things. It could be trusting the competency of your coach, thinking that he is really good in what he does. And then there’s trusting him personally that he has your best interests at heart and to like. I think that is more, important in the elite level, personal trust. But in all levels trusting the coach is probably what’s most important.

Lavie Sak: Next is understanding on what do you in the court, the technique and the game also.

Steve: If you mean conscious understanding, then that is in the learning phase for technique. But ultimately we want that technique internalized and automatic, for understanding to not come into it. But understanding in the tactical level and the adjustments you need to make for example, your opponent is playing defensively and coming in, you can adjust and when what you are trying is not working. That kind of tactical level of understanding is very big, very important. It’s the difference between an intelligent player and a robotic player.

Lavie Sak: Next one is anxiety, like you mentioned before?

Steve: Huge. In a tie breaker, I think anxiety probably counts for the 30 or 40 percent of the variants.

Lavie Sak: What about other sources of anxiety? Pressure from parents, coaches…

Steve: All contributes. What they all contribute is that they contribute toward the stakes. There is more at stake. Say for example I told you, we are going to play a tie breaker and we bet a coffee on it, there would be some anxiety. If we added “kudos” cause there are people watching at the crowd that would add the stakes. If I then said let’s make it a $100 and brought in 50 extra people the stakes would go up. If I brought in 3 million people watching from overseas and your whole country waving banners, you could imagine the stakes going up and a million dollars. So, all of these things, all these pressures are what we call the perceived cause of losing and that is massive contributor to anxiety. And anxiety makes you play too conservatively, tighten up and double fall that is terrible.

Lavie Sak: So, I want to look further in the coach anxiety. The coach anxiety, how do coaches put the players at time?

Steve: It depends on the coach. Parents of elite players and coaches can add anxiety. Because coaches I think sometimes get confused between trying to motivate them versus just raising the stakes. So if you say to your player, this the most important match of your life, you have to win this, we are all going to watch, there is a lot riding at this, this is very important. What you are ultimately doing is raising the anxiety by making the stakes seem colossal. Of course if the coach went the other direction and said, This is just a game buddy. Life goes on. You win you lose. If you win that is nice if you lose no big deal we’ll just move on and learn. Then I suppose some coaches would feel the player might be too nonchalant, too complacent. Generally, people intrinsically want to win.

You don’t really have to add stakes to it. But I suppose the ultimate coach would be one who knows his player intimately enough that he would be able to distinguish between a player that is already very anxious and motivated and needs calming down versus the one that is a little bit complacent and doesn’t work hard and just drags his feet a bit and needs a kick up the ass.

Lavie Sak: So that is motivation, like you mentioned.

Steve: Yes, well it needs to be distinguished from just telling the person how important it is to win. You can motivate people toward different ends. You can motivate them to try to win, which is a problem because winning is not necessary always within their control. What I think is better is to motivate a player to work hard off court because that is within their control. To take the pressure off whether they ultimately win or lose. To communicate with them, “Look, work as hard as you can, do everything within your power, follow the plan that we have come up with and then the rest let it be, if it happen it happens, if it doesn’t, we’ll learn.” I think we should extra hard in the training and the off court and then be supportive and reassuring when it comes to the actual match.

Lavie Sak: What do you think is more effective psychologically, negative motivations versus positive motivation?

Steve: Yes, this is a known finding and controversial in the lab where rats and humans, as well as mammal and prime apes just response way, way better in positive incentives than they do to negative.

Lavie Sak: Next one we will talk about feedback, we will talk about coaching feedback compared to non-human feedback. So when a coach gives you feedback, or gives you critics or advice… In the shoes of a player, what are they feeling? How would they response to that?

Steve: It’s really tricky. It is funny ‘cause when you do a stroke, lots of things happen. You move your feet a certain way, you move your arms and there’s a balance as to where you move forward or backward. The accuracy in your ball and how much spin and the coach could point any one of them if it goes wrong. Often there several things that are wrong, when you miss a ball, it could be that your footwork and your technique your attitude and your movement, but the coach is focusing to one aspect. A really good coach is focusing on the one that you are least aware of it. If the coach is telling you something you already know, that can be quite frustrating. If you know that what happened on that shot and you just want to hit another ball , you think you can autocorrect and the coach is a bit quite harsh or critical about it and you feel like saying “yeah yeah yeah, I know” Sometimes it can go the other direction. The coach gives you feedback that doesn’t mean anything to you, like coach said to me the other day “you’re not moving up to the ball” he said “hit it earlier” I didn’t know whether he wanted me to hit like a half volley or to move in or to… It was just confusing what he was actually saying, sometimes the directions they give can be a very emotional directions like, “Let’s see some attitude” or “You’re not bringing it, you’re not taking it to the ball.” What does that mean? So sometimes it gets confusing. Sometimes it’s something you already know, but the coach really gets it right, it just focuses your attention on exactly what you needed to correct. And you usually see the results within two or three balls.

Lavie Sak: So that is somebody looking at you externally, and them making an analysis and provide that to you. What about in the other case, where you alone look at what you’re doing , understanding yourself and self identifying?

Steve: So much better. If you watch a film of yourself often there are things that coaches have been trying to tell you for years that just finally make sense and you’re like, “Oh, I see what they mean about moving the racket across my body” You can see it, I think you just get it in a way that you haven’t got before. What coaches need to realize is that the outside perspective of us, as in viewing the player from the other side of the court is not the way the pilot inside our head views the stroke. Sometimes there is some kind of a “lost in translation phenomenon” when they try to describe to you what they see and it’s not the way you see it. Whereas if you can actually watch yourself, it becomes clear what he was trying to get at and you can make your adjustments.

Lavie Sak: What about numbers, if someone told you hitting the ball at extra speeds or hitting it provide specific metrics on what you’re doing. How is it that perceived?

Steve: Very useful, if he can have active feedback. Not feedback after the fact, then you can kind of have one eye on the ball and the other eye on a number that can change per shot that could be extremely effective in learning.

Lavie Sak: Is that because it’s so clear there is no subjectivity to it? It’s just there?

Steve: Yes, a number is more specific than a shot. There is so much to look at in a shot but a number makes it very simple.

Lavie Sak: Do you believe that in this age things that are seen on screen digitally are more trusted than word of mouth from somebody who say you don’t fully trust, words that lie between believing someone over something you see on screen, for a human to non-human perception?

Steve: I don’t know. That’s a very abstract question.

Lavie Sak: For example you see something on the screen that tells you hit the ball 30 m/second. Your racket was going 30m/second through the ball and then your coach tells you that you need to swing faster through the ball. Obviously 30m/sec is more precise.

Steve: Yes, it’s much more precise and often coaches we can’t filter out half of what they say because a lot of it, like I said before, doesn’t make sense to us or it is something that we already know. I think players get proud and they don’t like to be told constantly that they are cocking up that their game started bad. Whereas private feedback that you just look at a number, it’s like watching a heart rate or something like that, it’s not critical. It’s just a thing that you look at as an advantage. But I think you’d trust the instrument more than your coach.

Lavie Sak: The last topic is about the illusion of usefulness. Say I’m a parent and then my child is on the court being coached. If that coach is speaking out words and things like that, but all of a sudden and pulls out a device like a video recorder, how does a parent perceive that: as a coach cares a lot, has all the stuff, or they are just very well equipped? Steve: I think it will add value. And parent will think “hmmmm” It looks professional, probably competent and technical and more advanced. What you don’t want as a coach is to look too makeshift or slip shot, too dodgy. You want to look advance. It’s like having a well-designed website versus a really dodgy one. I think the more a coach can use a video or specific device or machines, I think the better it looks, whether or not it actually adds to the coaching, it would definitely look good to a parent.

Lavie Sak: How about not to the parent but the player themselves. The feedback, you give them feedback after looking them and then you give them a video and then provide feedback on the video which is mobile.

Steve: Yes, it’s awesome. Not only because it is more precise and allows the player to autocorrect and see their own stuff but it also filters out the subject to the interest of the coach but it also takes away the loss of face, the pride issue when someone else’s telling you what is wrong with you and probably would appear professional and techie.

Lavie Sak: So that is the last question. Do you have anything to add?

Steve: Maybe one other thing would be, I think, most tennis players are boys and boys love toys. I think people in general like toys, like devices, like gadgets, which is an added bonus because we are talking about motivation. Off court motivation, coaches try to make sessions as entertaining as possible. Keeping it interesting, you make positive association with playing tennis and less drudgery for the player. And toys and gadgets can contribute to that.

Lavie Sak: Anything else you want to add?

Steve: No, that’s it. Thanks.

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