How often have you let a lead slip? How often have you grasped defeat from the jaws of victory? How many times have you thought you have won and taken your foot off the gas pedal to find before you know it the game or match has slipped away? Do you get close to the finish line and panic a little and try and rush the next few shots and rallies? If the answer is ‘yes, a few times’, then you are normal, and this happens to all athletes at one time or another whilst competing. The key is to try and learn quickly from these experiences and to put protocols in place to reduce the frequency of them occurring in the future. There is no one method that universally works or no one strategy that guarantees 100% success rate of converting your lead. We are all human and as humans we err. But the goal of this article is to attempt to increase the surface area for your successful conversation of games and matches when you have the lead. What type of mindset can you cultivate for success? Continue reading to find out.
One of the key things to remember when you are at the closing stages of games or matches is momentum. If you find yourself ahead you will have the upper hand with momentum, even if very slight. But, with a few bad shot choices or a drifting mind, momentum is wrestled away from you and the pendulum swings quickly in the opposite direction. We all know the feeling of having and owning momentum in a match and unfortunately, we also know the panicky feeling when we have let it slip. Arguably it is doubly hard to have the momentum, to let it slip and to obtain it again. Because of this, a high priority and importance needs to be placed on this word and concept and an awareness of when you have momentum to work on harnessing more of it. This is your time to embrace and enjoy the feeling and to make it really work for you. Sitting back and resting on your laurels is hugely dangerous and you need to view momentum as you would a toddler. A toddler needs to be noticed, paid attention to and nurtured and NOT to be ignored. If ignored, then all hell breaks loose, and all bets are off. Your existence will become difficult and reactive if momentum (and the toddler) is ignored. You not only go back to square one when you have lost momentum but actually below this, as your opponent has now absorbed this mystical power of momentum and will be using it against you.
A powerful tool at this point when you recognise you have momentum is to use a saying or mantra and to harness the power of your inner voice. At this time, you want to give yourself something positive and something actionable. Do not be vague or too abstract. Some examples of what the inner voice may say could be, “focus on getting in front of your opponent early in the rally”, or “time to push now!”, or “when I have worked the opening be brave to attack”, or “time to extend the rally”. You will notice that the word NOT never appears in these sentences. This is on purpose. A lot of players tend to say things such as, “do NOT hit the tin”, or “do NOT play cross courts”. The human brain is a strange beast and studies have shown that we often block out the word NOT when the pressure is on, and our brain often doesn’t even register this word. So now those sentences begin to sound like “DO hit the tin”, or “DO play cross courts”. Be very careful about inserting a negative context into your actionable mantra. You need to find what works for you in these situations and practice different types of mantras or sayings. You need to be mindful and recognise momentum. Read on for guidance on mindfulness and presence to harness this superpower.
A great tactic to use when you feel you have the momentum is to serve quickly. What I mean by that is after you have won the rally, get the ball in your hand, march to the service box and get ready to serve as soon as your opponent has lifted their head. You may also want to consider a slightly faster and more powerful serve to get the ball back in play quickly. You are sending such a strong and positive signal to your opponent as well as not letting them slow things down between rallies to allow them to begin to think clearly. You will be surprised at how many points you will be able to rattle off by not allowing your opponent any thinking or breathing space. But, as always, too much of anything can become detrimental. Pick your moments. And be mindful that using this tactic should not allow you to rush around like a lunatic and completely forego any tactical plan you may have.
The 3 C’s
The 3 C’s is a tactical concept when you are playing a match and it is transferrable to this discussion. The theory behind the 3 C’s is how a player should look to construct a rally and the mindset behind this. The 3 C’s in order are:
You look to start to create some openings by doing the basics well, such as hitting the ball tight and deep, pinning your opponent behind you, and looking to take control of the T. Closely followed is when you start to get a few openings and look to capitalise. This is about playing with a low risk factor but looking to accumulate pressure on your opponent. And ultimately, when you have done this well, your ability to convert becomes a lot higher and you will be given more and easier opportunities to do so. However, let’s not be fooled. What has just been described is a perfect crescendo to our perfect rally. It is ideal and nice to have, and we should always strive for it, but we need to respect the nature of competitive sport (which as we know is sometimes an unfair mistress) as well as an opponent trying to get the win themselves.
If you are in a state of panic and uncertainty when trying to convert, you would do very well to remind yourself of the 3 C’s and how to try and approach the next rally. This awareness can be used in-between a point where you take a longer time to gather yourself and your thoughts. Take a few deeper breaths and do not rush into starting the rally. Especially if you have felt the momentum swing the other way. Being clear and positive with your inner voice at this stage will be helpful and it will give you an actionable cue in how to step in and play the next rally. It’s a very simple way to look to construct a rally but it is even a more powerful way to harness a clear and positive mindset at these crucial stages of games or matches. Having simple and clear prompts when trying to covert is necessary and we do not want the mind running a million miles an hour with thoughts and emotions spiralling out of control.
Attack and finish or hold what I have?
This is the universal question when it comes to what you should be doing when you have the lead. Do you tell yourself “I have a cushion and can now take some risks and look to attack at the first opportunity to close it out quickly”? Or, “do I look to hold what I have got and keep doing the same as I have done to get to this point as it has worked”? There is no one single answer here and it is not binary. It needs to be a continuum and your instinct needs to come into play. But be sure to do something! Sitting back, going through the motions, and just waiting for the game to close out puts you into such a grey area and you are gift wrapping the choice over to your opponent. Be sure to be proactive. One of the worst things you can do at the business end of games and matches is to be a passive observer of what is unfolding in front of you.
“When we surrender our right to choose, we give others the power and permission to choose for us” – Greg McKeown
For example, a player like Ali Farag talks about being a little more conservative and playing to his strengths at this point. He is a supreme athlete with amazing efficiency of movement around the court. He readily admits “I am not the bravest” but then plays to his super strengths of extending the rally and moving the player all over the court. On the other hand, Laura Massaro has the mindset of “dying on her sword” which in simple terms means to not refuse the opportunity when it presents itself to her to finish the rally. She prefers winning or losing on her terms and by having this mindset she is accepting of whatever the outcome may be. It is worth noting that even though Ali and Laura have different tools and mindsets to convert (as this is also aligned with their personalities and super strength), they will both flex and adapt to the situation. If the ball is there to be finished, Ali will step in and take it. If Laura feels it a better tactic to be a bit more conservative and extend the rally she will do so. They are experts in reading the situation and aligning themselves to be most effective to cultivate the converting mindset in each moment.
“There is an opportunity there to play the drop. If you refuse that opportunity that’s negative. But trying to force the opportunity is also negative. You are trying to put a positive spin on the opportunity that arises“ – Laura Massaro
Be present and mindful
You need to be able to trust yourself and be clear of baggage or negative thoughts in these moments when looking to convert a lead. Being present and mindful under pressure is a skill that top athletes work on and hone continually. Mindfulness is not a behaviour or attitude we are born with. It is a skill that needs to be worked on and shaped over time. The more you can be in the present moment the less you will be dwelling or ruminating on the past or forecasting and worrying about the future. This state of past and present thinking when you are at the business end of a game or match is deadly and completely takes you away from the task at hand.
Being mentally tough at the closing stages of games or matches is about the ability to stick to a tactical plan when the pressure is on. When your head is spinning, and you may be overthinking everything. How it will feel to win. What the crowd or your mates will think. What the consequences of losing will be. Even thinking what you may have for supper later that night. All this mental mess is completely irrelevant at this moment, it serves absolutely no purpose, but it is not easy to get rid of it all. Again, your inner voice will be key here so give yourself some clear and actionable points that you know you can execute and have full control over. Let go of what has gone and what is not in your control. All this does is serve to waste mental energy and willpower, which are both limited resources.
A few tools to use during a match when you feel things are mentally spinning out of control have been discussed before in Nerves and Anxiety part 2. Reframing is a way to take the negative inner voice you may have and replace it with something different. For example, saying “I am having the thought that…” tags and labels the negative spiralling thoughts and shows that it is only just a thought. Thoughts of this nature serve no purpose and only destroy the moment you are in. You can recognise you are having the thought and you can deal with it later. It is a way to try and accept thoughts will come and go and you do not need to go with them or lean into them. This is not the time or the place.
A second tool is thought stopping. This is done by using your mind’s eye to hold up a big red stop sign right in front of your face. If you find yourself saying phrases such as, “I can’t win”, “This always happens”, “Why are you so useless”, then hold the big red stop sign in your mind for a few seconds and then allow it to fade away with the negative thoughts attached to it. In-match interventions like this do not work immediately or overnight and are difficult, but you should begin to use them and work with them over time. Do not dismiss them only after a few times of trying. They take time to take root and grow and flourish into something powerful and effective.
Some scenarios to keep in mind when debating whether to “die on your sword” or “extend the rallies”:
- If the ball is cold and dead, then maybe look to step in and take it on as your opponent may likely do this before you if you refuse the opportunity
- If the ball is lively, you know that your opponent will not be able to produce a winner from anywhere so you could look to extend the rallies
- Depends on the score, if it is late in the fifth game then the ball is likely to be deader and your opponent running on adrenalin, so some quick attacks may be smarter
- If you have the skill to play the drop or attacking shot take it on, if you feel you do not have the skill then build some more and wait until the right opportunity to do so
Alongside the above scenarios, here are a few more positive phrases/mantras that may be useful to try when looking to cultivate a converting mindset:
- “I own this game; you are going to have to wrestle it back from me”
- “I am going to starve you of time and freedom”
- “You will have to carry me off court before I lose this game”
- “I trust in my ability to attack at the right time”
- “Take your time, be calm, you’ve got this”
As multiple studies now go to show, the brain cannot tell the difference between a real event and the vivid visualisation of the same event. The same neural pathways are fired up and activated in the brain when we visualise. So, we need to put a visualisation intervention in place for this part of the match when you are ahead and looking to convert. Visualisation can be a formal process where you sit down and dedicate a few minutes of your day to close your eyes and run through the scenarios you will find yourself in. It can also be less formal, and you can let your mind drift and wonder towards how you want to play to close out games or matches. This can be done whilst at the shops, doing chores or going about your daily business. Getting a blend of formal and informal visualisations is a sure way for you to be able to use these tactics and positive inner voice when you really need it to convert your games and matches. It is rare that you will be able to just convert consistently without practice. Like anything you want that is reliable and robust, it needs time, and it needs practice. The SquashMind app, and visualisation scripts within, is useful for this mindful practice.
Saying all the above, if you ever feel you are forcing something, it will always feel a lot more awkward. There is such a fine balance to be struck between high functioning cognitive thinking and instinctual unconscious relaxing and letting your previous experiences be the guiding factor. This is how athletes get into The Zone. It’s a fine blend of being ultra-focussed as well as a little bit of not caring. You need to walk this line and experiment what works best for you. Developing the converting mindset is one that takes time and some deep self-reflection after each experience. If it was easy then everyone would be able to do it. But the ability to find a way to get yourself over the line consistently when under pressure is what will separate the good from the best. You now have the theory and the tools. It is for you to now pick up the tool and use it. A tool is no good and does not serve its purpose if it is just lying in its toolbox looking pretty. Remember the SquashMind philosophy:
“Get the theory – Get the tools – Get to work”
- Use the SquashMind app as a tool to listen to The Experts talk about how they convert from in front, follow along visualisation scripts for how to convert, work on your mindfulness and to use the Game Planning journal to self-reflect and grow your mindset for future matches
- Be aware when you have momentum, from here use a positive and actionable inner voice to drive you towards the finish line and to keep your focus on task
- Experiment with different sayings and mantras when you are ahead in a match. They can range from something very positive and attacking, to something more conservative and pragmatic e.g., the 3 C’s. The context of the situation is important to bear in mind at this point
- Start to create a short daily visualisation habit, whether it be formal practice or letting your mind wander to this situation of converting from in front
- Work on your mindfulness away from the pressure of a match, look to start a meditation intervention to strengthen these parts of the brain so they can be used and active when you need them
- Use in match intervention such as reframing and thought stopping. These will be difficult to do in the beginning, but with time, patience, and practice, you will become better and more effective at using them