By Gabriela Paz, Tennis Coach and Former Tennis Professional
It seems that all the best athletes in the world have something in common. They are able to focus extremely well for extended periods of time. Sounds easy enough, but to be able to accomplish full focus, competitors must endure a lot of mental training and this starts from an early age. Find out why the phenomenon of technology has impacted new generations of tennis players to reach the focus they require to play in the highest level.
Let’s take it back 20 years ago, when players like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova were youngsters training hard to become the best. These timeless champions have all broken records in many different ways and have overcome obstacles time after time to become the best in the world. How was their training, or perhaps lives been different than any player today? Hard work, resilience, hunger, discipline, drive, persistence. All of these character traits are still available today, aren’t they? What’s changed?
Clearly, a lot of these individuals are still dominating the professional tour. Federer is almost 40 years of age and he is still in the Top 3. Serena Williams just gave birth in her late 30s and seems to be making almost every grand slam final. Oh, and let’s not forget Nadal who seems to be better than ever and breaking every record at age 33. Why is the new generation having such a hard time coming through? Is it the level of tennis or it is mental?
If anything, the level of tennis has risen in the recent years, more speed, power, and consistency. There is only one variable that has changed from the training and lifestyle that these players had 20 or more years ago. It’s simple really; technology and comfort.
All human beings including tennis players look for ways to escape ups and downs, frustrations and emptiness in their lives. The new way of escaping those rough times in the XXI century appear to be the social media: Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all these new apps kids get entertained with these day. They unconsciously look for that peak of dopamine that being in contact with these apps gives them. What they don’t know, is that by pursuing this lifestyle, they are endangering their mental capabilities by being constantly hyper stimulated.
Let’s take a look at some interesting studies made by investigators, B. Eppinger, J. Kray, B. Mock and A. Mecklinger from the University of Saarland in Germany about this subject. “The XXI century is the century of hyper stimulation”. The brain is exposed and forced to process great amount of data that reach our senses, fundamentally our sight. These interrupted movements that we force our sight to make when we jump from one app to the other or from one technology to the other, causes a constant circuit interruption in our brain, generating less efficacy in our ability to perform our regular life tasks. We are talking about a reduction up to 50% of our brain effectiveness. This phenomenon is causing kids and young people that are used to this type of hyper stimulation to necessitate more and stronger stimulus to become motivated.
Let’s be real, everything is too easy to accomplish and just a click away for the new generation of young players. Although it may seem to be a good thing, the truth is that when these youngster aren’t able to accomplish what they want, their circuits of frustrations are activated, which is a major character weakness for many of them lacking understanding of what it means to put effort into their goals. They don’t learn to recognize that whatever they are putting effort into today, takes time to give gratifying rewards.
The most important part of the brain for a young player or any kid to develop is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for focus and auto control. This part of the brain develops from birth when an infant sees light in his first couple months of life. The infant learns to put his focus to wherever he finds light, movement and sound. According to Psychiatrist, Marian Rojas Estape, the biggest challenge of this new generation is to learn how to put the focus on things like, paper, writing, reading, food, chores, sitting still, and on things they don’t want to do; instead of luminous screens such as phones, iPads or televisions, which are an actual step back for the brain. It is about causing voluntary attention so that they are capable of focusing in a voluntary manner instead of being on autopilot like when they are as infants. This is what developing the prefrontal cortex means, triggering the brain to make intentional acts, even some that are more difficult or challenging so that young players achieve stronger concentration abilities and they don’t grow up with deficits in attention. When players actually cause the mind to concentrate to do what they want, and they are able to do it for long periods of time, that’s when they achieve success.
Ultimately, the goal for young tennis players in this new generation is to limit the use of social media and technology from a moderate to a low degree. To understand that hyper stimulation causes interruptions in the brain and affects it’s functioning up to 50%. To know that the prefrontal cortex must be developed in order to attain great focus and to understand that even “focus” isn’t achieved easily. Players must learn to tolerate frustration and persist until they reach the desired goal. Let’s not forget that competitors who achieve success in their lives and in their careers are all capable of concentrating and putting their focus on what they desire, being able to persevere in their purpose.