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The brain dictates at Wimbledon

Vic Braden by Vic Braden
Contributing Tennis Writer

Hatboro, PA (Sports Network) - Wimbledon was a case study for psychologists. The psychological factors that helped, and hurt, some players appeared over and over again.

Let's start with Roger Federer, the overwhelming favorite who lost in the quarterfinals.

For years, players competing with Federer were happy to win a few games. Then, there were some upsets of Federer in the last two years and some players started to believe he was beatable. John McEnroe stated that players now feel they can beat Federer, but never really expanded upon that.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer's quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon dropped him to third in the world rankings.
What's missing from McEnroe's statement is the role of the brain.

There is no such thing as muscle memory, although it was a great concept in the 1970s. Neuro-scientists proved that muscles have no place to store memory and the only storage site is in the brain. Thus, it's up to the brain to send the proper electrical signals to the muscles.

But psychological factors can affect the brain's signals. For example, when the brain says you have no chance against Federer, your muscles will respond accordingly. But, when your brain says you are an equal to any competitor, it's more apt to send the roper signals to the muscles.

Are you thinking "mind over matter" right now? You are on the right track.

The Czechoslovakian, Tomas Berdych, started the positive brain movement four years ago by upsetting Federer. Before they played at Wimbledon, the British press indicated that the No. 1-seeded Federer was on his way to the final again. However, Berdych had other plans and he beat Federer again in four sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.

There were very different facial expressions on Federer as he looked uncertain and made many uncommon unforced errors. The fear factor had switched from Berdych to Federer. Or, putting it another way, their brains had changed places for this one.

The next to experience a brain detour and transfer was four-time Wimbledon singles champion Venus Williams.

Williams was having a pretty good year, but the women on tour no longer fear her or see her as invincible. Bulgaria's unseeded Tsvetana Pironkova, destroyed Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the third round, causing Venus to look puzzled and very disappointed with her performance. Again, the brain wasn't sending the right messages to her muscles.

Every facial expression is generated by brain signals. The top players will always announce that their task is to stay focused. Motor learning guru Dr. Richard Schmidt calls this focusing system as being "process-oriented."

The players who worry about their chances or performance are called "outcome- oriented." When a player shows facial expressions of disgust, or grave disappointment, with his performance, he is in the "performance-oriented" stage and his brain is sending the wrong signals to his muscles.

When Vera Zvonareva lost to Serena Williams, her facial expressions and body movements were so obviously in the performance-oriented stage that people in the stands commented on her negative approach. When she later played poorly in the doubles finals, she had difficulty trying to stop crying. Her partner, Elena Vesnina, actually spent time wiping the tears off her partner's face. Zvonareva and Vesnina lost to Vania King and Yaroslava Shevedova, an unseeded team.

The bottom line is that the best choice for a player is to be concerned about hitting each shot properly, which is the very best he can do. If he loses while being totally process-oriented, he has done the best he can do and should feel good about making his best effort. And, if he loses his composure during a match, don't blame the muscles, blame the brain.

Comments? Contact Vic Braden at

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