Mind Over Matter: Hastings Tennis Coach Pete Farthing Goes Mental
Peter Farthing is a professional hypnotherapist, trained in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and advanced coaching skills. He offers solutions to problems such as anxiety, addiction, stammering, fear of flying and other phobias. But he started as a tennis coach, and still provides regular on-court coaching as part of the 6 Love Tennis Coaching team at Amherst, the local Hastings club. “I love tennis,” he says. “It brings so many challenges for an individual together in one arena.”
Peter was a talented junior player and in the late 1980s earned himself a college scholarship in the USA, playing at a level from which a small minority could pass on to the professional circuit. He returned to Britain, however, and after gaining LTA coaching qualifications spent some years in full-time tennis coaching, aiming to pass on the range of proficiencies he had learned.
As Peter describes it, “Back then, as coach, I was completely in charge of the learning process. I was totally authoritative, diagnosing technical faults, prescribing technical solutions.”
But he became increasingly disenchanted with the sole use of this prescriptive method. “As many coaches report, you can work with a player for six months, getting them to adopt the ‘right’ grip or the ‘right’ swing path. Often it works to a degree, but then some players just don’t seem to improve. That’s when, as a coach, you can get frustrated, anxious, bored.” He looked for a wider approach.
Back in 1974 a former US-ranked junior and Harvard alumnus, Timothy Gallwey, had published The Inner Game of Tennis, a hugely popular book which offered an alternative perspective. Gallwey too had found, as a tennis instructor in California, that his conventional directive methods seemed to achieve, at best, mixed results. He discovered that, if on the contrary he simply invited his students to focus their awareness on their strokes as they were without judgement, technique often evolved naturally and seemed to self-correct. Players using Gallwey’s methods could improve far more rapidly than usual, without self-criticism or trying so hard to ‘do it right’.
In a subsequent book, The Inner Game of Work, Gallwey summarised his ideas in a simple equation: ‘Performance equals Potential minus Interference’. In Gallwey’s world our natural ability to learn and to turn that learning into positive attainment is constantly being choked by internal interferences – anxieties, self-doubts and other internal distractions which our minds consciously or unconsciously set up as barriers to learning and thus to optimal performance. Fear of losing, fear of winning, fear of judgement – these are obstacles every bit as real as the opponent on the other side of the net.
In 2001, Peter and fellow Amherst coaches, Mark Barham and Helen Almond, attended the British Tennis Coaches Association conference at which Sir John Whitmore, former Le Mans racing driver turned business guru, spoke about the Inner Game. They, like many other coaches attending with them, were impressed by Sir John’s observations and remedies, and came away intent on changing the nature of their on-court tennis instruction. Peter and a St Albans coach, Andy Knibbs have gone on to develop online coach training together. Their first course, Child-Centred Coaching For Sports Coaches, has not only become part of the LTA’s Continuing Professional Development process but has had interest from other sports such as basketball and table tennis. They are currently developing a follow-up, Zone Training.
Peter had in the meantime become interested both in hypnotherapy and in NLP, an examination of the links between neurological processes, language and behavioural patterns which influence the way we think and act. We all run ‘programmes’ in our brains, he says, often unconscious, based on how we represent reality to ourselves. In sport, these may enhance or hinder. What influence, for instance, do spectators, whether supportive or hostile, have on players’ performance? Some may feed positively off the interaction, others could get anxious. Both hypnotherapy and NLP attempt to change adverse effects by re-programming at a deep level, using the conscious mind to observe whilst tapping into and trusting the unconscious to find the most useful resources and responses.
Tennis is certainly a game that requires well-honed physical techniques to combine power with control. Peter puts the skill of relaxed focused attention close to the top of the list to help players of all levels to learn and play with more ease, both physically and mentally. He points to Roger Federer as a player who has reached new heights of technical efficiency, cutting out almost all unnecessary tension in the way he strikes a ball. But it is the mental interference – ‘the opponent inside your head’, as Tim Gallwey called it, that Peter sees as providing our sternest challenge. And his way of teaching players to respond to this challenge is often more akin to a psychotherapist than to a drill sergeant: find out what’s happening on the inside – what we are saying to ourselves, what pictures we have in our heads. Then assess whether it’s helpful or not, ditch what isn’t and replace it with something more useful: “I’ve certainly found over the years that, with all of this knowledge in the equation, there’s a whole lot more learning, performance and enjoyment, both for me and for my players.”
THE FOUR Rs
From an Inner Game perspective what goes on in the gaps between points of a tennis match may be just as important as the play on court. Whatever stage of the match has been reached, whatever happened in the previous point, players can learn to embark on the next point in what Peter calls a ‘resourceful state’ – a pattern of thought which is positive, relaxed and focused – ‘in The Zone’.
Those with long memories may remember the famous Wimbledon final of 1975 when a youthful, bustling Jimmy Connors, overwhelming pre-match favourite, was put to the sword by Arthur Ashe, a mild-looking, bespectacled outsider who adopted an apparent meditative trance at every change of ends. Johanna Konta impressed commentators this year by her resilience under extreme pressure – evident in her practised routines between points that, as she said in post-match interviews, focused on process rather than outcome.
For each individual the detailed preparation between points might be different, but there is some common ground, which performance psychologist Dr Jim Loehr developed into a four-step model. For Peter, it is a framework in which to combine Inner Game principles with NLP and hypnosis, and can be just as helpful for an average club or park player as for an elite performer:
1 Response: Immediate positive body language, no matter what has happened on the previous point – head up, shoulders back, on with the show.
2 Relaxation: A focus on breathing, or techniques like deliberate tightening of muscles, then letting them loose.
3 Review and plan: Reflecting without judgement on what just happened so that a useful focus can be chosen for the next point. There may be a tactic in mind but, to borrow from Johanna Konta’s success, a focus on the process rather than the outcome could be more helpful – something as simple as focus on breathing out when hitting the ball in order to execute the tactic well.
4 Ritual: The physical preparation, different for each player. Rafa Nadal’s elaborate clothing tweaks and sweat flicks or Novak Djokovic’s obsessive ball bouncing are aimed at creating the right mental framework for the point to come – handing it to the power of the unconscious mind and entering The Zone…