AT the very highest level in any sport, sooner or later a competitor’s psychology comes into play.
The winner at Wimbledon may not be someone who combines a rocket service with unbeatable touch around the court and incredible stamina, but rather the player with the best mental approach throughout the tournament.
That could well be Andy Murray, according to Misha Botting, sport psychologist at the sportscotland Institute of Sport.
A former professional ballet dancer in Russia and with Scottish Ballet, Botting now advises the likes of Scottish swimmers Robbie Renwick and Hannah Miley and Scotland’s Sochi-bound Olympic curlers on psychology and techniques to maximise their performance.
Having observed Murray at a distance – he has not worked with Britain’s No.1 player – Botting feels that the key to his performance is confidence, and the fact that he is in good health and has finally won a major title – last year’s US Open – should make the London 2012 Olympic champion a very formidable presence in SW19.
“It will have been a big relief for Andy to get his first major championship,” said Botting, “and that’s a monkey off his back effectively. It will give him a tremendous amount of confidence as well as clarity about what he needs to achieve during Wimbledon.
“If you think about it, he did win the last championship that took place at Wimbledon. It may not have been the Wimbledon tournament itself, but it was an Olympic final on the Centre Court, and you don’t get a much bigger match.
“For Andy and all athletes at Andy’s level, because at that level it is very difficult to make significant leaps in terms of the technical side of the sport or even with tactical awareness, so confidence becomes an absolutely critical part of performance.”
Botting’s emphasis with his athletes is on so-called “bouncebackability” and he feels that Murray has that quality in spades.
Botting added: “We have a very successful record in the sport of curling, and currently our women are the world champions.
“One of the principal ideas in the advice that I give them is about bouncing back after making an error. That’s what makes these players very, very successful – they are able to turn things around.
“In Andy’s case, he can turn an unforced error or a double fault into something positive for his overall performance. Bouncing back after making an error is a fundamental psychological skill that can drive you to success.
“A key element in a match is the ability to control your attention.
“Very frequently, the media and supporters can distract a player’s attention, so it will be absolutely fundamental for Andy to retain his attention on what I call the bread-and-butter skills. Players at Andy’s level find it comforting to narrow their attention to the fundamental skills. Couple that with bouncebackability and you have a great combination.”
The fact Murray need no longer fear Djokovic, Federer and Nadal could be the clincher.
Botting said: “Fear is a massive internal distraction, and could be just as big a distraction as the shouts from the supporters in the stadium, or anything else that skews his attention from the bread-and-butter skills.
“Andy is so good at moving away from these distracting thoughts to something that will help him to reinforce his self-confidence. It is a massive psychological skill that he has developed during years and years of training.”
Coach Ivan Lendl’s input is also important, says Botting. “If you look at his body language, it doesn’t change whether Andy is behind or has made an error or served an ace.
“He is very consistent and very calm during the match, and that can certainly influence Andy’s behaviour on court.”
Botting has a masters degree in performance psychology from Edinburgh University, having started out as a dancer at the Bolshoi ballet.
“Ballet is not that much different from sport in that you spend years and years in training, and you have the physicality of ballet and the relentless performing in front of the audience. I feel very comfortable working with athletes at the highest level, as I really understand where these players come from and what they experience.”