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Steve Flink: David Sammel's book plays to a particular audience

5/6/2014 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Many of the tennis books released in recent years have been aimed at a wide ranging audience, written largely for fans. Others have put out instructional books that are clearly designed for players looking to learn more about the fundamentals of the game. Some of these books have been strategically oriented, with authors and coaches trying to give their readers a deeper understanding of how to outsmart their opponents and get the most out of their own arsenals.

In his new book, David Sammel is speaking essentially to young players about the sport’s psychology from the standpoint of an experienced coach. Between the years 1997 and 2002, Sammel coached ten players who represented their countries in Davis Cup competition; in those years, each of the British Davis Cup contingents included at least one of his players. Sammel is currently Head Coach of TeamBath-MCTA International High Performance Centre and Director of the Monte Carlo Tennis Academy. He seems to have established himself over the years as a reputable figure and he has commanded the respect of some notable people inside the sport, including Judy Murray, the mother of Andy Murray.

Judy Murray wrote the introduction for Sammel’s Locker Room Power (“Building an Athlete’s Mind”). In this book, Sammel does a good job of addressing the psychology of tennis, sprinkling examples and analogies from other sports across the pages to add weight and depth to his point of view. It is thoughtful, informative and often enlightening. His subject is the mental game, and most of his thoughts are originally presented, well organized and clearly thought out. The book is barely over 100 pages, featuring 27 short, crisp and seldom tedious chapters, but the length of the manuscript is an advantage.

In the book’s foreword, Dr. Mark Nesti sums up Sammel accurately, writing, “Although not recognized as a qualified sports psychologist, I have often found his [Sammel’s] understanding of performance psychology to be well in advance of much contained in research journals and theory… Dave’s philosophy can be summed up as being somewhat in keeping with the man himself: total commitment, full intensity, all the time.”

Nesti continues candidly, “Some of the views in this book are quite conventional and generally accepted. Others are much less so. I believe that a good book should always provoke and make us feel uncomfortable. This is usually a sign that we have to wrestle with new ideas and novel concepts. This is actually a description of learning.”

Judy Murray backs up Nesti’s assessment of Sammel, asserting, “Locker Room Power is an example of how Dave continues to observe and absorb lessons from other sports and works them into his own philosophy.. This is a book by a top coach and an amazing student of the game.”

Early on in the book, Sammel fundamentally sets the table for what is to follow when he writes, “The best way to counter a reputation is to build your own. Once you have created your aura, the impact it can have on the locker room and the surrounding environments an athlete frequents is vast.”

That, of course, is the overriding premise of the book—how an athlete can empower himself to attain large goals through strength of mind and purposeful planning. From one chapter to another, throughout Locker Room Power, without losing focus, Sammel tells a coherent story of how a champion’s mind is developed. For instance, in the third chapter of the book entitled “Competitive Mentality”, Sammel defines that as “a state of mind. Developing the mind of a champion takes time and experience. It takes years of repetition.” He ventures forward with some sensible reasoning about the way players should approach pivotal points in a match, writing, “Players look at big points as winning or losing them the match, but that is true only of match point. Players look at a big point that can represent not only a point but the match or the tournament or a career. No wonder the player chokes—who wants to play one point for their career?”

Sammel has an intriguing chapter called” Play to Gain”, using the example of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008 to make the case. Nadal won the first two sets of his final that year against Roger Federer before dropping the next two, as Federer fought off two match points in the fourth set tie-break. Nadal was asked later if he felt disappointed at the outset of the final set, but the Spaniard was flabbergasted and dismissive of that suggestion because he still felt he was within range of the title and in a great position to win it. Sammel writes of Nadal, “He plays to gain a Wimbledon title. He never thinks about what he has to lose; only at what he has to gain.”

The book progresses logically and lucidly. In his chapter on “Using Personality as a Weapon”, Sammel cites the example of John McEnroe facing Bjorn Borg. McEnroe realized that emotional outbursts would only be a detriment to himself and his chances when playing Borg. McEnroe knew that when he confronted the implacable Swede, he had to be on his best behavior. Sammel writes of McEnroe, “He felt that his own personality on court was a sign of his respect for Borg.. Had he acted disrespectfully when playing Borg, he never would have earned the high opinion of this living legend”, or, for that matter, of the sporting public who admired the Swede’s quiet demeanor.

A particularly impressive chapter from Sammel is on “Fear, Nerves and Intimidation”. He gets to the heart of that matter with this passage: “When engulfed by fear it is impossible to compete effectively. The mind is afraid, worried, panicked and unclear, while the body cannot function smoothly or efficiently with so many conflicting and negative messages circulating through the nervous system. Fear often manifests itself through a player mentally fleeing the contest.”

Returning later in the book to the theme of Locker Room Power, Sammel writes, “The locker room not only refers to the changing room but any place where athletes interact and observe…. All of these environments are where the finest details of an athlete’s lifestyle are under scrutiny and used to create a perception of the athlete. The perception is a crucial element of LRP [Locker Room Power]. I am certain that what other people or fellow competitors hear and see in the locker room impacts on an athlete and consequently the athlete’s LRP.” He later adds, “The secret of sustained Locker Room Power is learning how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

In the chapter called “In and Out of the Zone”, Sammel writes perceptively, “One of the most significant factors about top performers is the capacity to find a way to perform when they are not in the zone. One of the ways they do this is by fully accepting that it is impossible to be in the zone at all times, particularly in high pressure situations… A player must have a number of in and out of the zone periods during a long match. Because of this, the most important thing top performers have learned is to completely accept that the real task is to deliver a high quality competitive performance when they are uncomfortable, not in the zone and not playing well.”

Moving on to “Self Belief”, Sammel clarifies remarkably well how great players really think about capturing prizes they may have dreamed about for years or even decades. He writes, “When champions say they cannot believe they have won Wimbledon of Olympic gold, what they are actually saying is that they cannot believe how soon it happened or that what they have always believed in has finally happened! The fundamental belief that they could attain the goal was settled many years beforehand.”

The book includes with an entertaining chapter called “Sammelisms”, which features some of his favorite sayings. For example, “Mental toughness is a decision.” Or, “Feeling sorry for yourself is a sackable offense. Competing with excellence is no place for self-pity.” Or, better yet, “Never switch off in a point. Disaster happens when a point is all but won and a player switches off and carelessly misses an easy finish because in [his or] her mind the point is over. It is not over until it is totally finished.”

Sammel is to be commended because Locker Room Power displays much wisdom and common sense advice in a compressed space. Here is a book that can be read and re-read over the years by aspiring young players as they strive to make the most of their athletic lives.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.