The Wrap Around with Dr Z: Issue II – Overcoming Intimidation

Posted on Aug 23 2016 - 11:29am by DV

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“How can you best cope with an opponent who has an intimidating game, or who you feel intimidated by?  Maybe he’s won a lot of tournaments and beaten you in the past, or maybe he has great skills?”

  • Anonymous WPH Pro

Daniel Zimet, PhD, CC-AASP

You’ve been looking forward to this tournament for weeks, but when the draw comes out your heart sinks.  There he is, right in your draw – your nemesis.  “I can’t win…I can’t even compete!” you think…“He’s so much better than I am…why even go?”

Feeling intimidated, whether by a situation, your opponent, or your own self-doubts, is one of the most debilitating mental problems faced by athletes on all levels.  The loss of self-confidence and feelings of inferiority can cause catastrophic problems with concentration, energy, and aggression.  You know it’s happening –you’re psyching yourself out – but it feels impossible to stop.  Some indications that you have an ‘Intimidation Mindset’ include, 1) feeling dread or weighed down by pressure; 2) not wanting to play due to fear of humiliation; 3) negatively comparing yourself to your opponent; 4) obsessively thinking about your opponent’s skills (usually with awe); 5) anticipating poor play on your part; 6) not trying or just giving up during the match; and 6) negative thoughts, including “I’m not good enough to be here.”

Although beating a more skilled opponent may be unlikely, feeling intimidated ruins the experience of competing.  What’s needed is a change in mindset.  Focus your attitude away from judgments about winning and losing (outcome), and learn to view success in terms of your evolution as a handball player (process).  Players who focus on process rather than outcome tend to have higher motivation, confidence, and overall enjoyment.  Process Players look forward to challenges – they don’t run away from fears, they attack them head on.  A Process Player takes immense satisfaction out of putting his best game on the court against a strong opponent and making him play his top game to win.

In contrast, An Outcome Player’s mind is focused on uncontrollable factors – like an opponent’s ability.  Never put your opponent on a pedestal, no matter how impressed you are with his game or his prior accomplishments.  You can’t control him and it’s best to forget about him.  Think of him as a faceless ball-retriever – a zombie tennis-ball machine – who keeps the ball in play.  Focus on your game and put your best effort into every point.  Recognize that it’s OK to make mistakes.  Everyone takes poor shots or fails to execute, but elite athletes don’t compound errors by ruminating about bad periods of play.  Replace thoughts about your opponent’s great shots with great shots of your own.  If you can’t seem to stop thinking about his great shots, try to deliberately add your own effective response/counter shot to the visualization.

As you contemplate and prepare for the match, use some mental strategies create a productive mental focus.  Positive self-talk, particularly when coupled with breathing exercises, can help channel energy and reduce feelings of pressure.  Use positive key words like “I am strong, confident, and powerful” rather than negatives like “I’m not intimidated, fearful, or anxious.”  Have routines and stick to them.  Develop and trust your physical and mental warmup, and consider listening to music or try calming techniques like breathing, meditation, or distraction.  Show up physically prepared to play by being in shape, hydrated and with a stocked handball bag.

If you continue to have problems, some soul searching may help illuminate deeper psychological issues that are brought to the surface by an intimidating opponent.  See if you can identify and come to terms with these issues, and seek strengths to offset or overcome your limitations.  Remember why you play in the first place.  If you’re like me, it’s for fun, challenge, comradery, health and fitness, and a love of the game and sport in general.  Winning happens too, but finding the limits of my game through competition with friends is the ultimate reward!

Some suggestions for intimidating opponents:

The Stupendous Server –

  • Have an athletic ‘ready’ position in the receiving box. Think: “coiled spring.”
  • Heighten your concentration as he starts his motion, and move to the balls of your feet when he makes impact.
  • Expect that he’ll score on his serve. When it happens, let it go and focus on the next serve.
  • Watch film from the receiver view, looking for ‘tells’ to improve your anticipation. This is particularly helpful in determining service type, direction, depth, and spin.
  • When training, do exercises that work on an explosive first-step, such as box jumps.

The Profoundly Powerful Player –

  • Have early swing preparation and set-up. This means you will need to move quickly into your pre-shoot position.
  • Stay a little further back, understanding that one weakness of power is that low shots carry deeper into the court. This is particularly helpful in 4-wall, where you’ll get more back-wall shots.
  • Resist the temptation to over-power the Power Player.
  • Use short, compact swings like punch-shots and hit the ball back in the same direction.
  • When training work on hand-speed drills, such as bouncing a reaction-ball.

The Ridiculous Retriever –

  • Expect the ball to come back, and never assume you’ve hit a winner. For example, always follow your kill-shots into the front court.
  • Use smart shot selection, such as mixing passes with kills.
  • Resist the temptation to hit the ‘perfect’ shot –hit several solid winners rather than a single bottom-board kill.
  • Be very aerobically prepared for the match, such as training with interval exercises.
USHA Hall of Famer Member, Joe Durso

USHA Hall of Famer Member, Joe Durso


Joseph Durso, Brooklyn NY.  Handball Hall of Fame, Twenty-five National Open 1-wall titles (14 singles & 11 doubles).  Prefers 1-wall small- and big-ball

Superficially it does seem like the question is a bifurcated one, in that it raises issues of an opponent with both a superior skill set coupled with intimidating court behaviors or attitudes that naturally flow from them.  On reflection I am of the opinion that there is really one central core issue presented here.

In terms of intimidation or fear of an opponent, I strongly feel  that there should be no room in one’s internal dialogue or thinking about what your opponent is capable of doing in terms of his speed, power etc. None of his qualities or attributes should ever be considered as you approach the ball to select your own shot.  As you begin to strike the ball, the one thought in your mind should be “what is the correct shot in terms of where my opponent is relative to the ball and what is the likelihood, given my own skill set, in making that particular shot?”  If the correct shot is beyond your capabilities, then a secondary shot has to be selected. Your opponent’s particular talents are irrelevant to this equation, you have no control over what he can or will do, you have only control over what you do. So whatever you may think he is capable of should not enter your thinking when selecting the correct shot. This rightly assumes that when the correct shot is executed, it will be beyond your opponent’s ability to even make contact with the ball, so his skills are thus rendered irrelevant.

As to the question of intimidation over aspects of opponent strength, again, I think the same mind set should apply.  It makes no difference at all what an opponent’s skill set may be.  All you can do is hit the correct shot.  If you do that each and every shot, and your opponent wins nonetheless, then it simply means he is currently the superior player, given the existing skills each of you possesses.  The correct and only response to that dynamic is not fear or intimidation on your part, it is to simply practice smarter and to acquire additional new skills sufficient to tilt the balance of skills in your own favor and then let him fear you!!!

John Robles, Phelan CA.  b1965.  Highest professional ranking #3.  15 National Masters Titles, 4 Worlds titles, 1 Canadian Master Title, Southern California Hall of Fame.  Prefers indoors (but I also love outdoors)

Play the ball.  Forget who he is.  That was the advice Naty Sr. gave me.  Don’t let the ball beat you.  Take the human element out of it.


Vern Roberts Jr., Tucson, AZ.  b 1954.  Handball Hall of Fame, induction 2002.  Preferred to play outside (prior to replacement parts)

Intimidating?  Hmmm….Well there are intimidating players, those with good “game,” but we’re handball players – we’re not intimidated by anything.  Not the hard ball, the use of the off-hand or the steep learning curve.  We’ve overcome those, so playing a challenging game is why we show up to the club.

There’s something to learn from this “intimidating” player, and that can make us better.  If I’m faced with a challenging match/player, I’m looking for a “play” that works, and then I build on that.   I’m not aware of anyone who doesn’t “crack” when they’re faced with shots that consistently put them on the defensive.  So, that means slowing the game and pace down to make sure you can put the opponent in a difficult spot.

Each descriptor you use for the opponent might result in a slightly different game plan, but the most important thing to do is prepare a plan.  Watch the opponent so you know what to expect in certain situations and then have a plan to put that rally back into your favor.

Dave Dohman, Munster, IN.  b 1956, Handball Hall of Fame, 2009.  Nine National Open 3-Wall Doubles titles, 22 National Masters titles.  Prefers 3-wall

When playing an opponent such as the one described, I usually try to prevent what my opponent does best. For instance, if he has a devastating serve, I really try to focus on return of serve and not worry about my overall performance. This approach usually allows me to relax a bit and not get caught up in the possibility that I may get handed a quick defeat. Once again, it still comes back to overall preparation like conditioning, shot execution and strategy. If I don’t play well, I could lose to anyone that is on the top of their game.

I also like to think, “if the other player is considered superior to me….I have nothing to lose!”  The pressure is all on him!

G Michael Driscoll, Oak Park, IL. b. 1938.  Twenty-two National Masters titles, 1, 3 and 4-wall, 2 Worlds titles.  Prefers 3-wall small-ball

First of all, I must get over being intimidated. I must take steps to convince myself that the opponent can be beat.

  • What shots have been most effective against him, if I have played him in the past?
  • What have other opponents done that was most effective against him?
  • What shots have failed against the opponent in the past? These shots should be avoided in the upcoming match.
  • I must convince myself that I possess the ability to develop a game plan with the right shot selections to beat the opponent.
  • I will be in the frame of mind when I enter the court that I believe that I will win.
  • I will stay alert and focused during the match to take advantage of any flaw in the opponent’s game that materializes and refrain from making errors in my play.

In preparing my game for the match I will do the following:

  • I will practice with people that have the same strengths as my opponent so as to develop a defense against his best shots and/or conditioning.
  • I will practice against players whose strength is my opponents weakness and try to beat them playing to their strength. That way the shots that I plan to use against my opponent will be more precise and harder to return. This will also boost confidence in my game.