The Times (London) – Jul 18, 2005 – Nick Wyke – Nick Wyke analyses the differing benefits of training and various fitness regimes. Three hours or more is a long time to spend on centre court all alone. Ask Andy Murray and Lindsay Davenport who both lost lengthy matches at Wimbledon this year.

Unlike some team sports -rugby and cricket, for example -professional tennis can be a lonely game. Many players start training as young children, trading in school and even their home life for a tennis academy abroad, and the tennis tour can mean long spells alone in foreign hotels.

“No athlete is an island,” says John Murray, a US-based sports psychologist specializing in tennis. “Although social support is needed by everyone, athletes in individual sports, including tennis, lack large social support resources found in team sports. This may leave them particularly vulnerable to stress when the going gets rough.”

There can be few contact sports more stressful than boxing. When Tony Sibson, the Leicester middleweight, left the ring after his defeat in a world title bout by Marvin Hagler in 1983 all he could say was “it just got lonely out there.”

From his extensive studies of boxers, Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, believes the extent to which they feel supported by a team to be very important. “Sportsmen stand a better chance of achieving their goals if they have developed a sense of cohesion and team spirit -it makes them more receptive to performance advice. But many individuals don’t consider that.”

A relay team, for example, has a great sense of cohesion that comes from having an identical shared goal of winning and not wanting to let each other down. Other sports, such as cricket and basketball, carry a similar degree of interdependence.

Winning coaches, such as Chelsea’s Jose Mourhino, intuitively recognise the importance of team dynamics in motivating and supporting their players to excel beyond the contributions of individual efforts.

For the past three years the US Olympic ski team has placed a strong emphasis on watching and providing positive feedback for each other despite significant personality clashes. The skiers reported a boost to self-esteem and confidence because of this supportive behaviour. The team’s performance markedly improved.

According to Lane, the character and disposition of athletes dictates how they train. The more gregarious ones will veer towards group-based training while the less social types will go it alone. “In groups they can be pushed by fellow athletes; in an exercise such as circuit training a natural competitiveness emerges which can be very rewarding.”

Team members, however, find individual training difficult. That is why team players often struggle through an injury because they are no longer able to train with their team mates. A good coach will make sure that the injured player is included in tactical and psychological sessions, so that he does not feel further marginalised.

Although competitive cycling is essentially a gruelling solo sport, there are many advantages to training with a local club. These include improving pack riding skills and speed, while group riding, motivation and camaraderie with your fellow cyclists, safety, learning to set up for a sprint finish, practising chasing and attacking -which is a bit tricky to do alone. There are times, though, when it is beneficial to train alone -working on specific cycling drills or attempting a true recovery ride, for example. A time trialist or triathlete will certainly need to develop the mental abilities required to ride alone.

The great long distance runner, the Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, overcomes the loneliness of his chosen sport through inspiration in nature and co-runners. “I love running in the mountains, but through a quiet forest is perfect.

“I run with a group, sometimes for three and a half hours, and a coach rides a bike ahead of us to set the pace. We cross many rivers and stop to drink the clear, fresh water. I use the gym just to strengthen my legs.”

Gebrselassie is not alone in keeping his visits to the gym to a minimum. Many casual exercisers sign up to gyms in January and June determined to get in shape for the new year and the beach respectively, only to stop attending a couple of months later. “People get bored exercising alone; that’s why there’s all the music and media experience at gyms to help people dissociate from the exercise itself,” Lane says.

“If people combine fitness training with one of the many social activities offered at gyms and foster a sense of supporting each other in the group, they are more likely to stay the course.”

Having a realistic programme supported by a personal trainer is helpful, too; otherwise the magnitude of the physical task can induce feelings of anger and depression. This is common with amateur marathon runners. If this starts to happen, you need a plan.

“This might be to focus on technique, or it might be to hum a song in your head to distract you,” says Lane. Who can forget the story of the climber Joe Simpson’s delirious rendition of Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring as he clung to life in a crevasse. Lane adds: “If you have a plan that is prepared and practised, you should be in a better position to cope when the real situation arises.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.