While much of the tennis world was awed by 21-year South Korean tennis sensation Hyeon Chung’s climb during the Australian Open, a Lincoln College professor had a personal interest in the player’s performance.
Hyondo Chung (no relation), Lincoln College Lead Faculty for Exercise Science, has been a key member of Hyeon Chung’s training team since 2014, focusing on the tennis star’s mental conditioning. Hyondo Chung works with the tennis star during the summers and visits regularly with him at other times during the year.
Hyeon Chung became the youngest player to advance to the Australian Open semifinals in the past eight years. He was the only South Korean player ever to advance beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam, before having to pull out of his semi-final match against Roger Federer due to a foot blister. Along the way Chung defeated world number four ranked Alexander Zverev and six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic.
Lincoln College’s Chung began working with Hyeon Chung at the suggestion of Hyeon Chung’s coach at the time, Yongil Yoon.
Hyondo Chung has worked with Korea’s legendary Hyung-Taik Lee as well as for the Korean Davis Cup Team as a tour manager until he moved to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in sport and exercise science.
Professor Chung works with a number of professional tennis players and says he takes a holistic approach to mental conditioning; that is, biological and psychological factors.
He was born and raised in South Korea. In college he majored in physical education and played tennis as an undergraduate. After graduation, he came to the University of North Carolina, where he received his master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology. He is in the final stage of completing his PhD in kinesiology at the University of Illinois.
He joined the Lincoln College faculty in 2017 to establish the College’s new Exercise Science bachelor’s degree program, which follows an interdisciplinary approach integrating the biopsychosocial elements of exercise and sport to promote lifelong health.
For athletes at the level of Hyeon Chung the rigors of traveling and competition can be extremely stressful. That stress can adversely affect the athlete’s performance, Hyondo Chung explained.
“Traveling around the world competing sounds glamorous, but for an athlete, especially a young athlete, it can be very stressful,” Chung said. “They are away from their homes and families for 35 or more weeks out of the year. They are living out of hotels, changing rooms every few nights, traveling to different cities, different time zones and different cultures with different languages.
“Something as basic as food can be very stressful for an athlete. They arrive in a city and one of the first things they have to worry about is whether or not they will able to find a restaurant that has food that they like,” Chung explained. “I try to introduce them to new foods and experiences. We go to different restaurants, for example, a Brazilian steakhouse. I try to make it a fun thing to explore new foods. So that instead of it being a source of stress it becomes something enjoyable.”
As anyone who has ever flown knows, there are few things as stressful as trying to navigate through a major and unfamiliar airport. Imagine having to do that for weeks and months on end. Chung will work with the athletes so they know how to find strategies to reduce the stress of travel so they feel at home wherever they are going.
One of Chung’s major goals, he explained, is to make the tour feel like home to the athlete. For most of the year, the tour is their home and in order to succeed they must feel comfortable with the lifestyle.
“If a player feels like they belong to the tour, they will play better,” Chung explained.
That includes educating them on what to expect and how to adapt, raising their comfort level with media interviews and helping the athletes gain proficiency in English. While it may sound surprising, Chung said that it’s not uncommon for an athlete to go into a finals match worrying, “if I win I have to do the post-match interview.”
On the tour, interviews and press conferences are usually conducted in English and can be a source of tremendous mental stress for athletes, who know that a poorly chosen word or phrase can affect their careers.
Chung worked extensively with Hyeon Chung on improving his English skills. Together, they watched contemporary American television programs like Modern Family and Prison Break, first using Korean subtitles, then with English subtitles and finally with no subtitles. Together they watched and reviewed post match interviews with other players on You Tube so that Hyeon Chung could better understand the context and culture around the questions.
While some of these strategies and exercises may seem simple, Hyondo Chung explains that the larger goal is to help the athlete learn mental tools and techniques that they can call on throughout their professional careers.