How do professionals stay so cool under pressure? What are your secrets for approaching intense competition and practice week after week, year after year? Recreational players certainly have a lot to learn from professional athletes, but many of these take-home lessons are more subtle and have to do with how professionals approach competition psychologically. With a Ph.D. in sports science and a career as a tennis coach of all levels of athletes, the author has some unique credentials to help answer these questions.
It is easy to see that recreational players in individual sports are often passionate and independent people. Sometimes too passionate! Those who approach an individual sport such as tennis, table tennis or racquetball often react too “black and white” to the score of discrete points. They show too much euphoria and too much disappointment before the end of the competition. Pumping up after a good shot or key situation is fine, but this is often overused in recreational play.
The only critical point in individual sports is the last point. Until then, other points should be addressed as part of the contest “negotiation” process. Finding the thousands of shades of gray between “black and white”, the good and bad perspective of performance, is actually a practice in the Zen of the competition and the “Business Like” approach of the professionals.
In poker, when a player displays body language or posture that says, “I don’t think I can win anymore,” it’s called “Tell him.” At a poker table, he tells you to convert to money. In individual sports, indicators help adjust an observing player’s strategy from one point to another, perhaps the rest of the game. For example, if you feel that your opponent’s perspective on the contest is wavering or turning negative, unforced errors on your part can reverse that trend. A professional poker player is a great example of the proper approach to one-on-one competition. Let’s see how thought patterns commonly progress during a match.
First, keep in mind that almost all players enter the court thinking that they will win that day. Generally, the players have similar physical abilities, but on that day, one will convince the other that they probably won’t win at some point in the contest. Note that sports psychologists say “only that day” because statistics show that it is rare for one player to dominate the other in wins and losses throughout their careers.
If you don’t currently make a living playing sports, you are a recreational player and have the “luxury” of thinking that you have no chance against a particular person. A professional cannot afford to think that way because most play for meals and expenses. Some professional athletes may NOT start treating competition like a business, but quickly learn or receive advice to make that adjustment.
An “entrepreneurial” approach also includes respecting the ability of all opponents in various ways. First, the excellence of your opponent, or simply the effort, is responsible for your improvement. The better they play, the better you should win. It is a fact of human psychology that losses motivate your practice effort, and therefore improvement, more than gains.
Second, it is critical in a “business” approach to resist the temptation to make excuses for your loss. Remember that almost everyone enters the competition physically “beaten” in some way. Players rarely feel perfect. Therefore, accepting the defeat of another imperfect but worthy opponent, without hiding behind excuses, shows strength of character. That is the Zen of accepting the very nature of competition. This takes mental practice to realize that you are drifting off track.
Again, if you lose even just one point, PRACTICE giving your opponent credit at all times for playing a role in it. Tennis students often ask, “But my double fault is not YOUR responsibility, is it?” Actually, the answer is that it is. Their existence puts competitive pressure on your service. In football, now they count what is called “Pressures”. It is the perception that the quarterback sensed a tackler approaching that caused him to miss. The same is true in individual sports.
Maximum respect for the opponent is a central tenant of martial arts, as exemplified by the training of the Shaolin Temple monks. For thousands of years a great ritual and honor is awarded to the opponent, representing our own internal struggle. That is the Zen of battle.
Professionals also know that giving your opponent credit takes the pressure off his performance. Self-loathing, displays of anger at one’s performance, essentially makes the competition two-player to none! The business approach is to make your opponent play well to win as often as possible. If they can do that, they deserve to win.
It is also “like a business” to PRACTICE mentally treating your opponent as just one more witness who is watching to see how the drama will unfold in this match alone. In other words, a “short memory” allows you to leave past results where they belong so that they do not influence future events. Can you do this for the next point and the next?
Between the points it is time to plan the strategy, evaluate how your opponent is playing / feeling, what trends are developing and how you will build the next point BUT, it takes practice to avoid generalizing about how you are going to play that day or how often your opponent has beaten you. The Zen of this is simply observing these negative thoughts and letting them go. With practice they will diminish as distracting thoughts diminish as meditation becomes more skillful.
The truth is that the human performance between two closely matched talents in a complex sport actually “splashes” like a modern artist throwing paint onto a canvas. It’s different every day like a kaleidoscope, with only tendencies to predictability. This perspective will help you to be less critical of your own performance, to be a better competitor, and to appreciate more of your good fortune in having such a recreation. Gratitude for the incredible opportunity to “play” is also Zen.