If you want to be a happy competitive athlete, you need to know you’re going to lose. You’ll also win, and hopefully you’ll win a lot, but you’re also going to lose. So play for something more than just wins and losses. You need to have a mentality that is as strong and pliable as your physical body; so spend time on it, just like you spend time in the gym. All athletes will have different mindsets, just as they have different bodies, and all our individual talents can make us great if we harness them the right way
One mentality that was preached on both college teams I played for was the “warrior” mentality. This is as cheesy as it sounds: tennis is a battle, where the strongest, both physically and mentally, warrior wins. This mindset is forged through endless conditioning drills, and being yelled at. That makes you tougher. At least that’s what many coaches think happens. What can also happen as a result of that mindset is that players and teams completely disintegrate and the whole team collapses. Seen it a million times. This mentality never fit my personality, but I was not confident enough in college to question it or come up with a way of thinking that better suited me; I just accepted that that was the mentality I needed, and I tried my best to adopt it. The warrior mentality makes no room for feeling pressure, or having off days; you either want to fight or you don’t. It’s a lazy, unthoughtful approach to the game that coaches preach because they are both lazy and unthoughtful. There are as many different mentalities as there are body types.
I was never encouraged, by coaches or trainers, to explore different mentalities, nor was I encouraged to search for the one that best fit my personality. I never thought relief was an appropriate emotion to feel when facing pressure; I never thought to be happy when the workout got difficult. I was always told to “man up”, or “make it happen”, and to be as physically intimidating as I could. I’m not very intimidating, so that was a poor strategy from the beginning. But I also didn’t like it. It wasn’t me.
I got into sports long before I knew where I’d play in college; I never cared about making someone else think I was intimidating. My dad was a coach and I got to practice with my older brother sometimes; it was fun and I liked to compete. I’ve always been competitive and wanted to win, but I never wanted to make my opponent feel bad during it. I’m not playing to make him feel any kind of way, I’ve always played because I like the way it makes me feel. Why, when the game became most competitive and important, did I have to do it? I worked hard to get a college scholarship, why did I now have to change my whole mentality? I never questioned the “warrior” mentality in college because I trusted my coaches, and I needed my scholarship. Not questioning them was the worst mistake of my athletic career.
The best mentality you can have as an athlete is the one that allows you to absorb the elements of tennis that come your way regardless of wins and losses. Tennis allows us to feel pressure, pain, joy, self-fulfillment; the list goes on and on, and the final thing it gives us, should we choose to keep score, is the feeling of winning and losing. Playing only to feel what winning and losing brings, is to ignore everything else tennis has to offer; and is probably the quickest way to find yourself giving up the sport. The same way we’re taught to process wins and losses, we should be taught to process and value the other emotions we may feel while playing. We should not overlook, or discredit all the other emotions we get to experience, in the name of winning and losing.
If you like to keep score, in hopes of winning or losing, then you must also like feeling pressure. When you get to a pressure situation, say 5-5 deuce, knowing how to destroy your opponent’s will to compete, is not a requirement for winning that next point. Pumping your fist at the guy from across the net after a long rally is not required in order for you to win that long rally. You do not have to tell yourself that this moment is where men are made; that the entire worth of your fighting spirit hinges on this point. It’s not true.
You could choose to feel relief in that moment; you could think, “ahh, finally I’m here. This point really matters in the outcome of the match. Let’s see what I can do!” You may play matches where a pressure moment never comes; think about an easy win. Even though you get to experience what winning feels like, it’s not as rewarding or satisfying because you never got to feel any pressure or self-doubt. You need those emotions in order for a win to make you feel good; so really we should be cherishing those moments when we get to them. “Okay, now the match means something. Here it comes. Right now, baby.” If you feel those emotions, then the win or loss will mean something to you; and really you’re playing tennis because you want it to mean something to you. There’s no reason to dread those moments, or pretend they don’t exist-rather we should be looking forward to them.
While you drive to the tennis center, thinking of the upcoming match, what you really want is to get to that moment where you feel pressure. You want to see how you’ll deal with it today; how you dealt with it yesterday clearly wasn’t enough to quench your competitive thirst, and you’re not willing to wait for tomorrow to play. You have to find out how you will do today. Finally, you start to feel pressure. Doesn’t matter the score, doesn’t matter who’s serving; you’ve arrived at the moment you came for. You could teach yourself how to embrace that. You could say, “Man, finally I’m here. This is it.” With a sense of relief! You didn’t know when it would come, if at all, but now it’s here, and you get to experience it! The drive to the courts was worth it, and so were the hours of practice done before this match even existed. You are guaranteed to win and lose every time you keep score; but you’re not guaranteed that a match will mean anything to you. I believe athletes play for the unguaranteed moments. To experience those feelings.
How the story around tennis would change if pressure moments were viewed through the lens of relief, rather than machismo. Imagine if you just got to be in that pressure moment and see how you do, rather than having to prove your personal worth every time a tough moment came. Pressure moments are truly few and far between in the life of a competitive tennis player; once you account for practice hours, gym hours, travel hours, match hours with no pressure, I really can’t come up with a number to represent the percent of the time a tennis player spends within those pressure moments. So really, they are not what define you as an athlete. If you don’t practice well, or play the whole match well, you will never get to a pressure moment. If you get to a pressure moment, you’ve earned it through solid play over a sustained period of time. You should actually relax, if you think about it. Maybe, if you think about pressure in a different light, thinking about it could help you deal with it.
Why are we obsessed with winning? We all know that if the score is kept, then one team will win and one will lose. And unless you’re the high schooler playing among middle schoolers, you’ll probably lose half the time you play. No sane society would put so much emphasis on the outcome, and make the difference in emotions felt after, so drastic. Winning is fun, and it feels better than losing; but isn’t that a fake high?
In sports we learn about celebrating the controllable factors. We feel good when we improve, or play a smart, disciplined game- and we allow ourselves to feel good, because we know we controlled that part that went well. We enjoy these moments differently than we enjoy a one in a million play working out in our favor. Because we know we didn’t really control what happened, we know we can’t take all the credit; we know luck had a say in the outcome.
We always here the phrase ‘luck’ in sports- “Ah, he was so lucky today.” Or “She got all the luck.” When we’re talking about someone who we think played above their normal skill level, calling them ‘lucky’ makes us feel better because we don’t give our opponent all the credit for actually beating us. If we give some of his credit to ‘luck’ then we can give some of our blame to ‘bad luck.’
We know that we can’t control whether or not we win or lose; think about great players that get stuck on bad teams, or days when you play great and your opponent just plays better. Sport is about celebrating and perfecting the things we can control-our techniques, our strategies, our fighting spirit.
Does no one want to hear or see what professional athletes do on a daily basis? Do we not want to show the realities of their lives because the reality is not as sexy as the idea? If we think they are worth celebrating, surely they are not only worth celebrating based off an uncontrollable event. Say there is some skill to winning; there absolutely is, and that is probably the most valuable skill an athlete can have. But there are plenty of other skills athletes must posses that are valuable, and worth celebrating, in their own right.
This is not a plea to make all athletes be treated equally; Lebron is going to win the battle for our attention over Xavier Rathan-Mayes every time. I don’t expect winners and losers to ever be treated equally, but I think they can both be celebrated. There really is no reason to react so differently after the score has been decided when we all know the outcome is out of anyone’s total control.I’d rather hear the story of Xavier Rathan-Mayes, if he can teach me something, than a story on Lebron winning another game. What if they both work equally hard and are equally focused? Imagine they’re not created equal; Lebron has talents and physical attributes not many other people have ever had. Lebron should be the greatest of all time, he’s built for it. But Rathan-Mayes’ life and career can inspire us in different ways than Lebron’s pursuit of greatness can. I called winning a fake high, and I say that because it’s really just excessive reaction to an uncontrollable event. It doesn’t make any sense; it’s self-indulgence. We really put stock in how we perform in the areas we can control. Did we engage? Did we do our best to improve? If we do, the outcome really becomes an afterthought, and should be treated as such by everyone in the sports world.
The culture around tennis needs to change. We all know it’s a brutal sport; the mental side of the game is equally, if not more, taxing than the physical side. I understand that people love the game and its top players so much that they want to follow every tournament and talk about every match; but are we not all missing the bigger picture?
It’s no secret that Djokovic is not the player he was a couple years ago; he’s had physical injuries and off the court problems, that through the rumor mill, have turned into speculation about him cheating on his wife, and abandoning his entire team. The same type of speculation can be made for Del Potro, and most other top guys who go through rough patches. But that’s the sport. That’s what life is. Tough times mixed with good- why do we love to talk about these guys like the things they’re going through don’t also happen to us? We build them up as perfect, herculean athletes when they’re on top, just to rip them down when they start to struggle.
That’s not what sport is for. Sport should be a celebration of physical and mental strength and, in an ideal world, personal development. None of us know what these guys are doing in their personal lives, so why do we talk about it online? It’s OK to say that Nishikori is struggling, and give factual evidence about changes he’s made to his game- that’s great, but leave the rumors out of it. Our sport doesn’t need that.
Today in Madrid, Dusan Lajovic beat Juan Martin Del Potro in a third set breaker; what a day for him! Why are we not celebrating him? It’s been the best week of his career. And Kyle Edmund is rolling into the Quarters as well, having beaten Medvedev, Djokovic, and Goffin. And now he’s set to meet Denis Shapovalov, who’s beaten Sandgren, Paire, and Raonic. Edmond and Shapovalov in the Quarters is surprising and inspiring; we should focus on them! There are tons of stories to talk about, but we choose to get stuck on Djokovic and Rafa for the billionth time. To me, that’s played out.
We all know that tennis in an unforgiving game to play; all but one guy will win the tournament this week, everyone else will have to hit the showers after a loss. But why can’t we celebrate the good days as much as we feel the hurt on the bad ones? Djokovic will find his way just like the rest of us find ours. There’s no need to speculate about what he’s doing, just enjoy what he is. Athletes struggle; they have to accept that reality before they even step on court, but that’s part of the fun. It’s really just about going through the good and bad times, and knowing they’re equally as valuable for the player, and should be equally fun for the fans to watch. We watch sports because we don’t know what will happen, so enjoy the unknown and try to show these guys some love.