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.