Conventional wisdom amongst many coaches and players suggests that the key to mental “toughness” is to talk and think positively at all times; especially when it comes to match play. While this seems to make sense at first glance, let us examine and explore a little beneath the surface.
The truth is that when a player steps out onto the court to contest a match, there are only two possible outcomes. To deny that reality in one’s own mind does not change that truth. So, why do it?
Some how, there seems to have emerged this consensus that it is a sign of weakness if one acknowledges the fact that one may lose, thereby increasing the chances of that eventuality happening. Conversely, it is believed that if one repeats positive thoughts like “I will win” or “I know I am better than my opponent,” then somehow one’s chances of success become greater. How can this be true? The outcome of a match will surely be decided by whoever performs better on that particular day, and not by anyone’s thoughts, words, rankings, expectations, beliefs or opinions.
It is easy to understand why coaches and players have fallen into this trap. To think positive thoughts seems like sound advice to give to individuals who are fearful and nervous; there is so much negativity and complaining happening during the competition, none of which helps performance. However, to simply think or talk positively does not make someone really and truly be positive from the inside at their core and that’s what really counts. “Fake it until you make it” simply does not work.
The truth is that one who is making an effort to think and be positive is doing so because doubt, tension and fear are already a reality for them; that is what is, and no amount of empty words can make these deep-rooted emotions disappear. They can only be suppressed and relegated to the subconscious mind, from where they will be much harder to eliminate.
An individual who is truly confident and comfortable with him or herself will not be feeling negative and will therefore not feel the need to mask those feeling with positive self-talk. But how we can get to this state of being where there is no doubt or fear?
In my opinion, it is by facing the fears or any other emotions that arise head on rather than denying them. By facing and exploring our reality, not the way we wish it to be, but the way it is and exploring every aspect of this reality both existentially and intellectually we can transcend these emotions.
There is nothing wrong with facing the truth of the statement:
“I may win or I may lose and I can live with either outcome. Now I can place both things to one side and simply focus on playing freely to the best of my ability.”
It is, however, easier to say these words then it is to absorb the truth held within these words into our consciousness. To acknowledge and understand that defeat is a possibility is accepting reality and by accepting reality we avoid false bravado which simply hides our fear from others but not from ourselves. If we feel fear, we will operate from fear and fear will be at the core of all that we do. Peak performance will not be sustainable through fear-based motivation.
Not only is there nothing wrong with facing this truth, but it is an extremely freeing experience and healthy attitude and ultimately, the only way out of this quagmire. If there is fear and doubt within a player (and what player does not feel these emotions to some extent), it is far better to raise these emotions to the surface and cut them at their very root through acknowledgement, acceptance and awareness rather than to try and suppress them, from where they will continue to return at the most inopportune times.
Suppression never works in the long run because it requires effort and for how long can you continuously make this effort. Eventually, you will let your guard down and then the subconscious mind will reveal itself in uncontrolled action.
On another level, it is important to understand that the mind works in duality: The seeming opposites are not really opposites, but they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, to have day without night is impossible; or light without darkness or beauty without ugliness. One opposite implies the other; you could even say one creates or defines the other. In fact, the very existence of one is only possible because of its polar opposite. Consequently, to try and be just positive will always fail because the negative will always show up, albeit through the back door.
Obviously, we know that negative self-talk is destructive and hampers performance, but what is not so clear, but nonetheless true, is that positive self-talk is not the way out. Positive self-talk will necessarily lead to negativity and will keep players stuck in an emotional roller-coaster from which there is absolutely no escape.
The irony is that both negative self-talk and positive self-talk are fear-based. On the outer level, they appear very different, but the inner cause of each is the same, fear! Positive energy becomes negative energy in the time it takes to miss a backhand or a few shots or to lose a few games. This is the emotional roller-coaster that most players are on and many coaches are perpetuating.
The only way out is a transcendence; to reach a state of being where there is no positive or negative. This transcendence happens through acceptance. If you are not feeling negative, there will be no need to try and be positive. There will just be a silence and you will simply play and be so absorbed in the playing that no thoughts about the result are possible. And if no thoughts are present, fear will be impossible. And when fear is absent our natural state of being is allowed to shine through; a calm, relaxed, centeredness from which you will be able to play the best tennis you are capable of.
Simply put, the mind is creating stories and all stories are fiction. The only reality is what is and acceptance of what is happens when there is no story. So the goal is not to replace negative stories with positive ones, regardless of how logical that seems to sound, but to drop all stories and when all stories are dropped there is silence and in that silence we are in the present moment and there is an acceptance of all that is … this is the mental state that allows us to play to our full athletic potential.