Are you plagued by excessive negative thoughts during your matches? Are you unable to follow your own game plan? Do you suffer from tentative play that you later regret? Are you calling yourself horrible names in your head? Are you regularly not satisfied with your performance, even when winning? Do you feel you need a psychiatrist?
After countless heartaches, nightmares and much soul-searching, I eventually learned how to play competitively without regret. It took some understanding, some gentle awareness and a carefully-crafted game plan. I learned to play ‘on purpose,’ as opposed to ‘by default.’ It was liberating!
We know that in order to get the best results we must focus on the process, and not as much on the results. What does that mean in a tennis match? When your focus is on winning, it is also simultaneously on losing (winning equals not losing). This triggers your ego to start a ping-pong match in your head. Every shot or decision will be judged by the morality of your conscience as either good or bad, or right or wrong. Not only is this exhausting, this debate will bring on the torture of doubt. Thanks Mr. Ego!
The reason we focus on the result is that we are desperately trying to control the outcome, so the first hurdle we need to clear is to admit that we cannot control the outcome. Psychology has taught us that our ego needs control and structure and that’s why this fun, and recreational tennis match at your local club can quickly make you feel like you are in a live or death struggle. This will never change! We need to go around this issue. I realize that this is a biggie. You can wrestle with it for a while, but you must get past it. You must get over it, get over yourself. The only concession I will make is by saying that you can influence the result, but not control it. There is another human being—a counter force to you—on the court that is creating the lack of control.
Ultimately, your psyche is not mostly concerned with winning anyway. You might think that you want to win more than anything, but this simply is not true. If it were true, you would only schedule opponents that you knew you could beat. You don’t do that because there is no challenge. Also, I’m sure you have won matches that you were not satisfied with (or even disgusted with). On the flipside, you probably have lost matches that you were okay with.
Okay, so accept that you have no control over the outcome of the match. Stop trying to get rid of the uncertainty, as it is another reason you play tennis! Your ego will blame you for not being in control. Accept it. If you cannot get passed this, your ego will make sure you will get control over the outcome, by paralyzing you with excruciating thoughts and feelings of doubts. You will play way below your level, and hence control the outcome, a negative one. Your ego will then also tell you that you stink, and that he knew it all along that you were going to lose.
What makes tennis, especially singles play, such a fascinating sport to me is that the one-on-one combat between two individuals touches us deep in the core of our being. The lack of control and the uncertainty our ego senses will immediately put us in touch with deep psychological feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. I am convinced that the great appeal of match play comes from our innate human urge, desire or force to grow. I have instant respect for every person lacing up the sneakers to dive in again!
So, what to focus on instead of the result, instead of winning? You need to focus on something that is more important to you than a victory. I already explained that winning does not satisfy the ego anyway. It is never good enough! There are deeper values within us that will make us feel satisfied when met after a challenge. Find them for yourself. For me, and I am sure for most others, courage was a big one. If I felt that I had played with courage, I was usually on good terms with myself. There are other values as well that you must satisfy. Find them and devise a plan that would satisfy them first and foremost.
Once you have your plan, try it out, but be forewarned … your ego will put up a great fight. From psychology, we know that “ego” is convinced of its own annihilation so it might send out thoughts and feelings of terror and despair! Personally, I have been shaking in my boots trying to follow my plan to serve and volley at a key moment in a close match. My arm weighed about a 1,000 pounds and my legs felt like Jell-O. It was very frustrating at first to not even be able to follow my own self-directed plan, but I was fascinated by my own defiance and bodily resistance. I figured I was on the right path, and I was! Freedom was right around the corner.
When I was finally able to ‘override’ the emotional messages and to convince my ego I would be safe following a different path, my confidence grew massively. Like Buddha’s quote: “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”
Good luck on the journey, you have my respect as a fellow competitor.
Tonny van de Pieterman
Tonny van de Pieterman is a tennis professional at Point Set Indoor Racquet Club in Oceanside, N.Y.. He has previously been named USTA Tennis Professional of the Year for the USTA/Eastern-Long Island Region. He may be reached by phone at (516) 536-2323 or e-mail Tonny@PointSetTennis.com.