How can pros keep cool under pressure? How do they approach intense competition and practice year after year? While recreational players can learn a lot from professional athletes, many of the lessons they take away are subtler and relate to how pros approach competition psychologically. The author is a sports scientist doctorate holder and has coached all levels of players.
It’s easy to see that recreational athletes of individual sports are often passionate, independent individuals. Sometimes too passionate! People who are too focused on a single What Sports, such as tennis, table tennis or racquetball, often react too negatively to the outcome of individual points. They are too excited and disappointed before the competition ends. It is okay to get pumped up after a great shot or key situation, but it is not recommended for recreational play.
In individual sports, the most important point is the last. Other points must be considered as part of “negotiating” the contest. The Zen of competition and “Business Like” approach to performance allows you to find the grey shades in between “black and white”.
A “Tell” is a poker term that refers to a player’s body language or posture in which they say, “I don’t think I can win.” Tells can be converted to money at a poker table. Tells can be used to adjust the strategy of an observer player from point-to-point, or possibly the entire match. If you feel your opponent’s attitude is changing or becoming more negative, it may be possible to reverse this trend by making unforced mistakes. One-on-one poker is an excellent example of how to approach one-on-one competition. Let’s take a look at the way thought patterns often progress during matches.
First, remember that most players walk onto the court believing they will win. Although players may have similar physical abilities, they are unlikely to win the game. Remember that sports psychologists use the phrase “that day only” to refer to players who are unable to win on a given day. Statistics show that it is very rare for one player in a career to be dominant in terms of wins or losses.
If you don’t make a living from sports, then you’re a recreational player. You have the “luxury” of believing you have no chance against any particular person. Pros can’t afford to think this way as they are often playing for their meals and expenses. Professional athletes might not initially view competition as a business. However, they learn quickly and get counseled to adjust.
Respecting all of your opponents’ abilities is part of a “business-like” approach. Your improvement is dependent on your opponent’s success or effort. You must win more games if they play well. Human psychology has shown that losing is more motivating than winning.
It is important to avoid making excuses for your losses by adopting a business-like approach. It is common for competitors to be physically exhausted. Players rarely feel perfectly. Accepting defeat from another worthy but imperfect opponent without making excuses is a sign of strength of character. This is the Zen of accepting competition’s nature. Mental practice is necessary to keep yourself from getting off-track.
Remember, if you lose even a single point, give credit to your opponent for their part in it. Many tennis students wonder, “But my double fault isn’t THEIR responsibility. It is. Your serve is under competitive pressure because of their existence. They now refer to this as “Pressures” in football. The perception that the quarterback feels an approaching tackler is what causes him to misfire. The same thing happens in different sports.
Respect for your opponent is an essential principle of martial arts, as demonstrated by Shaolin Temple monks. Over thousands of years, great honor and ritual have been given to the opponent who represents our internal struggle. This is the Zen of battle.