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Self-Handicapping

Yesterday Sloane Stephens lost at the U.S. Open to Johanna Larsson, an unranked player. This is sad news for American tennis fans, because Stephens is predicted to be the next great female American player. In musing over why she has not yet lived up to her potential, the commentators observed that Stephens doesn’t play with the same intensity as the top players, perhaps because she is afraid of losing while playing her best.

I had the good fortune of attending a warm-up tournament to the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, and after looking at my photos, I, too, noticed that Stephens did not put the same effort into her shots that the top players did. For example, here is a picture of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, hitting his famous forehand.

Notice how intensely focused he is on watching the ball and how he jumps into his shot. This is an aggressively hit forehand.

Now here is a shot of 17-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, hitting her equally famous serve.

Again, notice how she is in the air when she hits her serve and the intensity of her facial expression. In fact, she looked downright pissed off and scary in most of the pictures I took.

Now here is a picture of Sloane Stephens hitting a backhand.

In contrast, notice how casually she is hitting the ball. This looks more like the kind of shot you would see in a practice session, where players aren’t trying to hit that hard. So I think there is some truth to their hypothesis that she is afraid to play her best tennis.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called self-handicapping, and it is fairly common. I have worked with students who were so afraid that they would not get an A that they didn’t turn in any work and got an F in the class instead. They all believed that if they had put in the effort, they probably could have gotten an A, which helped to preserve their self-esteem. Sort of. Because they ended up on academic probation, which they were embarrassed and ashamed about.

To my knowledge, I have never sabotaged my chances of succeeding, but I can relate to the fear that my best effort might not be good enough. I have always wanted to be a therapist and thought I could be a good one–until I got to the clinical portion of my training in grad school. Then I started to worry: What if I suck at it? What if I’m no good at this thing that I’ve wanted to do all my life? What am I supposed to do then?

My worst fear came true: I did suck at it at first. I had several supervisors tell me that my anxiety was interfering with my ability to do therapy. (This was the first time I contemplated the possibility that I may have an anxiety disorder). Even though I ordinarily freak out when I’m given negative feedback, I wasn’t that upset. I knew that I could get better if I worked at it. And I think I’m a decent therapist now–although there’s always room for improvement.

The same is true for tennis. I’m not really afraid to go out there and play my best and lose, because my best performance today isn’t the best I can ever hope to play. At least I don’t think so. I always think I can get better, even as I get older. If this is a delusion, then at least it is one that serves me well. That’s why I look so intimidating in this photo:

So if you see me on the court, watch out!

About Christy Barongan

I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a psychologist so that I could figure out how to be normal. I think many people come to counseling for the same reason. What I've come to learn is that feeling good about myself is not about trying to be normal. It's about trying to be me. But it's a constant struggle for me, just like it is for everyone else. So I thought I would approach this task with openness and honesty and use myself as an example for how to practice self-acceptance.

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