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Category Archives: Sports

What Winners Do

Winning

I have a running joke with one of my tennis partners where we make up all these statements about what winners do. It started when we played our first match of the season and we were on the verge of elimination. I told her that winners hold their serve and break serve when it counts. Which we did. And we won. But then we just started making up stuff that wasn’t particularly profound because it was funny and it helped us relax on the court. Winners win! Winners wear tennis shoes instead of sandals when they play!

I actually think a lot about what winners do. Often people think that they need to improve their skills to win–develop a topspin forehand, for example. The problem with this strategy is that it takes a long time to improve a skill, and working on a weakness will still not make it one of your strengths. I’ve been working on a topspin forehand for 15 years now, but it’s still not my go-to shot when the game is on the line.

It’s actually much better to focus on your mental game, and it doesn’t take years to get better at it. I don’t consider myself to be naturally gifted as an athlete, but I am a psychologist, so I make sure I capitalize on whatever mental strategy that allows me to have the advantage in a match. I am aware of when people are using head games and don’t let them get to me. I compliment my opponents to make them feel guilty about using head games. I frame my goals in terms of what I want to do instead of what I don’t want to do (e.g., reach up and follow through rather than don’t double fault). I give my partner positive feedback, pump them up by reminding them what winners do.

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of what winners do involves practicing mindfulness. Federer and Nadal, arguably the two greatest tennis players in the men’s game, illustrate this perfectly. Federer is known for how long he can keep his eye on the ball. How easily he shrugs off losses, puts things in perspective. He savors his victories because he is in his twilight years. Nadal often says that he knows that any win could be his last, so he doesn’t take playing for granted. He attributes his success to what he can control–his effort, his practice. All players talk about how they try to focus on this match rather than looking too far ahead. They give themselves time to enjoy their victory. They express gratitude for the people who put on the tournament, their team, their fans when they make their speech in the finals.

Sure, some of this stuff is probably scripted–things they know they should say, whether they mean it or not. But I believe that winners do mean it. They are focused. They take things one game at a time. They don’t fixate on mistakes. They are grateful. They savor the moment.

I know practicing mindfulness has made me a better player, if for no other reason than it helps me to watch the ball–which is often my only strategy when I’m playing. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes every aspect of the game, on and off the court, more enjoyable. Which counts as a win in my book.

Happiness is…

Sectionals

It’s been a year since my brother got out of the hospital and I invited him to live with me. The past week has been a series of anniversaries of traumatic events, and in that series, today was the worst day.

A year later, I am having a stellar beginning to my academic year. Further proof of the benefits of practicing mindfulness–the reminder that all things pass, and ultimately you will be OK. I have also learned how to look for happiness when it seems as though there’s nothing to be happy about, and how to savor it when I experience it.

This year began with my tennis team advancing to sectionals. If you don’t know anything about league tennis, this is a big deal. It’s sort of like advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And if you don’t watch basketball, then just think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the lessons on happiness that I often write about is that you never know how you will feel about something until you get there. I had always imagined that advancing to sectionals would be a joyful thing. And it was joyful, but it was many other things, too. That seems to be the general rule–we never feel just one thing. Instead, we feel multiple, often contradictory things. I was happy we won but it didn’t make me a happier person in general. I still worried about the same things, had the same insecurities. Winning didn’t make me less neurotic, and it didn’t change my life for the better. It was a reminder that, because all things pass, happiness is also fleeting.

During the weekend of the tournament I had the opportunity to get to know two players who I had never spoken to before beyond saying hello. Although they barely knew me, when I needed a place to stay, they invited me to stay in their room on the spot–which helped tremendously with my obsessing about money. Many of my friends helped in whatever way they could–negotiated a lower rate for my room, shared their food with me. It was a reminder that making meaningful connections with other people is the thing that brings me the greatest happiness. It’s why I have the job that I do. Why I captain so many teams. Why I want everyone go out to dinner after our matches.

In a few weeks, we will be off to sectionals, and I am excited about the chance to advance to nationals. I will enjoy the challenge. I will channel my inner warrior. I will go all out to win. But win, lose, or draw, I know that the time off court with friends old and new will give me plenty to be happy about. And after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fades, the friendships will still remain.

Optimism, Part 2

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a captain who is known for trying to be encouraging and positive, even if our team isn’t that good. Sometimes I make stuff up on the spot to say to my partner to get them to laugh, be relaxed, and fight for the win–even if I think we’re going to lose.

I admit that thinking that we’re going to lose runs counter to the argument that I am inherently an optimistic person, but since I’m at war with myself most of the time, it just makes me want to prove that negative part of myself wrong and win, gosh darn it! So take that, Inner Critic! You don’t know me! I will beat you and your negative thinking!

But I digress. Back to the stuff I make up on the court to encourage my partner. I had a partner last year who kept getting distracted in the match because the pace was really slow. So I told her that she only had to concentrate for 15 seconds at a time, because that’s about how long a doubles point is. Or if my partner has to hold serve to stay in the match but she hasn’t held serve yet, I’ll say, that’s OK. That’s what winners do. They hold serve when it counts. Or I’ll tell my partner that we are capable of getting every ball back. They will not be able to hit a winner against us. I mean, they’re not that good. Or if we’re down 1-6, 0-5, I’ll tell them that I’ve come back from a match being that far behind before. Which is true.

I really believe these things, by the way. I say them to myself all the time. And they do often help me get the win. And even when they don’t, they help me fight until the end and make my opponents work harder than they expected to for their victory. So if I can’t win, I can at least make my opponents suffer, which is a victory in itself.

My latest strategy to keep morale up in the face of defeat is a more extreme form of what I’ll call alternative scoring. Kind of like alternative facts, but without the political controversy. I have always counted tiebreak losses as wins, but I’ve taken this definition of winning a step further. In my summary of the match, I will give the real score (we lost 2-3) and the alternative score (but since I count tiebreak losses as wins, we actually won 5-0). I will point out all of the players who have an “undefeated streak”, which may be defined as 6 straight tiebreak losses. And at the end of the season, I will point out that, rather than coming in last place with an an overall record of 3-6, we actually won 7-2 unofficially and should be going to districts, if USTA were keeping score by my rules.

And the funny thing is, sometimes it works. Last year I had a team advance to districts even though we came in 3rd place, just because we had enough people to go. Just because I tell players to make sure that they are available the weekend of districts. Because you never know….

Actually, I don’t think my positive attitude made that happen, but it was fun to go with the goal of making our opponents lose to a team that came in last place. Because of the whole causing suffering thing as a victory in itself. Which is perhaps a little bit uncompassionate (non-compassionate?), but still positive and encouraging. I think.

Eye on the Ball

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When I went to that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, one of the teachers told me that she thought I loved tennis because I love practicing mindfulness. As you know, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness, but I was pretty sure I cared more about competition, burning calories, hanging out with friends, and wearing cute outfits than I cared about practicing mindfulness. But I can see her point. Tennis is the only thing I can do that allows me to block everything else out of my mind, and I almost always feel better afterwards.

For example, last Monday I was feeling so depressed that I actually did not want to play. Which almost never happens. But I knew it would make me feel better, and I was playing with a friend, so I forced myself to do it. It was tough, though. I thew up 4 times, which is a record. I’m not that good at singles anymore, so I was losing for most of the match. For the first set and a half I felt like crying.

But then I channeled my inner warrior. I told myself I could cry when I got home. I reminded myself of all of the times I was depressed during matches and played through them. How I’ve had to lie down for several hours after matches because of heat exhaustion–which is not a great thing, I know, but it does demonstrate my mental toughness.

And It worked. I won that night. I even saved a match point. I felt better afterwards, but I still cried when I got home. Still, I was proud of myself for my ability to fight through adversity. If there’s one thing that depression teaches you, it’s how to be resilient. To play my best under pressure. It has made me a stronger person.

The most helpful strategy was to keep my eye on the ball–which is pretty much always my strategy. If you’ve ever played with me, then you know that I often publicly announce that I am going to watch the ball before every point. I told myself that in that moment, I’m just a tennis player. Not a psychologist. Not a sister taking care of her brother. Not a depressed person. It’s just me and the ball. Nothing else exists.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you practice mindfulness, happiness is available to you at any moment. I can’t say that I was happy after the match, but I did feel better afterwards. And there were moments when I was in flow. When I was free from all the thoughts and feelings that plague me. And that is a great feeling.

So whatever your equivalent is to keeping your eye on the ball, be sure to call upon that strategy whenever you’re feeling down to help you ground yourself in the present moment. You’re bound to feel better afterwards.

Olympic Dreams and Self-Esteem

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I’ve really enjoyed watching the Olympics over the past 2 weeks. During the Winter Olympics 0f 2014 I wrote a post about my dream of being an Olympic athlete. I didn’t so much care about being the greatest athlete of all time, but I wanted to be a part of the opening ceremonies, live in the Olympic Village (without getting stuck in an elevator for 40 minutes like Del Potro), and exchange pins with other athletes.

During this year’s Olympics I was struck by how many stories there were about gold medalists (usually men) who felt lost, depressed, even suicidal after their success. How they turned to drugs, alcohol, got in trouble with the law, wandered around purposeless, sometimes homeless, not knowing what their next goal should be. Michael Phelps’ story is probably the most surprising one of all. What would the greatest Olympian of all time have to feel depressed about?

This is the myth that continues to haunt us in our search for happiness. We believe that achieving greatness will transform us into someone who we will finally like. It will bestow upon us a sense of self-worth and belonging. We will feel purposeful, useful, and lovable.

In a previous post I wrote about how I had a similar experience after I got my Ph.D. I was expected to get an education beyond college. Preferably medical school, but in one of my few acts of rebellion, I chose clinical psychology instead. Even in my first year of grad school I had fantasies about how smart and accomplished I’d feel after getting my doctorate. Only to find out that instead I felt…exactly the same. Actually, maybe even a little worse. Because if having a Ph.D. didn’t make me feel better about myself, I realized that nothing would. I had nothing left to channel my energy into. No fantasies about how I was just one accomplishment away from achieving my dream of not feeling sucky.

There are other versions of the dream of transformation. They involve six figure salaries, weight loss, a youthful appearance. The perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect children. Everything we ever wanted is waiting for us…right after we accomplish this one thing. Oops. Not that one. The next one. Or maybe the next one.

Yesterday on the ride home from our annual Cincy Tennis Tournament trip, I was telling my friend that my job in therapy is to tell my clients over and over again that they are OK, just the way they are. Every week they bring in a different set of problems, different flaws, different confessions, and I say those are all OK, too. You’re still fine. On the one hand, that may seem like a strategy that is too simple to be transformative, but you should try it some time. It’s surprisingly difficult to believe we’re fine the way we are. That’s why change takes so long; we need to hear it all the time. We are never fully confident that we are good enough.

It’s clear that Michael Phelps still enjoys winning gold medals. It’s obviously still a thrill to train to be the best, to see that his hard work has paid off, and to know that he’s still the greatest. But he also seems more at peace about retiring. After all, he is not just the greatest Olympic athlete of all time; he is also a father and a soon-to-be husband. Will he come back to the Olympics in 4 years? Maybe. But if he does, it will be because he loves the competition–not because he is nothing without it.

I, too, think about accomplishing goals differently than I used to before my Ph.D. I’m still competitive and I want to win, but now it is more about the process of getting better than the result of any particular match. I do think that competing hard, playing fair, and executing my game plan say something about my character. But win or lose, when I walk off the court, I’m still the same person I was before the match began. I’m still me.

And I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with that.

Head Games,Part 2: Sportsmanship

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I have always prided myself on not using head games to win. However, this morning, as I started obsessing the moment I became conscious, I realized that this is not completely accurate. If head games are something you use to affect your opponents’ behavior, then I am guilty as charged. But not in the way you might think.

Last month while I was at districts, I played a match in which my partner and I were frustrating our opponents with our game. They tried to make adjustments, but they weren’t working. I could see that they were starting to lose it. They started arguing with one another. A few points later, they went ballistic when I called a ball out. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I tend to be overly generous with line calls because I’m afraid of going to hell. But it was so obvious that this was a ploy to disrupt our concentration that I was uncharacteristically dismissive of their protests. Then, during the changeover, they complained to the official that we were taking too much time. At that point, I actually started laughing, their tactics were so transparent.

In the next game, one of the opponents hit a good shot, and I acknowledged it, because that’s what I always do. My partner said they don’t deserve compliments, but I explained to her that if I let their behavior affect my behavior, they win. Their head games worked. It’s not that I wanted to be nice; I wanted to send the message that there was nothing they could do to disrupt my concentration. That I was mentally tougher than they were.

Interestingly, my good sportsmanship was so disarming that they, too, started acknowledging our good shots. And by the end of the match we shook hands cordially, and our opponents did not show a trace of the animosity they had demonstrated earlier. And I have to say, I was prouder of myself for the way I handled their head games than I was for the way I played. Although the win felt good, too.

What a revolutionary idea. That good sportsmanship can be as contagious as poor sportsmanship. It is the most effective head game you can use. It makes you look foolish if you continue to yell and complain when your opponent is complimenting your shots. It calls attention to your bad behavior. So unless you want to feel like a bad person, there’s nothing left to do but to be fair in return. In social psychology, this is called reciprocity: people give back the kind of behavior they have received from another.

Can you imagine if we applied this strategy in real life? If, whenever someone accused us of doing something that upset them, instead of getting defensive, we say I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. If, when someone tries to pick an argument with us about politics or current events, we say, well that’s an interesting perspective. I can see why you would feel that way. Not because we like them or agree with them, but because we don’t want to give them any more ammunition. Because we want to disarm them. That would be a much more powerful weapon than retaliation.

And when it comes to mental toughness, I’m all about winning.

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I’m In Between Shoes Right Now

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Today I woke up happy because I had a good day yesterday. My tennis team won, my other team almost won, I got to play, and a bunch of my friends went out to eat afterwards–which is always my favorite part. And even though I lost my match, I played well and we split sets. The last time I played with my partner we had a set point but we blew it, and this time we closed the set out, so this match was an improvement. My friend told me that I am always looking for the silver lining. I know some people don’t believe in small victories, but I think you’re a lot happier if you do.

I was watching this commercial the other day about these athletes who were giving this guy’s daughter advice about life. David Robinson gave her positive advice, but I can’t remember what it was. This other guy who was supposed to be some loser said, “remember–success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.” Which I thought was freaking hilarious. That’s a good illustration of what life is like when you don’t look for the silver lining.

My tennis partner gives me a hard time because he says I’m setting my sights too low and I don’t have enough faith in myself. And it’s true that I’m happy as long as we don’t get killed, but I prefer to think of it as being easily made happy about the small things. Like hitting a good forehand, since that’s my weakest shot. Or free pie on Wednesdays.

Nevertheless, I still get that sense of foreboding joy that Brene Brown talks about in her book “Daring Greatly.” I still worry about when the other shoe will drop. Sometimes after something good happens I’ll even switch to worrying about death or bodily injury, thanks to my anxiety disorder.

I just looked up the origin of that phrase, because why would it be so terrible to drop a shoe? Apparently it has its origins in NYC. In the late 19th and early 20th century, apartments were built so that the bedrooms were on top of each other, so it was common to hear when your upstairs neighbor took their shoes off. So the phrase refers to that maddening feeling of when you’re waiting for something that is inevitably going to happen. Last night on 60 Minutes they had a feature on this guy on death row who asked to be executed as quickly as possible for that very reason; he just wanted to get it over with, even though he didn’t want to die.

Most of the time I hear people say it after something good has happened and they know this means that something bad is going to happen soon and ruin everything. However, when we are feeling down, we don’t wait for the other shoe to drop; we think we’re going to feel bad forever.

When clients express this fear, I tell them to think about both positive and negative feelings as things that ebb and flow, even if we do nothing. So it’s true that when something good happens, something bad will follow at some point. But it’s equally true that when something bad happens, something good will eventually follow. The key to happiness is to be able to savor that moment, in between shoes, even though you know that at some point you won’t be happy. This works for negative feelings, too; in this moment you may be sad, anxious, or angry, but at some point you will be happy again.

So while I know that the next post you read may well be one in which I say I’m feeling depressed or anxious, in this moment I am happy, and I’m going to let myself enjoy this moment for as long as I can.