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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.

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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Wins and Losses, Part 2

Dale

This year I had several people opt to leave my team so that they could join a more competitive team instead. I guess I can’t blame them for that, because most of the players on my 4.0 team are rated 3.5. Which is not a good thing if your goal is to win. But I do have a greater appreciation for the people who play on my teams because they care more about having fun than they do about winning.

Don’t get me wrong; I want to win. I’ll chase every ball down and risk throwing up on the court if I have to in order to win the point. It’s just that, at the end of the day, going out to eat with my friends afterwards is just as much fun as winning. And I’m not willing to kick people off my team just because they lose. Hell, I’d be the first person to get the boot if that were the case.

Still, at the beginning of the year, I decided I was going to focus more on winning. I was going to try to have more confidence in my game. Focus more on my strengths. Tell myself I’m a good player and see what happens.

I’m not sure it’s going so well. I don’t think I’m winning any more than I did last year, but I curse at myself more often, and more loudly, on the court. And I’m a lot harder on myself. And I’m more pissed off when I lose.

Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Despite my increasingly bad attitude, I never get upset when my teammates lose. In fact, if the match was close, I count their loss as a win. Like the other night we lost 1-4, but when I wrote up the summary, I wrote it as though we had won 3-2, since 2 of the losses were in the tiebreak. When one of my teammates commented on how positive I was, I thought, well it’s easy to be positive when you win.

But then I remembered that we lost.

In a previous post I brought up the debate of whether it’s better to love winning or to hate losing. Federer plays because he loves winning. Nadal plays because he hates losing. Things have worked out pretty well for both of them, so I guess you can’t go wrong with either approach.

But I’m not sure either of these statements accurately reflects why I play. I love trying to get better. I love trying to win. I love having a way to exercise that doesn’t involve torturously counting every second while I’m on a machine. I love having something that allows me to forget what a terrible day I’m having and focus solely on hitting the ball. I love practicing and I love competition. I love cute outfits and friendship and food.

And I can enjoy all of these things, regardless of whether I win or lose. I guess when it comes down to it, I really just love playing.

Running My Own Race

I am a terrible runner. That’s why I decided to take up running 16 years ago. I like to challenge myself to do things I suck at. I wanted to prove to myself that I could run for more than 5 minutes. My husband at the time, being the competitive athlete that he was, said he would train with me if we ran a 5K at the end. Which was intimidating, but I liked the idea of having a running partner, so I agreed to do it.

So we started a 10 week program for beginners. By the last week you were supposed to be able to run for 35 minutes. I couldn’t imagine getting to that point, but in the first week you only had to walk for 2 minutes and run for 1 minute for 7 laps, which was totally doable. So I just focused on my goal for that week and trusted that if I did that every week I would be able to run for 35 minutes by the end, whether I could imagine it or not.

We never made it to the last week but we ran the race, anyway. And it was even more embarrassing than I imagined. We were so far behind everyone else that we couldn’t see a single runner ahead of us. We were even behind the police officer who was supposed to follow the last runner, so we missed part of the route and ran past the finish line in the wrong direction. We assumed people were supposed to cheer when you got to the end, but no one did. So we kept running.

The police officer realized his mistake and told us to run around the block to make up for the segment of the route we missed. We came in second to last, and I finished the race in 36 minutes. But I came in 3rd place in my age group because there were only 3 people in it. I love awards, so I was like, woo hoo! When is the next race?

So we ran 5Ks for a few years before I rediscovered tennis. It always hurt, I never got runner’s high, and I hated everything about it except the sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line. Sometimes I would place if it were a small race, but I was still always one of the last runners. Women pushing baby carriages would pass me by. Sometimes I was barely in front of the walkers. But I just focused on my goal, which was to run faster than I did in the last race.

I’ve been struggling lately with posts where bloggers say how many followers they have or how many views a particular post has gotten.  It makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. Sometimes it makes me want to give up. But I don’t. Because even if I don’t have a large audience, I know my blog means a great deal to the small group of people who read it. And that small group of people is still larger than the number of clients I see in a week.

Recently I decided that I would use my running mentality whenever I read a post with numbers in it. I will focus on writing and promoting and trust that in the end, I will get to where I want to be. I will focus on my own progress rather than on the people who are passing me by. I will focus on my own race.

So far so good.

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Popularity

Pick Me

I was not very popular in high school. At least I don’t think I was. Although several years ago I talked to someone I went to high school with and he commented on how shy I was back then. Shy? Is that why people didn’t talk to me? I thought they just didn’t like me! So I’m open to the possibility that I have a distorted self-image.

At any rate, I know for sure that I did not do a lot of the things that were supposed to lead to popularity. I never drank or smoked or used drugs. I wasn’t a cheerleader, didn’t go to parties, didn’t go on the cool road trips like beach week. I did all my homework and studied for tests. Once I got 100 on a history exam and the teacher gave me a hard time for being a curve buster. The teacher. Talk about unpopular.

But I was OK with the choices I made because if you are a follower of my blog, then you know that I obsess about going to hell. So I was willing to forgo popularity to avoid eternal damnation.

But now, after a lifetime of escaping peer pressure and of preaching about the perils of social media as a psychologist, I find myself vying for popularity. In order to have a successful blog, I need followers, likes, tweets, shares, and comments. I had to open all of these social media accounts even though I have no idea what I’m supposed to do on them. I need to say stuff on these accounts that will make people like me and want to read my blog. The only problem is, self-acceptance never seems to be a trending topic.

I try really, really hard to use all of my knowledge of psychology to avoid getting down about how few followers, likes, tweets, shares, and comments I get. Here are a few of my strategies:

1. Perspective-taking. I remind myself that I have only been blogging for a year as of the 24th (my blog birthday!) and that it takes time to build an audience. In fact, my life will go on even if my readership never grows. And I would be perfectly content to write for this small group of people and for myself.

2. Intrinsic motivation. I remind myself that I am not in a race against other bloggers. I am not trying to win. The thing that drives me is to find out how far I can take it if I give it my all–to find out what I’m capable of.

3. Quality vs. quantity. I will probably never have a post go viral, which is OK. It’s more important to me that my blog is personally meaningful rather than popular–even if the only person it is meaningful to is me.

4. Honesty. Before I publish a post, I prepare myself for the possibility that people won’t think it’s as awesome as I do by reminding myself that the most important thing is that it’s true.

5. Control what you can control. I have limited control over what other people do. I can’t make them follow, like, tweet, share, or comment on my blog. However, I can control what I do, and the best way to get more readers is to write more posts.

So I am one post closer to my goal.

Some Things Never Get Old

A few months ago my brother called to tell me about a baby bear spotted in the parking lot where he lives, which is quite an anomaly because he lives in the city. He also sent me pictures and video clips. And he cracked himself up making up additional fake bear sightings: the bear was also seen going to Starbucks buying a coffee, having a beer at the local bar, etc.

He had the same obsession with bears as a kid and made similar jokes that were primarily funny because they made him laugh. Even though he is 38, he is still a kid in many ways. He continues to see the world as though he is experiencing it for the first time.

I was not able to share his excitement about the bear sighting, but there are things that I never get tired of. This weekend I went to districts with one of my teams, and even though I didn’t win and my team didn’t win, I am happy. I feel blessed because I had the good fortune to experience some of those things that never get old. My list includes, but is not limited to:

1. Winning. I know winning isn’t everything, but it sure feels good when you do. Even though my team didn’t win, one of the local teams did, and we got to share in their victory celebration, which is almost as good. Especially when the celebration involves food. Plus UVA won, which means we have already tied our 2 wins from last season. And it was an upset against a top 25 team, which makes it even sweeter. Plus Switzerland advanced in Davis Cup this weekend, so I’m happy for Federer, too.

2. Tennis. When I started playing tennis again 14 years ago, I was obsessed with it. I played at least 4-5 times a week–sometimes 2-3 times a day–and would drive to different cities to play. I played in every league and tournament. I feared that at some point I would grow tired of it, but I think I’m even more obsessed with it now than I was back then. One of the members of the winning team is in his late 70’s, and he still loves tennis. He is still competing, still winning, still talking trash on the court. I hope I am fortunate enough to be just like him when I grow up.

3. Shopping. Ok, I know this one is superficial, but it’s true. I love shopping. I got to buy cute tennis clothes, which is something I don’t have access to ordinarily. And they were on sale. Not half of half of half, as my mom prefers, but still a pretty good deal. And I’m going to wear my new outfit to my singles match tonight. I will probably lose, but I will look good doing it.

4. The Beauty of Nature. On the way to the tournament I drove through the Rockfish Valley. Initially I was so anxious about getting lost that I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings. But when I entered the valley I was in awe of how beautiful it was. It was absolutely breathtaking. I never get tired of the beauty of nature. I never tire of looking at the sky at sunset. Of the changing of the seasons. These are the times that I have those moments of clarity. These are the moments that bring me closer to God.

5. Friendship. One of the things I love the most about tennis is the friends I have made and continue to make. This weekend I got to spend time with some of my closest friends and reconnect with old ones. As I got to know some of my teammates off the court, I felt like I was meeting them for the first time. Spending time with friends, getting to know people better, and adding to my tennis family never gets old.

It really is true that some of the best things in life are free. Except for shopping. Shopping is never free. But a 30% discount on everything in the pro shop is pretty nice, too.

Some things never get old

Hard Core Fan, Part 2

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Sometimes being a loyal fan is downright painful. Today UVA and Roger Federer are both playing. Right now I’m excited about it, but while I’m watching, if the games are close, it will be torture.

A few nights ago Federer came back from 2 sets and 2 match points down to beat Gael Monfils. If I just wanted to see a good match, I could have enjoyed myself. Instead, I was praying the whole time, asking God to let Federer win. I know this probably isn’t a good use of prayer, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Thank goodness he won.

The only problem is, the chronic pain in the back of my neck due to stress returned the following morning. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Hopefully, I will watch two more matches before the U.S. Open is over. If they’re close, I may have to schedule a massage next week.

UVA had an equally stressful match last week when they played UCLA. Even though it was the season opener, we had the lowest attendance ever because we only won twice last year. But my brother and I were there, being the loyal fans that we are. UCLA was #7 in the country and have a quarterback who was a Heisman candidate, although he may not be any more. Even though we were 21 point underdogs, we had a chance to win at the end, so of course I resorted to prayer to help the team along.

We lost 20-28, but it was as close as you can get to a win without actually winning. In fact, UCLA  dropped to #11 in the polls. I have never heard of a team dropping so far after a win. Apparently barely beating UVA is equivalent to a loss–which makes us look good and bad at the same time.

Despite the pain in my neck and the time spent in fervid prayer, these are the moments you live for when you’re a hard core fan. Sometimes your loyalty pays off and you get to witness a spectacular comeback. Sometimes you drive 2 hours and sit in the rain for 4 hours, only to watch your team lose the 8th game in a row.

But as with all things in life, the joy is in the process. In the anticipation of the match up. The possibility of an 18th grand slam win or a bowl game bid. And regardless of the outcome, you get to start all over again, with another game to look forward to.

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