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Sport Psychology: The Zen of a Business Like Approach
How do pros stay so cool under pressure? What are their secrets to achieving intense competition and practice week after week, year after year? There’s no doubt that recreational athletes have a lot to learn from professional athletes, but much of that homework is more subtle and has to do with how they handle competition psychologically. With a doctorate in sports science and a career coaching tennis players of all levels, the author has some unique credentials to answer these questions.
It’s easy to see that recreational players of individual sports are often passionate, independent people. Sometimes very passionate! Those who approach individual sports such as tennis, table tennis, or racquetball often have a “black/white” reaction to the results of different scores. They show a lot of excitement and a lot of disappointment before the competition ends. Excitement after a good shot or important situation is good, but it is used in recreational sports.
The last point is the important point in individual sports. Until then, other issues should be approached as part of the competition’s “negotiation” process. Finding the thousand shades of gray in “black and white,” the good and bad view of performance, is actually practice in the Zen of competition and the “business interest” approach of pros.
In poker, when a player shows body language or posture that says “I don’t think I can win anymore”, it’s called a “tell”. Nirvikar asks to convert to money, on the table. In individual games, from point to point, it may help to adjust the strategy of the attention players for the rest of the match. For example, if you sense that your opponent’s view of the competition is wavering or becoming negative, an ill-advised error on your part can reverse that trend. A professional poker player is a good example of a proper approach to one-on-one competition. Let’s see how thought patterns typically progress during a match.
First, realize that almost every player goes out on the court thinking they will win that day. Usually, the players have similar physical abilities, but on that day, one convinced the other that they could not win at some point in the tournament. Remember, sports psychologists call it “just that day” because statistics show that it is rare for one player to dominate another in their career wins and losses.
If you don’t currently make a living playing the game, you have the “luxury” of thinking that you’re a recreational player and don’t stand a chance against a particular person. A pro cannot think this way because most are playing for food and expenses. Some professional athletes may not start out handling competition like a business, but they quickly learn or are counseled to make those adjustments.
A “business-like” approach also includes respecting the abilities of all opponents in many ways. First, your opponent’s excellence, or simply effort, is responsible for your improvement. The better they play, the better you need to win. It is a truth of human psychology that defeat is more motivating to your practice efforts, thus improving than victory.
Second, resisting the temptation to make excuses for your losses is key to a “business-like” approach. Remember that almost everyone comes to the competition to physically “ding up” in some form. Rarely do players feel perfect. So accepting defeat from another imperfect but worthy opponent without making excuses shows strength of character. This is the Zen of accepting the nature of competition. Getting yourself off track takes mental practice.
Again, if you lose, even by just one point, always practice giving credit to your opponent for playing a part in it. Often tennis students ask, “But isn’t my double fault their responsibility?” The answer is actually that. Their existence puts competitive pressure on your service. In football they now measure what is called “pressure”. It is believed that the quarterback sensed an approaching tackler causing him to misfire. The same is true in individual sports.
Ultimate respect for one’s opponent is a central tenant of martial arts exemplified by the training of Shaolin Temple monks. For thousands of years, great rites and honor have been given to the rival who represents our own inner conflict. It is the zen of combat.
The pros also know that giving credit to your opponent puts pressure on your own performance. Self-deprecation, an angry display at one’s own performance, makes the competition two players against no one! The business approach is to play the best game to beat your opponent as often as possible. If they can do that, they deserve to win.
It is also “business” to mentally practice your opponent as a second witness to see how the play will play out in just this match. In other words, “short memory” allows you to leave past results where they belong so they don’t influence future events. Can you do this for the next point and the next?
Between points is a time to strategize, assess how your opponent is playing/feeling, what trends are unfolding and how you will prepare for the next point, but it takes practice to avoid making generalizations about how you will or will play that day. Often your opponent has beaten you. Zen in this is simply observing these negative thoughts and letting them go. With practice they will decrease as the distracting thoughts decrease and the meditation becomes more efficient.
The truth is that human performance between two closely matched talents in a complex game actually “splatters” like a modern artist throwing paint on a canvas. It’s different every day like a kaleidoscope, only predictable. This approach will help you be less judgmental about your own performance, become a better competitor, and more appreciative of your fortune in such entertainment. Grateful for the wonderful opportunity to “play” is also Zen.
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