A New Mindset
Jan 17, 2012
I’ve been in Tallahassee for just over a week now visiting with my good friend Andy Gerst, who I traveled to tournaments with last year and who is an assistant coach at Florida State. I came here to get a chance to hit outdoors a bit before I head down to Central America to play four Futures, which are the lowest level of professional tournaments. Its been great getting the chance to train with a top level division 1 team and for the most part I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how I’ve stacked up against them. I’ve more than held my own with the team and Andy tells me I would make their starting lineup, which is a nice compliment and shows me how far I’ve come since my own college days. It’s safe to say I would never have been recruited by Florida State when I was looking at colleges. So to come and beat some of their guys and compete so well with them is a good milestone for me and confirms that I have improved a lot and my hard work has paid off. This has been a really nice way to start my trip and reorient myself with playing professionally again. Coming off a fall in which I mostly taught at University of Portland and studied for the LSAT it’s nice to refocus on my tennis a bit. I’m really trying to maintain a better perspective now than I have in the past. Throughout my life I’ve often let my worries and insecurities control me too much, which has led to a topsy-turvy career and psyche at times. I think that the nature of tennis breeds this kind of inner turmoil in part but also for some reason I’ve been particularly prone to it. Maybe I just overanalyze things, but as far back as I can remember I’ve just striven to be better and perform better, both of which aren’t bad things if they are used to motivate. But too often these traits have turned to disappointment and letdown rather than inspiration, which is a hard emotion for a young person to feel constantly. I think this may be the separator when it comes to great athletes, and especially great tennis players. I have so many memories of underperforming at tournaments and almost feeling the need to punish myself by being sad and not allowing myself to have fun like the other kids. As if it showed to my parents, my coaches, my friends, and mostly myself that I cared and was not alright with my poor performance or how good I thought I was or whatever. I know this sounds ridiculous but it was almost as if I felt the need to show people that I was better than that by my reaction afterward since I hadn’t done it on the court.
This sort of attitude does not breed the kind of determination that is needed to improve and work on one’s game because it affords no room for error. Life on the court becomes a constant battle to prove oneself. A battle governed by fear. Not just fear of losing but fear of letting down your family and coaches, of looking bad, of being “not as good” as your friends or competition…etc. Basically your tennis is turned into a life or death struggle where losing is unbearable and carries a shame that devalues the identity that you strive so hard to maintain. An identity that has somehow become indecipherable from your ego. You would expect that with such an awful downside to losing, winning would be the best feeling ever because it validates you in all the ways you want and need. But while this is in some sense true, in fact it really doesn’t play out like that. Sadly, winning becomes more of a relief than a victory. Like a drug or something. More of a “Thank God I didn’t lose!” than a happy feeling. What I’m trying to say rather circuitously is that competition—particularly competition in tennis, which is extremely individual and dog eat dog—can create a dynamic where losing is death and winning is not life, but rather a reprieve from death.
I know I’ve struggled with these concepts throughout my tennis career and I’ve seen others struggle with them as well. It always seemed so easy for the players at the top, the ones who were winning the tournaments and were the envy of everyone else around. It was strange to watch because they all seemed so happy and content all the time. But why wouldn’t they be? I always told myself I would be happy and content too if I was winning or getting to the finals of nationals and everyone knew how good I was. So it made sense to me when I saw those players smiling and swimming and joking around when they occasionally lost matches. Yes I knew even then that everyone loses in tennis at times. But it just didn’t seem so bad when those players lost, because everyone already knew how good they were. This obviously brings to mind the chicken and the egg, but either way, these players had found a way to not only play at a higher level but also to maintain a fun, productive attitude and psyche while doing so.
I know all this sounds stupid and definitely is more than anyone would ever want to know about the inner-workings and craziness of young tennis players, but its real and its taken me many years to fully understand it. So I have decided to finally find and actively incubate the perspective I’ve needed all along in order to fully enjoy this last segment of my competitive career, as well as to save the fortune I would invariably have to spend on therapy if I never address my foolishness. Although it is still a battle to not let worries and results color my mentality, as counterintuitive as it sounds, I’m working hard to relax and enjoy the process and experience of whatever this time may be. Maybe it only happens once you come to terms with the full arc of your career, but I’m finding that its finally getting easier to let things go and be happy to just be out there. As much as I’d love to go back in time and force that perspective on my younger self, I’m just glad that I’m able to have it now. I lost a lot of time being disappointed and discontent and I’m dedicated now to make sure that doesn’t happen again.