Sports psychology: the zen of a business approach

How do professionals stay so calm under pressure? What are your secrets for facing intense competition and practicing week after week, year after year? To be sure, recreational gamers have a lot to learn from professional athletes, but many of these take-home lessons are more subtle and have to do with how professionals psychologically approach competition. With a PhD in sports science and a career coaching tennis athletes of all levels, the author has some unique credentials to help answer these questions.

It is easy to see that recreational individual sports players are often passionate and independent individuals. Sometimes too passionate! Those who approach an individual sport such as tennis, table tennis or racquetball often react too “black/white” to the result of discrete points. They show too much euphoria and too much disappointment before the end of the competition. Getting excited after a good shot or key situation is fine, but is often overused in recreational play.

The only point that is critical in individual sports is the last point. Until then, other points must be addressed as part of the contest “negotiation” process. Finding the thousands of shades of gray between “black and white”, the good and bad perspective of performance, is actually a practice in the Zen of competition and the “Business Like” approach of professionals.

In poker, when a player displays body language or posture that says, “I don’t think I can win anymore,” it’s called “Saying.” At a poker table, he tells you to convert to money. In individual sports, announcements help fine-tune the strategy of watching players from one point to the next, perhaps for the rest of the game. For example, if he feels that his opponent’s outlook on the contest is wavering or turning negative, unforced errors on his part can reverse that trend. A professional poker player is a great example of the proper approach to one-on-one competition. Let’s see how thought patterns commonly progress during a match.

First, keep in mind that almost every player walks onto the court thinking that they will win that day. In general, the players have similar physical abilities, but on that day, one will convince the other that they are not likely to win at some point in the contest. Keep in mind that sports psychologists say “just that day” because statistics show that it’s rare for one player to dominate the other in wins and losses throughout their careers.

If you don’t currently play sports for a living, you are a recreational gamer and have the “luxury” of thinking you don’t stand a chance against a particular person. A pro can’t afford to think that way because most play for meals and expenses. Some professional athletes may NOT begin to treat competition like a business, but quickly learn or receive advice to make that adjustment.

A “business” approach also includes respecting the skill of all opponents in various ways. First, your opponent’s excellence, or just effort, is responsible for your improvement. The better they play, the better you must win. It is a fact of human psychology that losses motivate your practice effort, and therefore improvement, more than wins.

Second, it is critical in a “business type” approach to resist the temptation to find excuses for your loss. Remember that almost everyone comes to competition physically “ground up” in some way. Players rarely feel perfect. Therefore, accepting the defeat of another flawed but worthy opponent, without hiding behind excuses, shows strength of character. That is the Zen of accepting the very nature of competition. This requires mental practice to realize that you are going off track.

Again, if you lose even just one point, PRACTICE giving your opponent credit at all times for playing a part in it. Tennis students often ask, “but my double fault isn’t YOUR responsibility, is it?” The answer is actually that it is. Their existence puts competitive pressure on your service. In football now they have what is called “Pressures”. It is the perception that the quarterback sensed a tackler approaching that caused him to miss. It’s the same in individual sports.

The utmost respect for the opponent is a central element of martial arts, as evidenced by the training of the monks of the Shaolin Temple. For thousands of years a great ritual and honor is given to the opponent, which represents our own internal struggle. That is the Zen of battle.

Pros also know that giving credit to your opponent takes the pressure off your own performance. Self-deprecation, displays of anger at one’s own performance, essentially make the competition two players against none! The trading approach is to make your opponent play very well in order to win as often as possible. If they can do that, they deserve to win.

It’s also “like business” to mentally PRACTICE treating your opponent as just another witness who is watching to see how the drama will unfold in this match alone. In other words, a “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 one?

Between points is the time to plan strategy, assess how your opponent is playing/feeling, what trends are developing and how you will build to the next point BUT, it takes practice to avoid generalizing about how you will play that day or how often your opponent has beaten you. The Zen of this is just watching these negative thoughts and letting them go. With practice they will diminish as do distracting thoughts and meditation becomes more skillful.

The truth is that human performance between two very similar talents in a complex sport actually “splatters” like a modern artist throwing paint at a canvas. It is different every day like a kaleidoscope, with only tendencies towards predictability. This perspective will help you judge less of his own performance, be a better competitor, and more appreciate his good fortune to have such a game. Gratitude for the amazing opportunity to “play” is also Zen.

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