Developing a Healthy Attitude to Competition
There are many players, coaches, parents and sports psychologists who understand, to different degrees, the ideal mind-set athletes must develop in order to perform at their optimum level.
However, as in the case of bio-mechanics, the real issue is less ‘what’ and more ‘how’ do we transfer this information to the player, in a manner in which it can be digested so that both behavior and experience are impacted?
I hear many experts extolling the virtues of positive thinking and urging players to just show positive emotions or play with confidence. But how is it possible to be positive when I feel frustrated and angry or to play with confidence when I am full of doubt? Some how this fundamental question is largely left unaddressed; and when it is addressed, simple techniques are offered that may have some short-term benefits, but no long-term solutions.
In all these cases solutions are sought within the mind. Negative thoughts have to be replaced by positive thoughts; but thoughts still remain. The quandary is that as long as mind is active, ‘problems’ will persist. Traditional thinking looks for answers within the mind; wholistic tennis seeks to introduce you to an inner space beyond mind. Everything we know about the zone state seems to indicate that the ideal performance state does not happen to an individual whose conscious mind is active (thoughts).
Mind manipulation, pushing the mind in the direction you desire, may yield some success, but it will certainly not be sustained and perhaps more importantly, it will never lead to enjoying the process in a state of relaxed intensity.
Coaches and parents admonish their students for being angry on the court and then punish them for such behavior. While, I am not saying there is no room for punishment, certainly some types of behavior are so unsavory that they need to be stopped immediately by any means possible. However, punishment belies the fact that being angry is not a choice, just as punishment is not a solution. No one consciously chooses the pain that is anger and while forced consequences may require players to change outward behavior, they do nothing to transform the inner root that gives birth to such behavior.
So how do we nurture the silence and peacefulness (relaxed intensity) that is associated with peak athletic performance? Whenever this question is asked, it is inevitably answered with a list of corrective techniques that, in my opinion, do not help on any long-term level. The player may feel some immediate relief, but the symptoms will continue to return and often with greater force. The truth is that there are no simple solutions and all techniques are stop-gap measures, which do not go to the root of the issue.
So, what is the root? Ironically, the answer to the question lies not in adding something, but in taking things away. It lies, not in developing skills (coping), but in destroying the false beliefs and preconceived notions that are a part of our conditioning.
What is conditioning?
How are false beliefs created? How can we drop the preconceived notions that we have? We seem to ‘know’ certain things and yet in the heat of the moment we seem to ‘forget’ and our actions belie this ‘knowing’. How is it possible to forget? Did we really ‘know’ in the first place?
Intellectual knowledge is different from existential knowing. The former will not change behavior on the long-term, while the latter cannot help but totally transform you. How do we get to this state of existential knowing? Before we answer this question, let us understand the situation as it is, which I think everyone can agree upon.
All these false beliefs have been given to us by others or are the result of our misinterpretations. An accumulation of these false beliefs, all arising from the past, taken collectively are our conditioning.
Conditioning is the tinted glasses through which we look at life. From an early age and often in extremely subtle ways we are ‘taught’ what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ from those who have complete power over us and from whom we will do anything for and whose approval we desperately seek.
A simple, but extremely powerful example is the circumstances under which we praise youngsters. This seems like a pretty innocuous activity; a child succeeds at something we generously offer praise. However, this innocent interaction can and does have far-reaching effects on the child. Youngsters want, need and are often constantly seeking the approval of authority figures in order to validate their own sense of being at a time when their sense of self is weak.
Sometimes praise is consciously used by coaches and parents to reinforce a particular type of behavior. Just as circus trainers may use treats to ‘train’
animals, we use praise to manipulate the child into doing what we want. I am not questioning the intentions of the authority figures doing this, but simply suggesting that although immediate goals may be met in changing outward behavior in this way, deeper inner issues are being created, which will affect the youngsters as their move into adolescence and even beyond into adulthood.
At other times, praise is a ‘natural’ expression of joy and pride the parent or coach feels when their ward excels at something. This feeling is simply their own egos being stroked through the success of ‘their’ students or children.
Praise is sometimes given generously in the mistaken belief that this will make the child feel good about him or her self. This may be true on the short-term, but the long-term ramifications are something diametrically opposite. Success cannot be the source of feeling good about oneself because success will not always happen, but one needs to feel good about oneself at all times under all conditions.
Regardless of the motivation, the effect of praise remains the same. Before the child has found his own center, he wants and needs the approval of his loved ones. Praise is equated with love and it is learned at an early age that love comes with success. In this way, youngsters identify success with being loved and getting approval. Conversely, when failure or not doing well is greeted with a reaction different from the first, this feeling is reinforced.
The truth is that the fear of losing is coming from somewhere much deeper within the human psyche; it is coming from our unconscious mind. We associate winning and losing with our self-worth. The ‘happiness’ and ‘celebration’ of our successes, regardless of how small, by all those around us from an early age became associated in our mind with our fundamental need to be loved and accepted. That is why this fear is not so easy to dismiss, even after identifying the crippling way in it affects our performance.
The best thing coaches and parents can do to avoid this is to give praise only for effort and attitude, since these are the only two things that any of us have any control over anyway. In addition, praise and love can be given generously at any time, except after an achievement so the chances of confusion arising are less.
Praise for success arises from the coach’s or parent’s own value system. This can only change when we understand that youngsters should only engage in these activities for themselves and any intrinsic joy they may derive from them. By interjecting too much praise or interest in how they do (compared to others), their motivation becomes distorted and now the focus becomes more the approval it elicits rather than the activity itself. We all have different abilities in different areas and the value in the outer activities is less about excelling and more about the inner qualities these activities can help nurture.
The child needs to know that love and acceptance from those closest to her is unconditional and certainly not dependent on how well she does in school or in the sports arena. Obviously, this is not the conscious intention of the parent or coach, but it is amazing how many young individuals interpret it in this way.
So conditioning is acting unconsciously. It is repeating past behavior and being unable to see the present situation as unique requiring a unique response. The antidote to conditioned reactions is to be more conscious and to respond to each situation on merit as if seeing it for the first time without bringing in any preconceived ideas or values from the past. It is about taking off the tinted glasses and seeing exactly what is. This is freedom.
Conditioning is a type of mental slavery because unconsciously we are doing things for the wrong reasons. Fulfilling basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs are the very foundation of the human experience. All basic drive and ambition is rooted in fulfilling these needs. On the outer level it seems we design goals for one reason, but unconsciously everything we seek on the outer, all our goals, ambitions and dreams are really an attempt to fulfill inner needs. Unfortunately, the outer accomplishments can never fill the inner void, consequently no amount of achieving or becoming will bring the peace of mind we ultimately seek.
It is said that 90% of the mind is unconscious and only 10% conscious and that is why it is so difficult to change behavior because much of our behavior arises from an area we have ‘no control’ over. If this is true, then do we really have choice? Part of the frustration coaches and parents feel with their youngsters is that they always feel players have a choice to behave the way they do, but is that true? Can an unconscious person be free to choose?
Moving from unconsciousness to consciousness
If our actions are mostly arising from our unconscious mind, what can we do to extricate ourselves from this prison which is not of our making, but yet our responsibility? How can we become more conscious and therefore more in control of our outer situation? We, as tennis players can see the value of being more conscious as we play because that is in fact the zone state from where peak athletic performance happens. However, the irony is that experiencing this emotional state has nothing at all to do with tennis.
What I am saying is that the biggest obstacle to being the best tennis player you can be has nothing at all to do with tennis. It has to do with the mind. It has got to do with being more conscious as you play. The physical movements can and actually have to be become unconscious (automatic: this is what is commonly referred to as muscle memory), but the inner experience has to be conscious. Being conscious means being process-oriented, it means being present, it means being in the here and now and playing each point one at a time in a relaxed frame of mind.
The biggest obstacle to being present, and therefore conscious, is desire. It is desire that triggers mental activity because the mind is constantly planning and scheming how to achieve it’s goal; or it is dreaming of how life will be when the goal is achieved (it is never as good as we imagine); or there is fear of the consequences of not achieving our dream (this too is never as bad as we imagine!). These are the type of stories created by the mind that prevent us from performing at our optimum level. The greater our desire, the harder it seems to be to be conscious.
The problem is that if we take desire away then 99% (especially true of competitive or high performance players, but perhaps a slight exaggeration for recreational players) of tennis players will stop playing tennis. Most people’s sole motivation lies in attaining the outer rewards (ego-gratification, which can be subtle at times) that comes with success. How many players would train as hard, hit as many balls and be so obsessed with improvement if there was not, at least the promise of something tangible to be gained at the end of the road (even seeking improvement is a desire)?
The irony is that if we look at most players who have attained ‘success’ (outer) it is clear that the single most common quality they all possess is intense desire. However, this intense desire has also rendered their experience (inner) painful.
This is the almost comical situation we find ourselves in. Desire can be the catalyst that can motivate us to achieve ‘great’ things (outer), but this same single-minded focus will also be the source of all the pain (inner) we experience along the journey. This it seems is the price of on-court success. The individuals, who are willing to pay this price, do so because they see great value in the outer and are disconnected from any awareness of the inner.
Is it possible to have both the apple and eat it?
Desire: attached or detached?
To live in this world without intention is impossible and desire is nothing but intention. So intention is very natural and will not inherently cause us pain.
The root of our pain is not in the wanting; it is in the attachment to the wanting. In other words, to have a desire to be the best tennis player in our high school, college, club, region, state, country or even the world will not cause us pain by itself, but if we refuse to even entertain the possibility of not achieving this goal, we will struggle. This inability to accept any scenario except the one we desire is the root cause of our inner pain.
Another way of talking about this is to differentiate between attached desire and detached desire.
When attached desire is present, the process is always painful regardless of whether the goal is achieved or not. The mind may not ‘feel’ the pain so much because of the focus on the outer, but insensitivity to the pain will not lessen its affect on both the body and the mind in the form of tension and stress. The other problem is that deep down many individuals are so obsessed with their goals that they convince themselves that the ends do justify the means; so the series of painful moments are accepted as the ‘normal’ price to be paid to achieve one’s goal.
Detached desire, however, is the ability to have a goal and work as hard as one possibly can towards that goal and understand that is all one can do. Detached desire comes from the awareness that one has no control over the result; we can try to win, but no one can guarantee winning or hitting great shots every time. If they could, why would anyone ever consciously choose to lose or make an error?