Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Living with Mental Weakness on the Tennis Court
When I was a somewhat successful junior and college tennis player in my competitive years, the book out on me among my competitors was simple: attack his backhand and stay in it till the end because he can lose it mentally. Simply put, I was a nutjob on the tennis court. I remember watching Jeff Tarango and John McEnroe when I was a kid, two poster kids for nutjob tennis, and I always thought to myself "well at least I'm not as bad as them". That was almost a way of justifying my behavior on court. I never knew when the meltdown would come as each match played out differently, but it would be there consistently when I needed it least. Fast forward to these days, yes there's plenty of mentally weak players in the top 100, but you don't really have Johnny Macs and Tarangos anymore. Players have gotten better at keeping it together and not showing emotion, thanks to the improved coaching. Oh sure you'll still see the occasional meltdown or racquet shatter on tour, but it's NOTHING like it was when I was a kid watching. And that's just it, my generation didn't do a good job of teaching juniors how to manage their own court emotions. I was always told I needed to change, and I knew I needed to, but in the heat of the battle when I'd double fault on break point the fits of range would take over and there was nothing I could do.
The worst part about the deserved label of "nutjob" is that once you have it, it's not only a struggle internally, but your opponents count on it. I found myself always playing guys that would compete like dogs until the last point. I'd see a guy down a set and a break completely tank his match a week prior against someone else, and then he'd play me and be fist pumping and liberally ripping "come on's!" down 5-2 in the 2nd. It was frustrating to notice guys hanging in there longer against me than others, because I knew deep down it was my own fault. When you know why you are losing matches and you feel helpless to stop it, it plays more tricks on your head.
It always pissed me off when I would have strangers come up to me and say "you have to keep it together!" It was even worse when my dad would want to talk to me coming off the court after I boiled over in an attempt to calmly discuss that I handed my opponent the match all by myself. Easy for them to say. They were never in my head and they seemed to act like the solution was so simple. How can they understand the problem when they're not wired like me?
For a while I tried to show no emotion. I actually went through a patch of months where I successfully showed zero emotion. I lost almost all my matches. Turns out the outbursts were both destructive AND therapeutic at times. It was my best friend and my worst enemy. At times it would help my intensity and concentration, and at others it was the kiss of death. So I had to figure out a way to channel it and use it in a positive way. That began the constant evolution of my brain on the tennis court.
Fast forward to now, I don't play competitively that much anymore but I'm still on the court often in a recreation sense. The competitive fire never went away, though. Every time I step on the court I still want to win. The feeling of winning a tennis match is a high unlike any other. Regardless of the stakes, I still get that high every time I feel like I've accomplished what was necessary to conquer my opponent AND myself. I still struggle with mental weakness, but life, perspective and constant work have made me light years better.
I would venture to say that 10% of the matches I play leave my opponent thinking "that guy is a jerk". That's much better than the 75% I was working with as a junior. But it's not 0%, either, so I still have work to do. I know, deep down, it will never be 0% but I still have to keep working closer towards it. The thing I've been able to do is continue having intensity and occasional fire in a positive way. I only try to use it to motivate myself or to send a message to the opponent that I'm not going away. I've gotten a lot better at that over the years, though the matches come with a lot less pressure than they used to. I have good days and I have bad days, but the overall sum is much improved.
And that's just it. I look at the mental part of tennis much like being a junkie. If you are a "nutjob" like I am, then it's like being an addict. Your personality just has a propensity towards struggling (like a drug addict does towards using) and it's an everyday struggle every single time you step on the court. And yes, that means you need to fight every day and sometimes get help to overcome the issues. And once you "overcome" them, they never fully go away. Recognition of that is key. Once you're "fixed" that doesn't mean you can look at things in the rear view window and assume the issues will never come back. You are still prone to a relapse. I find that the more I trust the new me and take for granted that I have a good mental approach, the more I fall backwards (though not as far as I used to!). The more I take the humble approach that "I am what I am", and I concentrate on what I need to do every time I step on the court to give myself the best shot at winning, the better the results.
A better mental outlook doesn't promise you'll win against a better player, and it doesn't guarantee you'll lose to a weaker one. But tennis and sports is all about percentages and increasing your odds of being successful. I find myself winning more these days because I've heightened the percentages, and I'm getting more enjoyment out of the game than ever because of it. But the key is realizing you can't completely overcome a major weakness. Instead, you can get a little better every day, and over time it pays off.
The "mental midget" or "nutjob" tennis player can't be fully fixed. He is wired a certain way, and he will never become Pete Sampras on the court mentally. Some people just do not have the genetic makeup for that. But you can continue to work on putting yourself in the right frame of mind to limit the demons from returning.