Developing a "Losing Strategy"
A common adage in sports is that if you don't believe you can win, then you won't win. This is a deeply embedded principle harkening back to the cookies and milk drenched stories of our youth. "The Little Engine That Could" taught us that if we "think we can," then sure enough, we will conquer mountains. America itself is built upon the premise that if you believe in your dream, then it will happen.
This powerful parable can inspire and motivate us to perform and achieve. It teaches us the power of believing and the rewards of "positive thinking." Perhaps an equally important message in the parable is the secret to dealing with failure. Even the leading voice of the positive attitude movement, Dale Carnegie, stated, "Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success."
Success and failure, winning and losing, form a rather unique, symbiotic relationship. Although they are opposites and therefore mutually exclusive, each could not exist without the other. Nowhere is this more evident than in sport. Some would say it is the most significant lesson, and most noble reason, to compete. If this is true, then why do we so fiercely shun losing? What is the role of losing in sport? Is there such a thing as a "good loser" or is the “good loser” someone who is just destined to lose? The answers to these questions can form the basis of what I call the "losing strategy."
Winning And Losing: Where it Begins
Winning and losing is mostly in the mind. Sure, the scoreboard would tell us differently, but make no mistake, winning and losing starts with a decision to step on the court and nod yes when the other guy asks, "Are you ready?" That choice to compete is step one, and the most difficult hurdle to clear in the "losing strategy."
Many people won't compete unless they feel they can win. They make excuses or avoid competition because of the possibility of losing. Many junior players will skip tournaments so they can protect their rankings and don't encounter a bad loss. Many club players avoid playing in club tournaments because they know they can't beat the club champ. To put yourself on the line, especially with the realization that you could lose, is a win in itself. You have already won by accepting losing as an option (not an option that you would choose given a choice). If you need to convince yourself that you will win in order to compete, I can assure you that your tennis playing days will not be happy ones.
Plan for Losing
Most people have a game plan for winning but this doesn't always include a game plan for losing. What I mean is that you may plan to have the match go a certain way (most certainly in your favor) but that may not happen. Do you also have a game plan for what you will do if you are losing? It sounds pretty simple but nothing can be more devastating than being down 3-0 in the first set when you were so "positive" about getting off to a good start. We may have put so much faith in our plan, or our abilities, or our resolve, that we did not consider the possibility of losing. We may do better to go into a match not expecting to win but instead to play the game correctly, and be prepared for whatever may happen. I knew a top player who had great results imaging that he started every set from 2 games down. This not only created a sense of urgency but also dispelled any notion that he might have had of not losing, since he already created a losing situation in his mind.
A great example of accepting losing well was shown by Rafael Nadal at both of his Grand Slam final appearances. In both cases he was drubbed by Federer in the first set and beset by unforced errors. In both matches he calmly and methodically took control of the match, going on to win the French and losing a close match at Wimbledon. The fact that he was playing poorly or being dominated at the start of the match hardly seemed to faze him. Compare that to James Blake at the Masters Cup in '06. He played brilliant tennis, beating Nadal, Nalbandian, and Davydenko to get to the finals and seemed ready to push Federer to the limit. He seemed confident going in but he started poorly and that disappointment seemed to deflate his chances for the rest of the match. Perhaps if he had been more prepared for a rocky start, he may have been better able to get on track.
Not Losing It over Losing
The real danger of not having a good "losing strategy" is the psychological damage it inflicts when you are not ready for it. Losing is a form of stress, of pain, and everybody has different levels of tolerance for it. If you go beyond your threshold, things can start to unravel quickly. You can become impatient, apathetic, irritable, and rash. This is called "tanking" or giving up and there is rarely a return from this state.
When you find yourself in a hole during a match you will need all of your resources of objectivity, analysis, focus, vigor, and execution to reverse the situation. And this must be done at a time when you are most physically and emotionally drained because of the damage you have absorbed. You must be calm and objective enough to make strategic or technical assessments. Effectively analyzing whether to stay with a game plan and focus on better execution or to change strategies requires a collected awareness. Like anything else, developing the ability to handle a losing situation requires practice and a strategy.
Like a boxer with a glass jaw, if your a tennis player who can't endure punishment, you are not going to go very far.
The great thing about the scoring in tennis is that a player is never truly out of a match until his/her heart is no longer in it. So if you can endure the lost points and lost games and even a lost set without losing your will, there is always hope.
Raising Your Stress Level
Key to developing a good "losing strategy" is to raise your tolerance of pain. Pain, or stress in tennis is an insidious enemy. The thing that is unusual about tennis is that, even in singles, you often have two opponents--your opponent and youself--and sometimes you inflict more damage on yourself than your opponent does. We chastise ourselves over our errors and heap negativity and stress on our lost points. Try to detach the critical self from the equation and treat yourself as you would treat your doubles partner, with encouragement and support.
Secondly, get into better physical condition. All stress, whether it is physically, mentally, or emotionally induced, has the same effect, it zaps us of energy and makes us more irritable. By getting into better physical condition, you will be able to counter the effects of stress on all levels.
Also, get into a habit of taking a "stress level check" before your match or practice session to determine how vulnerable you are to the pressures of the match. Although we try to leave everything off the court before a match, it is impossible to dump all of the baggage at the gate. Poor sleep, injuries, stress at work, at home, or at school, all have an effect on our tolerance during play. In the same way you would mentally rehearse how you would play out points prior to your match, get into a habit of reviewing how you will positively react to your opponent's winners and your own errors.
The Big Picture
Take a look at the big picture. The same way you learn deal with losing points, learn to develop an attitude about losing and winning matches. A single point or game does not constitute an entire match, and a single match does not constitute an entire career. We can only commit ourselves to enthusiastically pursue what we think is right and keep moving and learning along the way. This is how a match is played and this is how a career is played out. Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras both retooled their games at the expense of many short term losses but the strategy of losing proved right. Andy Roddick persevered through some bleak stretches after showing such great promise and is now looking as hopeful as ever.
Competition is neither winning nor losing. You don't have to believe you will win or be worried that you will lose to compete well. You simply can't let either one get in the way of your determination to compete. Competition means putting out your best effort regardless of the score. Winning is easy. You never change a winning game and winning begets winning. Losing is tougher. Losing requires change, it requires adapting and it requires questioning. Losing is the thing that takes work. If you get good enough at it, you may just discover that you don't encounter it quite as often - but sorry, I can't guarantee it.
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