Desire and Tennis
There’s an old cliché in tennis: at crunch time, the match is won by the player who “wants it more.” Chris Evert is a big proponent of this myth. In addition to simply being incorrect, this myth implicitly disparages the character of the losing player – he loses because he doesn’t want it enough. Anyone who has competed in any sport knows that this is complete hogwash. My claim is that winners and losers have equal amounts of desire. What then explains the sorting of winners and losers at crunch time?
It should be no surprise that the answer lies within the 4-D System! Recall:
1) Notice what Happened
2) Make a Plan
4) Remind Yourself to Watch the Ball
As pressure mounts in a match, the natural instinct of any competitor is to try harder. In the graph below, this means that Arousal levels (the horizontal axis) will be moving past level 6, a player’s optimal Arousal level. It’s clear from this standard graph from Sports Psychology that trying harder, i.e. wanting it more, leads to a lower level of Performance (the vertical axis).
This is why step #3 of the 4-D System involves a player reminding herself to relax and stay calm is crucial. Constant training in practice with this simple instruction can have a dramatic impact on a player’s ability to execute under pressure. To put it another way, consciously relaxing keeps a player right around level 6 and doesn’t allow her to careen off into the netherworld of “wanting it more.”
See attached pdf file.
Does this mean that a player who wants to succeed needs to want it less? NO! Top players learn how to transform their desire productively by channeling their high level of desire into disciplined and conscious choices along with a relaxed level of body tension and mental awareness. Novak Djokovic is a master of remaining composed at the crucial moments.
This ability to transform desire into effective action is similar to the concept of sublimation in psychoanalytic theory. Sublimation is the ability to divert or modify socially unacceptable impulses (for us, a high level of desire to win) into a culturally higher activity (for us, relaxed and calm tennis). In other words, top tennis players are truly artists – they take raw emotion and transform it into effective play. And, they are able to do this because they have practiced the art of relaxing when it counts. This is a learned skill and it is a large part of what allows them to perform at their best at crunch time.
Next time that you’re watching a match on the Tennis Channel, I’d like you to observe which player looks calmer as the match reaches its denouement. This player is almost always the winner ... and not because she wants it more; it’s because of her training!