During my first week of pre-season, my coach had me do three "non-physical" activities: visit the World Trade Center museum, go running on the Brooklyn Bridge, and visit Ellis Island. Afterwards, I was to write about each one; how I felt, what I saw, the takeaway of each activity. Although thoroughly confused as to the purpose of these exercises, off I went into NYC, crying at the museum, amazed at the bridge, and impressed with Ellis Island.
After much thought, I realized that there were three important things I took away from these experiences:
1)If something seems impossible, it's probably not; determined people can achieve great things
2)When things seem bad, they probably aren't that horrible; someone is always worse off
3)Be grateful, and appreciate your life and the gifts you've been given
While a significant portion of my pre-season was dedicated to getting fitter and stronger, and improving my game, it was just as much about improving the mental side of things. This is something that I've always struggled with; anyone who knows me or has seen me play knows that I can definitely be a hothead (insane, as my coach nicely calls me). To someone in a normal state of mind, my temporary on-court insanity must seem crazy. Why would I blow up when it's 3-3 in the first set and I don't convert two break points? Why beat myself time and time again? However, when I am in my competition state of mind, the thoughts aren't always so clear. Emotions creep in, clouding thought process and serving as a wall blocking my success.
It's taken me a long time to realize how hurtful emotions really are during competition, and I'm definitely still learning. In my match last week, for example, I was struggling with my serve. I kept breaking the girl, but then I’d get broken right back (welcome to women’s tennis). At 4-4 in the first set, I got up 40-0 on the girl’s serve. Up until this point, I had been doing a pretty good job of keeping my mind clear and focusing on making things better. I wasn’t playing my best, but I was constantly thinking about what I had to do to give me the best chance at being successful, and it was keeping me in the match. At 4-4 40-0, though, I remember clearly thinking, “If I break her again, how am I going to hold my serve?” I hadn’t even broken her yet; holding my serve wasn’t relevant, because I was still returning! That simple thought moved me into a results-based mindset, and I played the next six points tight and promptly lost the game.
In that game – a crucial part of the match – I let my emotions win. I allowed myself to think about something other than making the right decisions for the very next point. The following game, that 40-0 up loss was still in the back of my mind. Instead of acknowledging that I had failed in that moment, and putting myself back in the right mindset, I played my next service game tight because I knew I had blown a lead; I lost the set, 6-4.
Obviously, it's easy to sit here and say, "don't be emotional!"; it's far harder to actually apply it in the moment. (I would know). But, at the end of the day, the emotional reaction is the easy way out with the least opportunity for future gain. Let's go back to my third takeaway: “If something seems impossible, it’s probably not.” Being a pretty insane person, I’ve definitely looked at controlling my emotions and decided that it’s an impossible feat. In the moment, it’s as though all of my rational thinking goes out of the window, and the next thing I know, I’ve let the emotions in and the match is over. Is it really impossible to change, though? Or is it just hard?
The Brooklyn Bridge, finished in 1883, was the very first steel suspension bridge and was the world’s longest bridge. Believed to be an impossible feat, building the connection from Brooklyn to Manhattan took 14 years; 147 years later, it remains an icon of New York; a clear example of the impossible becoming possible. How can some old bridge compare to the competitive mindset? It’s simple: it’s an example that change is hard, but possible. I’ve been trying to remember this when I compete, because it’s really important. It would have been far easier to decide that linking Brooklyn and Manhattan was an impossibility; just as it’s easier to give into emotions during a match. Doing something different is difficult; but why wouldn’t you try? Previously, suspension bridges were known to fail due to winds or heavy loads. John Roebling, the creator of the Brooklyn Bridge, designed an addition to the roadway that would stabilize the structure. He saw a problem, and instead of deciding that it was impossible to fix, he found a different way to be successful. If what you’re doing is inhibiting your success, what’s the harm in trying a different way?
Besides seeing that the first step in making this change requires the realization that what you’re currently doing simply isn’t working, I’ve realized that keeping things in perspective is really important in allowing oneself to begin trying to combat the ease of playing based on emotions. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. On 9/11, people said goodbye to loved ones and never saw them again. Many decades before that, immigrants traveled in horrible conditions for months, arriving at Ellis Island just for the opportunity - not even a guarantee - of a possible better life. Yes, tennis is a job, and it requires a make or break mentality. But it's also a game, and if you allow that make or break mentality to negatively affect you, your game will only suffer. Keeping things in perspective is one of the most important parts of making it, because it allows for you to begin to keep the emotions at bay during crucial parts of a match.
All you have to do is go out and try your hardest to do the right things for – maximum – maybe four hours a day (let’s say the match is extra long). Simply put, there are so many things in the world far bigger than the tennis match you’re playing. This past week, I’ve begun to really understand this, and it’s helped me to let go of my emotions. If I lose, and I’ve tried my hardest and allowed myself to be put in the best position to win, what’s going to happen? I’m still healthy; I still have great friends and my family. I’ll try again tomorrow, and I’ll keep failing better until I succeed.
If you're playing professional tennis (or really doing anything at an elite level) you have a gift. Allowing emotions to interfere with that gift not only hurts your chances of success, but it’s disrespectful. You've been blessed with the ability and chance to do something that so many people can't. Instead of focusing on results, or how angry or nervous you are, focus on the process. Do the right things, and the success will follow; even if it doesn't, you'll know that you've allowed yourself a proper fight, which is really all anyone can ask for.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.