I hear it all the time...a parent, coach, friend, or even the athlete themselves explain away poor behavior because “they are so competitive”. Or, “they don’t like to lose!”
Now, in the most extreme cases, a player will get defaulted in a match. This happened to John McEnroe in the 1990 Australian Open in the fourth round vs. Mikael Pernfors, Serena Williams at 2009 U.S. Open semifinal vs. Samantha Stosur, and Novak Djokavic at the 2020 U.S. Open.
Other examples of competing poorly happen when we observe broken rackets, verbal abuse and, generally, a player going ballistic. Google Nick Kyrios top 10 ballistic moments to see a few examples. In all these situations, let’s be clear, there is nothing competitive going on! Being competitive is about focus, adversity management, regaining calm, and never giving up. Certainly, when a player gets defaulted, they have given up their choice to be competitive. And when the player goes ballistic, they also are not focused, and managing adversity. If they were being competitive, then the player would be focused on what’s important now (W.I.N) at that moment in the match.
So, what does it mean to compete? Just look at Rafael Nadal’s entire career and especially the 2022 Australian Open come back against Daniil Medvedev, few would argue the importance of competing consistently in achieving long-term success. I’d like to highlight eight keys that indicate a true competitor.
1. Focus on what you can control: A competitor stays focused on what they can control: such as effort, energy, patterns, routines, attitude, breathing, and bouncing back from adversity—to name a few. They understand that they cannot control how well their opponent plays, court conditions, winning, losing, and their draw.
2. Humility/Sportsmanship: It’s important that an athlete respects themselves, their opponent, and the game. Their focus is on trying their best. A competitor plays with belief but checks their ego at the door. This allows them to play free and adjust to situations. They acknowledge their opponent for putting him or herself on the line and understand that their opponent is not an enemy. Rather, they view them as a challenge, an opportunity, and a partner that is necessary to take their game to the next level.
3. Respect for the process: A competitor understands that their development is a process, and while a loss may hurt in the short term, there are lessons that can be learned. They see setbacks and losses as an opportunity to grow, not as a problem.
4. Never, ever, ever, ever give up: A competitor never gives up. A true competitor understands that not every day is going to bring top-level performance. Perfection is not even possible. Such a player cam embrace adversity, especially the adversity of having to figure out what to do when their game is not on. A true competitor doesn’t mind winning a tight, or even ugly, contest. They have perspective; they prioritize learning from the experience over the result.
5. Adapt and adjust to situations: Constantly adjusting and adapting within a match is imperative. Momentum shifts are a given in a tennis match. What’s most important is to be aware of what is happening and adjust and adapt. Too often in the heat of competition, athletes get caught up solely on the result. This singular focus takes them away from akey question: What do I need to do now, or to get back in the match?
6. Be ok with being uncomfortable: A competitor understands that during competition they may have to take a calculated risk, try something new, or hit a shot not quite the way they would ideally like to. They understand the idea of being ok being uncomfortable
7. Be aware and make high percentage choices: A competitor makes high-percentage choices during all stages of their competition. For example, they don’t try to hit a screaming winner down the line that may appear on ESPN, rather they counter with a neutral shot that will get them back in the point. Usually, the best choice is to stay patient, stay in the point until an opportunity presents itself.
8. Learn from mistakes: Mistakes are only bad if the player does not learn from them. Mistakes provide a player the opportunity to learn and adjust, essentially correcting their mistakes from the previous setback. Nothing great was ever achieved without mistakes.
In summary, many players we know are known as being great competitors. However, is it also possible that in certain moments, situations, or periods of time they did not compete well. No one is perfect and we all have moments where we don’t compete well.
Let’s minimize these moments, be aware that our behavior is not helpful and get back to what’s important now (W.I.N). Focus on the eight keys of competing and bring them to the court. It’s not easy staying focused, but now is the time to stop blaming yourself, others etc. Take responsibility, refocus and compete!
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail email@example.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.