One of the most important aspects of being competitive is the enjoyment of playing the game and competing. For truly competitive athletes, competing and battling is something they want to do and they embrace that aspect of sport. When someone asks them to play, they eagerly say YES! They can’t wait to get on the court and start playing points because it is so enjoyable to battle and figure out possible ways to win.
Winning and Enjoyment
Unfortunately, many athletes do not approach competition from this perspective. For them, enjoyment comes from winning and playing well because that’s what they have been conditioned to believe. Our society values and prioritizes winning and accomplishment over most everything else. Additionally, various organizations have created systems for ratings (i.e., UTR, NTRP) and rankings (i.e., ITF, USTA) that attempt to quantify how good players are, and the creators of these systems believe that ratings and rankings positively motivate players to compete. Most tennis players willingly subscribe to these systems as a way of determining how good they are at a moment in time. To some extent, you probably have as well.
Do you always agree with your UTR? Probably not. It’s likely you think it should be higher. And the same goes with your ranking. Therefore, you know that these systems are imperfect (even though defenders of them will claim how accurate they are), yet you still subscribe to them as meaningful. So, when you lose or don’t play well, you’re concerned with how these systems will interpret that performance. It becomes difficult to enjoy the act of competing with such uncertain consequences on the line. Your results are constantly being factored into a rating or ranking by an algorithm, or so you believe.
You may also feel like other people are evaluating you. Coaches, peers, your parents or family, teammates, opponents, officials, etc. are all people that you suspect are evaluating and judging your ability to play the game. Most of them are probably not giving you that much thought, but you don’t know if that is really true or not.
Basing Enjoyment on Things Out of Your Control
So, what have we discovered here? For the typical tennis player, enjoyment of the sport is derived from results they can’t fully control, performances that they can’t fully control, ranking and rating systems that they can’t control, and the thoughts of other people which they also cannot control. That creates a great deal of uncertainty and it’s no wonder that players get anxious about competition. If you base all of your goals in tennis on results (not fully controllable), and imperfect systems of rating/ranking, it’s probable that you are feeling a lot of pressure when you play. Because of this, you are likely not performing to your potential, and you’re probably not enjoying tennis as much as you could.
Furthermore, when you don’t perform to the expectations of others or of the rating/ranking systems, you may feel bad about yourself as a tennis player. The unfortunate reality of this situation is that your identity and self-worth are being derived from sources outside of your control. It is no wonder that some players avoid competition. They associate unpleasant emotions with competition, and competition makes them feel bad about themselves when they lose or play poorly. These players haven’t learned to create their own sense of purpose and meaning for playing tennis such that it is based on factors under their control. It’s possible that you haven’t discovered that sense of purpose and meaning either.
This Is Not Easy
Before I begin to explain the process of creating deeper meaning and purpose for your tennis, I want to be clear about one thing. It won’t be easy. Those people, who you think are evaluating you, they are not going away. Ranking and rating systems are not going away. You are the one who has to change. You are the one who has to decide to unplug from the systems that society has sold to you as the ultimate means of measurement of your tennis ability; these sources of evaluation must become less important in your life.
Competitiveness and Motivation
In order to help you enjoy your tennis more and create a meaningful purpose for it in your life, it is important to understand the basic elements of competitiveness and intrinsic motivation. Understanding these elements more thoroughly can help you to determine controllable sources of enjoyment and meaning.
Here are the three elements of competitiveness in order of priority (Gill & Deeter, 1988):
- Wanting to compete and to enjoy the process of competing
- Viewing competition as a means of improving and mastering the sport
- Having a strong desire to win
For intrinsic motivation, there are three basic psychological needs that you want to satisfy (beyond the basic needs of food, water, shelter, safety; Deci & Ryan, 2000), so that the reward and drive to train and compete comes from within you:
- Mastery/competence – the importance of feeling competent or good at something; pursuing mastery in that skill/field
- Autonomy – the need to have control over one’s choices and life
- Relatedness – the importance of relating to others and being part of a community
Notice that mastery/competence is a common element in these two frameworks. Being good at something (like tennis) is psychologically important, and competition (which implicitly means playing to win) is a vehicle for developing your competence. So, if you could look at competition as an enjoyable pursuit of getting better at something you love to do, you are on the path to experiencing more positive emotions and meaning in your tennis.
Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun. -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)
Purpose and Enjoyment
In order to develop a better sense of enjoyment and purpose in your tennis project, review and consider this list of controllable characteristics of tennis performance:
- Enjoying the fight/battle
- Giving your best effort and working hard
- Tennis is a means of being active
- The desire to learn something about your skills or yourself
- Fighting hard throughout a match regardless of the score
- Embracing the challenge of competition and becoming better
- Appreciating who you are becoming as a player and as a person
- Playing with friends
- Being part of a tennis community
- Meeting new people on your tennis journey
- Competing with great character and being a great person
- Doing something you love
- Appreciating how lucky you are to be able to play tennis and playing with gratitude
- Reflecting on where you are in your tennis journey and how far you have come
- Viewing everything in your tennis project as “practice” on the way to becoming the best you can become
Find some combination of the above items that resonates with you, and then prioritize those items over winning, ratings, rankings, and the opinions of others. Write them down. Remind yourself often of these new priorities.
At a minimum, to be a great player, you will have to embrace enjoying the battle and playing the game. Frequently repeating phrases like “enjoy the battle” and “embrace the challenge” will make a difference in what you prioritize in training, in matches, and in the moment.
Ultimately, you must determine a purpose and meaning for your tennis that makes sense to YOU, and know that most other people will not be able to grasp it. That’s okay, and it’s actually a good thing. When you figure this out, you will have experienced a moment of enlightenment in which you discover better measures of competence and emotional well-being that encourage and support your tennis project. As a result, you will enjoy your tennis more because it will have a more virtuous purpose and meaning.
Csikszentmihayi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
Gill, D. L., & Deeter, T. E. (1988). Development of the sport orientation questionnaire. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 59(3), 191-202.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. DOI: 10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68
This article was first published on Performancextra.com.