Monday, February 14, 2011

A "play well" versus "play-to-win" philosophy

During the first couple of matches this season – one which my partner and I won in 3 sets and another that the same partner and I lost in 2 sets – I learned something about myself that has subsequently paid dividends throughout the rest of the season.  Instead of obsessing or worrying about winning the match for my team, I started concentrating on just playing the very best that I could, one point at a time.  It’s made quite a difference.

If you’ve read my earlier postings, you know that – after five years ‘off’ – I’m an ALTA captain once again.  I’ve always been one to put pressure on myself to win ‘my’ point for the team as a player.  During this winter mixed doubles season as captain of the team I ‘assembled’ as a would-be contender for a bag tag, I found that I was putting even more pressure on myself to keep from letting down my teammates.  And my performance was suffering.  In our first match together, my new partner and I lost the first set to a pairing that we had no business losing to; fortunately, I settled down, and we won the next two sets 1 and 2.  In the next match, we lost the first set 2-6 and were bageled in the second.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the team we played was very good, but they didn’t appear to be better than us and I think, on another day, we could have won in straight sets ourselves.  But neither my partner nor I got it going and it was over before it started.  We were playing at line 4 and I’d seen both my lines 1 & 3 lose in 2 sets, so I knew that we had to win our line.  I have no idea whether my partner was feeling the pressure as well, but she wasn’t playing at her best level either.  It wasn’t until my third match of the season, with a different partner, that I figured out what was going on and changed my approach.

We were playing a familiar team, one that we’d beaten previously, so my confidence was pretty high already.  Plus, just before I was to take the court, the captain of my men’s team told me that I should win easily against this opponent that he knew.  After the warm-up, my assessment was similar and I was perhaps getting a little over-confident.  My partner and I won the first set fairly quickly and easily but the second set became a marathon grind.  This was our first home match of the season and there were lots of people watching our match because we were on the court nearest the benches, food and beer.  I normally feel the pressure from the ‘fans’, and hence play badly, but this time found myself concentrating on watching the ball and moving my feet.  We had some epic rallies as our opponents settled in to a lobbing strategy.  Instead of being impatient and going for overheads from the back of the court, I matched their play with deep topspin lobs of my own, directing them as much as I could from side to side (fortunately, the lob is part of my toolkit too).  We had several games that went to a half dozen deuces and more, making it a physical game as well as a mental one.  My partner and I eventually prevailed through the wind that was picking up and a fading sun to win the second set, and the match.

Upon reflection I realized what had happened, that I had focused on each point, one ball at a time, which added up to games and then the set.  That within each point, I had been able to focus on the ball each time that it crossed the net to us, assessed whether my partner was going to get it, moved in behind her when it looked like it was going to go over her head, concentrated on getting my feet into position to strike the ball, thought about where I was going to go with it, and then tried to execute the shot.  No, I wasn’t perfect; I still made mistakes.  But, by and large, I was able to shut out all the other distractions – the score, the fans, the wind, and the coming darkness – to play that ball and get ready for the next one.  I have taken this approach over the past several weeks and found that my satisfaction level has increased tremendously, whether I’ve won or lost.

In the end, I’ve realized that winning isn’t something that’s within my control because there are too many factors outside of me that affect the outcome of a match:  my opponents’ abilities, my partner and ‘her’ ability & execution, the elements, what have you.  The only thing I can control is myself, how I play each point and react to the goings-on.  This approach has led me to better matches and, ironically, more wins for the team!

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