The Challenges of Winning


champion's habits change

When my job was to travel all over the world competing with my racket, and I had an uncontrollable mental struggle going on at the end of many matches. I really felt like I was in a trap with no possible exit.

This was the pattern…
I’m playing against a tenacious player, I have managed to lead and now I just have to close the door. My only task at this point is to finish the game and shake the hand of my opponent with a nice victory in my pocket. I know I have the momentum in my favor. I know this guy hasn’t figured out a winning strategy and in fact is lost and can barely contain his frustration. And now it’s match point for me, and I’m serving.

Great advantage, right? Or maybe you can predict what I’m going to say with your own experience!…

Well, here is THE moment.
I’m starting to think about winning, about my next match, about what I’m going to say to my coach… Subsequently, my muscles are starting to tighten and my breath shortens. But this, I’m not aware of. What I’m aware of now is that it’s the last point and I feel a lot of pressure. I’m nervous and at the same time I don’t want my opponent to feel this, so I do my best to contain it, to not show him.

(Is it what you predicted?)

I’m thinking, “What is going to happen? Am I going to make it? What should I do?” I’m asking myself. “Ok, Benoit, you’re a risk taker, so go for your serve and volley. You can do it,” is my feeble attempt to convince myself.

And you, how is your self-talk at this moment? Can you still relate to this?

And so, I go. I give as much intensity in my serve as I have, but my movements are less fluid, less natural. Nevertheless, I’m now at the net, he has returned and I realize I can place the ball on the other side of the court, which I do…and which I miss! You know, not too much, just 5 or 10 cm, just enough get frustrated. Just. Just. Just. And so the nightmare continues, again and again. The guy regains confidence. I’m still tense and I’m not able to play as well as I was anymore. It seems that unconsciously I manage to play just under his level. Arghhhh!

We all have some patterns and I have learned that they have good reasons to be here. For me, this scenario happened again and again, even though I tried different possibilities. Logically it didn’t make any sense at all. And when I asked my coach, a passionate coach that I trusted because he had helped me so much, he reminded me to play my game and to focus on my strategy. And that’s it! “Ok coach, but I feel horrible inside! I do my best to follow your advice, but it’s been nearly 100 times that I get so close to winning and don’t.”And once again a new self-talk, this one about frustration and victim attitude, about how I could have done better if only this or that. This still doesn’t help, can you see? At the same time for some reasons some patterns stick to us very well!

So, like many others in this case, I keep working and thinking about new strategies. After all I’m living my childhood dream, so it’s not that bad anyway. I train super hard, become even fitter, thinking that I can compensate for my mental struggles by placing more intensity in my shots.

And it still doesn’t work. Or it does for a little while and then I’m back to the same pattern, again and again. Frustration is almost always present in me, and in fact this energy helps me sometimes to win big matches. But it’s not an energy that lasts very long.

So now that we’ve seen all the responses that didn’t bring satisfying answers, and you can probably add yours, let’s talk about solutions now!

Useful Solutions that I Discovered Along the Way…

After all these attempts to change, I finally decided to follow my girlfriend’s advice, and sought help elsewhere. And here are a few of the lessons that I learned, that might benefit you, too:

  • Know very very clearly what you want. This is the mind’s way to overcome stress, by having a goal to focus on. Then, you can create a mantra that you repeat again and again that is focused on your strengths. Mine was: ”Liberate your arm, Benoit.” or “Impose your forehand and serve and volley!” You can create a similar strategy. Having a goal diverted my mind to something very clear, very precise, so much that I won 5 tournaments in a row!
  • Stay in the present. How are you breathing right now? Can you still be aware of it when the pressure is on? Such a simple concept, isn’t it? And so crucial too! Once, I did what my NLP therapist told me, and I auto-hypnotized myself before and during the last game of the match: ”I can see the lines of the courts. I can see the ball. I can see this guy. I can hear the ball bouncing. I can hear the crowd. I can feel my shoulder. I can feel my nervousness.” I did so well this trick that I won the final game without realizing it, cool!
    At the same time, I’m aware now that if you want to be able to stay present even in the midst of adversity, you need to train this all the time. So again, how is your breathing now?
  • Align your values. Indeed, what is the most important in your life? Make a list, and see whether your life embraces these values. I did realize that my values were not aligned with my tennis career. What was important inside was to give, to help, to share, and I found that I was living an egoistic life instead. Realizing this truth helped me adjust my life accordingly, and relax more on the court, too. Doing this exercise can change your priorities too.
  • Relax. My favorite one. The idea is to learn, consciously, to relax your muscles when you are training, to perform with the right amount of energy, not more not less, and therefore “entering the zone” more and more often. This gave me lots in return. It can do miracles for you too.
  • Non-attachment. Certainly the most profound lesson, and the most challenging, too. It means going beyond our ego which wants victory, recognition, fame, money, etc. And instead being centered with ourselves, with the best we can do, no matter what the circumstances are in the moment. I can’t say that I mastered this lesson as a tennis player. I was not trained this way, and it happened only twice then, and when it happened it was by “accident”…but wow, how amazingly well I played!

Now, you might be tempted, like I did, to keep your issues to yourself. To think that, “It’s ok. I can handle them.” And you know what? You are right. We all have the resources inside, and I’m sure you can find your keys too… as long as you acknowledge your situation and perceive the wisdom behind your troubles. As many spiritual teachers would say: “Nothing’s good nor bad. It’s just what it is.”

I wish you lots of courage on your path, to look within and find these resources that I’m sure will change your life.

  • I appreciate comments in any of my posts, whether you like them or you want to add something, I’ll be happy to reply.
  • If you find yourself in this kind of struggle (or know someone who are struggling ) at this moment in your career, relationship or sport, please email me as I’ll be happy to discuss with you about a strategy to get through them.