Play Tennis to Gain Rather than "Not to Lose"

Raphael Nadal is a fantastic competitor. If you listen to interviews he always speaks about working hard every day to improve. When faced with a 5th set in the 2007 Wimbledon final having lost a two set to love lead and missed out on two match points he was asked how he overcame the disappointment.

Rafael Nadal plays every point as if the outcome of the entire match depends upon it.

“Disappointment! Are you crazy when all my life I dream of winning Wimbledon and still the opportunity is so big? I only have one set to win! I focus to hold my serve and I know if I can hold my serve then when we are maybe 3-3 Roger must know he must beat me and this is difficult, no!”

Nadal always looks at what he can gain. He plays to gain a Wimbledon title. He never thinks about what he has to lose; only at what he has to gain.

How does one acquire this mentality? A useful analogy to achieve an insight on developing an attitude of GAIN is to picture and understand the following:

Imagine a ladder up a 250 meter building that you have to climb. There is a resting platform every 30 meters.

The analogy: Imagine that each match, each set; each game and each point you play equates to one rung on the ladder. If you lose a match you remain in the same place – you lose nothing, likewise with each set, game or point. As long as your goal is to improve then you can only go up the ladder. Every lost match simply means you have to keep working to improve so that you can gain a rung on the ladder. You can only gain a point, game, set or match. The consequences of not winning are simply staying where you are on the ladder. You lose nothing.

Imagine that each match, each set; each game and each point you play equates to one rung on the ladder.

The goal: The first thing most people would do is look up at the ladder and the building to see how far and large the task will be. You see the goal. This in itself is daunting so sensibly you decide to focus on a process goal which is climb to the first 30 metre resting platform.

Focus on the work: At the start you are fresh and there is very little outside pressure. The height is not yet a problem, in fact after 10-15 meters you can enjoy the view and even a bit of wind is hardly noticed or even welcome. Players with ability and good coaching tend to progress quickly at the lower levels and climbing is by and large fun.

Narrow the focus: As you climb higher up the ladder looking around too much causes problems. You begin to compare yourself to other players and how far they are up their ladders. You notice the wind and worry how it will feel higher up. The ground starts to seem a long way down. If your arms and legs feel a bit tired you wonder if you are strong enough and may begin to feel isolated as your friends get left behind, some turning back or resting for long periods in the same place. The solution is to narrow your focus on the next rung and nothing else until you’ve reached your target platform where you can take stock and fuel yourself for the next phase.

Good coaching: Imagine you are connected to your coach and the world at large through an earpiece which you can easily adjust to tune into any frequency and therefore listen to anyone you choose, including general chat wavelengths. As you get up around 150 meters the method of coaching becomes increasingly important and your discipline becomes crucial to your success. Your coach needs to help you understand the choices and the distractions and encourage you to focus on improving, to always work until you are capable of climbing up the next rung.

Whatever the score the most productive thing to do is to do everything you can to gain the next point. If you gain enough points you gain a game and so on. There is little value in concentrating on how long you have been stuck on the same rung because as long as you want to go forward (up) the job is to get better and stronger until you get to the next rung. Your team has to help you understand that all players face obstacles that try to persuade you to quit and go back down the ladder or settle at one of the resting places along the way.

Fear: Most the fears are illusions that are born in the mind skewing logical perspective.

  • Do not fear or worry about other players who seem to be climbing easier and faster than you. Remember progression is personal and quick progress does not mean it will continue at the same rate. The rare exceptional talent who may reach dizzy heights quickly only to slow near the top is not your concern. Your target is not people it is your improvement and how far you can get up your ladder and if that is No1 in the world or club champion so be it. You climb poorly when you do not concentrate fully on your own ladder and gain a good rhythm, tortoise or hare.
  • Wind and rain slow you down and can make certain times miserable, cold and lonely and the slippery ladder can be scary as hell but remember the sun always returns.
  • Success can also cause fear of heights to kick in. 200 meters up can be very uncomfortable especially when you look down. It can be a lonely place because you know few people and some of the people around you might seem unfriendly seemingly wary of you, new guy or girl gate crashing their level. They will test your resolve to stay with them. Again the best answer is work hard and keeps focused on your climb, the next rung.

Discipline: Who do you tune into? As you climb the ladder the choice of frequency increases and with this, the responsibility to choose wisely becomes more difficult.

  • The negative: This could be friends, a coach, or parents, anyone who tells you or by their actions imply that the target is too high, that it’s only other people with magic powers or incredible luck who can climb to the top.
  • Your own voices: You can easily fall foul of your own insecurities and invent a million reasons to stop climbing. You are what you think, so think healthy thoughts that help you. Surround yourself with people and do things that support and encourage your ambitions. It is normal to doubt, to have second thoughts, to occasionally want to give up, to be afraid, but remember the golden rule: You can only gain. Failure only means you stay in the same place until you win again.
  • Distracters: People who encourage you to stop at a resting place and enjoy the view and to forget about the next platform up as it is not any different to the one you are on; besides if you don’t stop with them you will be on your own because they have no intention of climbing higher. Perhaps it’s the girlfriend, boyfriend or significant other who don’t like the periods when you are away or the time you spend on practicing. Perhaps they feel second priority or simply fear losing you if you climb high where the choices widen.
  • Hangers on: After significant success a real danger are the sycophants, people who tell you that you have made it, that the rest of the climb will be easy, that you can do other things that are very important and that the team around you may not appreciate your talents and how brilliant your future and that you have outgrown their abilities. The undermining message is that they are in the know, and can show you the big time, the inner secrets of life at the top. A worse scenario is if the team around you become intoxicated by the heights and join in with the self congratulations and distractions, no longer grounding and guiding you, fueling unrealistic expectations rather than a desire to work even harder to climb the last few rungs.
  • The illusion: The top of the building is a wonderful achievement but as every successful person knows although it might be a fantastic, large, and comfortable rest area with a magnificent view, quickly you notice there is a bridge you can cross to a larger tower that you must decide whether to climb, because if you don’t someone else most certainly will.

Some players have the skills to climb to the top but quickly fall off and, like Ana Ivanovic, struggle to regain confidence.

The right frequency: Tune into the encouraging voices, the ones that support your efforts, understands the process, which firmly yet gently pushes you to consistently improve. All they and you ought to expect is your focus, the discipline to block destructive voices and to keep it simple with one objective in mind – gain the next point, the next game, the next set, the next match. Apart from the odd glance there is no need to look down, to the side or up between stages. When you reach a rest area, enjoy the moment, replenish your strength, evaluate the next goal and without hanging around too long start the climb again, eyes firmly fixed on the next rung.

What an adventure to see how much you can gain in life!

A summary of what you need to achieve a healthy attitude to competition:

  • You lose nothing: In reality what actually changes in your life if you lose a match? If you lose you end the match in the same place that you began!
  • Focus on your own ladder: No one knows how high their ladder will be, but keep climbing until you have reached your limit.
  • You gain: However high you climb you will be a stronger person with a better view than those who don’t.
  • Transferable skills: The character and experience you gain from climbing one ladder will transfer to another ladder if you choose a different challenge in life.
  • Find your limits: Even if you choose to go down the ladder you have lost nothing because it’s a choice. At least you learn how high you were prepared to, or could climb and experience a higher perspective than that of ground level. Finding out what you don’t want is extremely valuable.


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