The Beast of High Expectations
My first competition of the year is two weeks away and I have been in the toughest period of my tennis life.
Last year I had my greatest year in terms of results. I should be flying high. Building on last year’s successes with massive confidence. My belief in myself and the feelings of certainty that come with belief should be off the charts.
But no. I have been tripped up by the beast of expectations based on the past. Like Shaun White, Bode Miller, Roger Federer. Apple. Like the hedge funders I coach who put up amazing numbers in one year only to struggle the next.
Last year my record was 38-1. I lost only two sets all year. I was in that amazing zone. Returning to a full playing schedule after being out of the game with hip surgeries, my mental setup was perfect. Happy to feel healthy. Grateful to be playing the game I love. Enjoying practicing and seeing my game coming together. Patient with the little stumbles. Smiling internally and externally with effortless effort. Accepting.
Even though I set a high bar for myself, I was free of expectations. My confidence in myself was high. My belief was strong that I would compete well against those players who were in and above my level. I was free of the demand that expectations of winning needed to be fulfilled. I could accept whatever might happen and be able to move on to the next point, game, set, match or tournament.
And I just kept playing to the very highest levels of my skills and talent. The year ended with my returning to the podium, winning the singles and doubles at the National Championships.
When I started to train for the new year I had a couple of bad outings. Missing routine shots. Not making service returns. Lack of courage on my first serves. Giving away leads. Going for winners when the opportunities were not there. Not going for them when the opportunity presented itself.
I started telling stories about why. I am tired of competing. I wasn’t challenged enough last year so I’ve lost my edge. The work is not engaging. Playing isn’t fun. Been there done that. I have lots of great stuff in my life that is using my focus. I’m getting old and my speed, strength, endurance and reflexes are not there anymore.
But I kept playing. And I was unhappy. From the first error in the warmup I was impatient. Frustrated. Annoyed. Intolerant. Shaking my head. Talking to myself.
Who was I? Where was the Bob with whom I have become so familiar?
I kept searching. I tightened my strings. I loosened them. I tried different rackets. I changed tennis shoes. I fussed with my footwork. I focused on the ball. I did rope ladder agility drills. Monster walks. Nothing.
And the bad stories kept coming. I’m just not ready to compete. I bailed on the first big tournament of the year.
Maybe my run is over. No shame. I don’t have anything to prove.
But I am not one to quit on myself. My story is “I dig deeply. I look inside myself. I am honest. I am transparent.”
OK, so competing is not fun right now. I will just spend time on the court doing what is fun for me. Just hitting. The workout. Being with a friend. It helped. I started to enjoy just going out for a hit.
Eventually, though, my partner and I would play points or a set and, my game would disappear.
What was going on? Why am I struggling so much when competing?
I entered the tournament anyhow. I know myself. I needed a better story:
When I have a target, I find a way to hit it. I try. I adjust. Try. Adjust. I find the way to get a bullseye.
When I tell a new story of who I am, I don’t worry about how I will get there. I know that, out of the certainty of me becoming my new story, the way I will get there begins to flow. The answers find me.
The answer found me. I sent a random email to my friend Jeff Greenwald, a three time World Champion and sports psychologist from San Francisco. I was giving him some advice. And I realized that I needed to process with someone else. Someone who might relate. Someone who has been there.
We spoke for a while. We talked of the enormous pressure of having to live up to an amazing year of play. How the results become addictive. Even though I had evolved as a competitor, loving the competition as much or more than the results, the result beast had never entirely gone away. Like a weed that is pulled out, there is just a small root left.
My whole being was affected by the pressure to outperform last year. Old stories were feeding the weeds of results and expectation. If I don’t succeed to the level of last year, then last year doesn’t even count. People will know that last year was an illusion and the real me will resurface. Any loss, any error reveals the true Bob. This is the power of old stories that are not jettisoned. When we touch our highest bars, do we need to always go beyond that bar? If not, are we a failure? In whose eyes? The weed triggered my very old story of other people’s opinions affecting my own view of myself.
So Jeff and I talked it out. I pulled out the weed. Saw if for what it was. Expectations. He encouraged me to continue being who I am with my game. Transparent. Unafraid to face my little demons. Honest. To continue processing. Facing the truth.
Last year can never be taken away from me. This is a new year. Each match that I play stands alone. An opportunity for me to bring the very best Bob that I am. A chance to be in the process that I love so much. The process that has taken me from a player who could rarely win to a player that loves the challenges that are thrown into my path.
That is my story and I am sticking with it.