Fearless Tennis: Separate Your Self-Worth From Your Performance

self worth

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

If you’d like to learn more about Jeff’s new online course click here: http://www.norcal.usta.com/competitiveedge/focusunleashed/

If you want to experience more freedom on the court, it is imperative that you recognize how your self-worth can get wrapped up in your performance results. You have to learn how to separate one from the other.

A fifteen-year-old nationally ranked player told me, “It would be so embarrassing if I lose to that girl. What will people think?” A forty-five-year-old nationally ranked player confided in me, “I just felt like everyone was staring at me. I was nervous to just be on the court with some of the other higher-ranked players.” A current world-ranked player on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour shares with me how self-conscious he gets when playing in front of crowds out of fear of double-faulting. In an interview in Inside Tennis , prior to her comeback, Jennifer Capriati admitted that this inability to separate her self-worth from tennis was a big part of her downfall as a player. “I wanted to reach my true potential,” she said, “but I wasn’t doing that. I had a lot of other stuff going on, like the fears. … At one point, I was even afraid of playing in front of a crowd again. It seemed so intimidating to have people watching. A lot of it’s about self-esteem … but now I’ve learned to differentiate how I feel about myself and what I’m doing on the court. For a long time, I didn’t know how to do that.” Once Capriati realized how her self-worth was getting attached to her experience on the court, she started to play the best tennis of her life.

This can be tricky, of course, because whenever we put energy into something and care about the results, our sense of self-worth can get wrapped up in it pretty quickly. The key is in recognizing that your results in tennis will provide you with some transitory satisfaction, but the real joy is in competing and playing the way you believe you can.

To begin making this shift , you need to first take stock of your reaction when you lose. Is it extremely difficult to let go and move on? It’s helpful to begin observing the kinds of thoughts you are truly having. How upset do you get? Are you beating yourself up and concluding that you are inferior? Do you feel shame for losing and stew over what others might be thinking of you? If so, you are probably attaching your self-esteem to your tennis performance.

Once I caught this tiger by the tail, I started to develop a wider perspective of the game and myself. Instead of viewing each loss as a life sentence, I began to see my tennis career and performance as a process of learning and unimaginable self-discovery. Though I still wanted to win as badly as the next guy, my energy began to shift. I started feeling free, released from the handcuffs I had placed on myself when I was living in a world of comparison and anxiety.

It’s important to recognize that the only real goal you need to have is learning about yourself and figuring out what factors help you play your best tennis. You need to see that the real joy is about breaking free from the chains you’ve placed on yourself. It’s important to play with passion and react in a way you feel good about. You will not gain more worth as a person or player whether you win or lose. You may think you do, but you don’t. You would be surprised how little other people are actually thinking about you and cherishing your latest win or lamenting your recent loss.

I suggest that you base your self-worth on your ability to adjust and improve, the effort you put in, and your ability to dig down when the going gets tough. Tapping into your fighting spirit and loving the battle brings a lot of satisfaction. After all, what’s the downside? The reality is you will play better anyway. By keeping your results and performance confined to the court, you will be able to play more relaxed and freely. The truth is that tennis is one of the greatest teachers to help you grow both as a player and as a person.

Remind yourself that this tennis is only a game. It is an opportunity to test yourself and improve, but it is not a reflection of who you are. You are more than your ranking or a good backhand. Don’t diminish yourself to a ranking or a level in the game.