There's a famous saying that goes something like this, 'don't let a win go to your head and a loss to your heart.' Staying positive after making an error and losing a point is one thing, but how do you stay confident and upbeat after losing a match? This is an important discussion because we all lose. We have all had tough loses, either very tight matches that could have went either way, or just performed below our standard and lost to a player we believe we should have beaten.
John Wooden, the legendary college basketball coach at UCLA once stated that the only thing worse than losing too much is winning too much. At one stage, Wooden's team won over 50 straight games and he said his team felt the pressure every night and weren't able to play up to their potential. For most of us, winning too much isn't a problem. If that is happening you need to face some stiffer competition.
I've been in this spot a few times in my life where I was the best player at my club and didn't lose a match for months or even a year at a time. It's pretty nice winning all of the time, but it isn't good preparation for tougher competition. I would go to a big event with evenly matched competition and I wasn't properly prepared. It's tough to simulate that level of competition and pressure. I wasn't prepared mentally either. Sometimes I would have trouble during the big points simply because I hadn't encountered these situations in training. I also had difficulty preparing for a tougher match because normally you are so relaxed when you know who you're playing and that you won't be challenged. If you don't get a healthy dose of competition from time to time it's hard to believe that you belong out there and that you are capable of beating who you perceive to be a stroneger player. So if you win too often, set up some tougher matches! If you lose to much set up some easier ones and get some wins. Neither is healthy for your game.
I can't remember for sure, but I believe this story was about Tiger Woods. When he was a boy he would play people better than him a third of the time, close to his level one third of the time and not as good as him the other third. When we play people better than us we learn, but we are under lots of pressure so we don't get to practice different shots and tactics. When we play someone close to our level we learn how to play in tight matches and get an even balance of attacking and defending. When we play someone that isn't as strong as us we can work on various parts of our game; you can try different types of serves, to volley a lot, some holds, etc. I think it's important to have this balance. So whether it's losing a single match or a few in a tournament it is necessary expereicne for your development as a squash player. If you only win you won't think you need to work harder and try to improve various parts of your game.
We all lose, so how do you stay positive after a loss? The first thing I ask myself is how I played. Sometimes we think we played poorly, but really this may not be true. Maybe we played at our potential, but our opponent was just a little better. The way squash is scored you can win more points than your opponent and still lose the match. Does this mean you didn't play better than your opponent? This is why I always try and focus on the process of the match. If I won and didn't play well I may be content that I was able to battle through it and pull out the win, but I won't be satisfied with my level of play.
I think most people look into a loss too much. We want answers and don't know why all of our training hasn't paid off. If you have a really bad loss, sometimes the best thing to do is not even think about what happened. Just toss that one out and forget about it. Often after a tough loss sometimes the best thing to do is get back out there and play again. When we sit around and think too much about a loss we get down on ourself and lose confidence in our ability. A single outcome doesn't mean that is who you are. Be respectful to your opponent and even if you think you played awful congratulate them on playing well. It's disrespectful to take a cheap shot and make excuses; valid or not.
Now let's talk about staying positive after a poor result at a competition. Everyone but 1 person in your draw is going to lose a match. Unless you're a professional all but the 2 finalists will likely have to play after losing a match. This is why it's crucial to have a short term memory after a loss. You'll feel much better about your game if you can back up a loss with a good win. I've seen a lot of people drop out of tournaments after they get knocked out of the main round. This is ridiculous. Unless you are injured or sick you should play out the event. If you drop out you make it unfair for some of the other players and this also demonstrates that you are completely absorbed in the results. Put your ego aside and get in there and try your best.
If you have a poor showing at a tournament when you get home you can analyze it. This is a good method for setting and adjusting your goals. Were you prepared for the tournament? What can you do to prepare better next time? What did you do well at the event? When we are unhappy with our performance it's easy to be too critical, but normally we aren't too far off the pace or our standard. Make a list of 3 things you did well. How was your fitness? How was your warmup? Did you eat well and stretch after your matches? These are all things that everyone can take care of even if your squash isn't the highest standard. If you worked hard up to the competition and did the little things before and after your matches you should be proud of yourself. If you continue doing this the results will come. If you didn't prepare properly than you know what you need to improve for the next tournament.
Sometimes what we've been working on in practice doesn't show up in tournament play. We get nervous and play different opponents. Something is on the line and we aren't able to play how we normally do, how we would like to. How can you improve this? The first thing you can do is keep playing tournaments. The more you play, generally you get better at handling your nerves and playing up to your ability. Also changes in tactics or technique take a lot of time for the muscle memory to kick in. Don't give up on it if you believe in the changes you're making. In competition many of us are only focused on that point, game, match and event. We don't trust the shots we should be hitting and have worked on. This is very psychological. We have too much pride to maybe lose this game so we resort back to what we're comfortable with and what we've done all along. This also happens when we get tired. When we're fatigued we usually fall back into our old habits.
I like to use this example for the pressure we feel in competition. You're serving down 9-10. Would you trust hitting a lob serve? Maybe you've even had some success with the lob serve during the match. What would you be thinking at this stage if you considered doing one? Could you hit this serve without your conscious mind getting in the way? Are you able to block out the negative thoughts? 'Don't serve out.' 'What if I miss? That would be a horrible way to lose the game.' What if you served out previously in the match? Do you have the belief and courage to go right back to it? Do you think you would feel the extra tension in your arm? If you do, do you shy away from it? We all play the scoreboard and I wouldn't tell someone they have to hit a lob serve at this stage of the match. If you're not 100% committed to the shot you will probably not execute it the way you normally do in practice. In the case of the lob serves this means you may hit it out or so far off the wall it's not effective whatsoever.
The next time you play don't focus on the score, hit the shot you think is best regardless of the score. If you want to reach your potential this is how you have to play. This is how you'll improve long term. Learning to handle your nerves and play your best in competition has a lot to do with preparation, but is also very psychological. Keep playing the best shot so you learn how to fight off the self-destructive thoughts and control your nerves. If you have ever been in the zone when you've played you'll know that the mind is quiet. Your body is already programmed about what to do and you just keep your brain out of the way.
There are lessons in losses. Don't overthink them. Know when to disregard them. Use them as fuel to train harder, prepare better and improve your game. Play hard, play to win, but if you don't be gracious in defeat, learn from it and move on. Squash is a journey, not a sprint. Losing is part of sport and we don't have to like it, but we have to accept it.