Today I'm going to talk about the psychology of playing who we perceive to be stronger players, perhaps even people we believe are out of our leagues. I don't think I can go a post without using a quote and this topic reminds me of this one, 'limitations live only in our minds.' I truly believe we are all capable of much more than we believe. In sports we often give our opponents too much credit and undervalue our own abilities and strengths. Today we are going to look at some ways to change our mindset to help us prepare for success even when we are a self declared underdog.
I've played a lot of matches over the years. I've played as the underdog, the favourite and many that could have gone either way. It is no doubt easier psychologically going into a match as the underdog as we have nothing to lose. Although when I hear someone say this I do joking point out that 'you do have the match to lose!' Even though I'm joking I don't want a player going into the match thinking it's a forgone conclusion and there is nothing left to play for. If we go into a match believing that we are a major underdog and have no chance at winning, we might be wasting an excellent opportunity to improve, measure our game and perhaps even pull off a big upset.
Redefine Success: I remember often being nervous when I played someone I thought was better than me. Nobody wants to get embarrassed on the squash court. There's nowhere to hid if things aren't going your way. When I was young and playing a stronger player I would always try and protect my ego by saying that one day I will get to this level, I'm just not quite there yet. I feel like by doing this I didn't give myself the best chance of being successful at that moment. Maybe success wasn't winning the match, but perhaps success was something different, like proving that I belong. If we just keep telling ourselves this we will eventually be more focused on the future and missed out on wonderful opportunities in the current moment which we could have potential won.
Staying Focused On The Process: sometimes I found myself doing better than I expected in these matches and a few times I let near wins slip away. We see the light at the end of the tunnel and it distracts us. It can be much more challenging than it sounds, but when you're near the end you can't be thinking just that. When I got close to beating someone I thought was stronger than me I started thinking too much about the possibility of winning and beating this great player. Once we start to see the finish line or that we actually have a chance our focus often shifts and we lose the zone we were in that got us in this great position. Regardless of level I assume this has happened to all of us at some point. Maybe some of us undervalue our own ability, while other times our opponent is just not quite up to par that day and we have a real chance of winning. So how do we go in believing we can win? And how can we prepare ourselves psychologically to take advantage of these rare opportunities when they present themselves?
Anything Can Happen Mindset: when we go into a match as an underdog I know I often tried to do too much, thinking I needed to do something extra special to beat this person. When I did this, I simply gave my opponent free points and easy openings. We need to make these players beat us and prove that they are better than us on that day. Just because someone has more rankings points or has a more successful past, does not guarantee that they will be successful on this given day. Go in and play to win regardless of who you're playing! We play the game because anything can happen. This is why even you can bet on even the most lopsided sporting matches. It may not always happen, or even often, but it doesn't mean that it won't today.
Give 100% For Every Point of Every Match: Everyone has a physical and psychological breaking point, even those that seem indestructible! You never know when it could happen or who it could happen to, so you have to keep you head down and keep battling for each and every point. Someone may look great in the warmup, but as soon as they get into an extended rally you can tell that their game begins to show some cracks. Even if you lose that match, you may have been close than you thought. Maybe all it takes to crack through and get the big win is getting a good start or 1 or 2 extended rallies; maybe then the person you thought was on a pedestal is within your grasps. If you have any doubts just remember that your opponent does, they just may be better at hiding it.
Prepare For Competition To The Best Of Your Ability: all we can really do is prepare the best we can for competition. We can't worry about what our opponent has or hasn't done. If we're playing a player of a high caliber we may give them more credit than they deserve. You don't know how they are feeling and how well they have prepared. As the saying goes, 'failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.' If you've prepared for the match you have to believe you always have a chance. If you've prepared properly you should feel confident. If you've prepared you should also be able to withstand the extra running you may have to endure. I've seen many more technically skilled players lose because they weren't fit enough; this is why proper physical preparation for competition is so important to success.
Winning Breeds Confidence: sometimes it just takes a win against a top player to believe in yourself and your ability to compete at that level. The more chances you get to play a stronger player the more likely you are to get that win. Losing too much isn't good ether, but neither is winning all the time. The top players that always win will feel pressure to continue getting these flawless results. I think it's important to play against people weaker, stronger and at your own level. Many people prefer only playing people at their level or stronger, but it's against weaker opponents we learn how to handle that pressure of being the favourite and also get to work on closing out games/matches and controlling points. And as this subtitle goes, winning breads confidence, regardless of the opponents level.
Set Mini Goals: when playing a stronger player I like to set mini goals. Sometimes it will be to get a game, or get a certain amount of points. Other times it will be to extend the length of the match and the duration of the rallies. If I'm playing a stronger opponent I should always leave the court completely spent. Other goals I like to set include my tactics. I like to focus on something simple like getting my opponent behind me and off the T. I don't know many players that can consistently beat me from the back of the court. At the end of the match I really want to make sure that my opponent had to work hard for the win. I may be exhausted and have covered more court, but I want to see that they are tired too. If I can do this against a stronger opponent I will feel pretty satisfied with my progress.
Slightly Shift Your Tactics: today seems to be the day of quotes, so here's one more! 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.' In squash this isn't so straight forward. It's can be difficult to tell if we have the right ideas, but are just unable to execute them well enough. If you believe your tactic is right, keep trying it over and over. I see many people give up on their tactics, because they are trying to do too much to beat this superhuman player. Although if you keep trying the same type of game and it isn't working, maybe it's time to switch it up just a little. Sometimes 1 small change is all it takes. Changing your serve, the pace your hitting the ball or your shot selection can pay real dividends. Even strong players have areas that aren't as good as the rest; do you know what it is? Can you exploit it? Or maybe you've become too predictable and you need to try a new trick. Make sure you don't play outside of your ability though or you will be giftwrapping the match to your opponent.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this topic as it could really be an entire book or series of books all in itself. The mental game is something under-taught and difficult to measure. I know the toughest opponents I've ever faced were all fearless and always gave 100%; they didn't care who was on court with them or what the score was and they were always prepared for a battle. The good news is that being mentally tough and always giving 100% is a goal that is realistic for all of us, regardless of our skill level. If you want a good book about underdogs check out David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. This book will probably get you to think twice about how we define underdogs and favourites. Here's the link to it on Amazon:
Thanks again to everyone for reading my blog and sending me feedback. If you have any suggestions for future posts please feel free to send them along. Working at a school I also have some flexibility in the months of June-August each year. If any of you would like me to run a squash camp at your club or come to you for some personalized coaching sessions feel free to send me an email. I've also recently started doing some private video analysis for some clients across the globe. I'm always looking for opportunities to expand my squash networking around the world. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any topic post suggestions or business related inquiries.