It can teach us life lessons, but it’s not always that deep.
"I'm going to go out there and prove I'm a good person."
This declaration was made by a young woman who was an excellent tennis player and even better person. It was during a sport psychology session, and we had been discussing her struggles handling pressure and staying focused during critical points, both of which require mental skills that, if honed, can serve a player not only on court but also in life.
So I knew (or thought I knew) what she was getting at. She had a big competition coming up, and she wanted to convince herself she had what it takes to do well. But it was deeper than that for her. Tennis was a core part of her identity, and having accepted the notion that “tennis is life,” this tournament felt like a referendum on her goodness as a person.
The thing is, she was already a good person. Believing that she had to prove it through her tennis raised the stakes in her mind to intolerable levels and, paradoxically, made it harder for her to play well. If she could decouple her performance on court from her personal value, then she could treat tennis like a game and start to have fun. This became a primary focus of our sport psychology work. Rather than viewing a competition as a forum for proving her worth, we agreed that “it’s not all that deep.” With this perspective on competition, she would either be a good person who had a great tournament or a good person who wasn’t satisfied with her play. She would much rather be the former, but either way, she would like the person in the mirror.
Certainly, tennis (and sports in general) can be a great vehicle for learning life lessons and developing desirable personal qualities. It can teach us how to set and pursue goals, persist through adversity, and embrace hard work – just to name a few. Kudos to coaches and parents who help young players foster these positive characteristics. Yet there is a risk in emphasizing these life lessons too much. If we see our children’s every move as an indicator of their emerging goodness or lack thereof, then we make each competition (and sometimes each practice) a high-stakes event. It’s hard for a kid to have fun under those circumstances. For that matter, it’s hard for an adult.
Seeing tennis as more than a game can add to an individual’s motivation and drive. However, most of the players who struggle psychologically are over-motivated rather than under-motivated, and tying their performance to life skills usually adds to their anxiety rather than elevates their performance. Like the individual described above, it makes a tennis match feel like a trial rather than an opportunity to compete and do what you love.
This is not to say we ought to stop talking about sport and character development, but rather to keep the “sport teaches life lessons” sentiment on the back burner most of the time. Instead, we can provide the ingredients a person needs to develop at their own pace – a supportive environment, timely and accurate feedback, and opportunities both to succeed and to struggle – and watch proudly as they learn and grow.