Playing Free

November 14, 2008




Masaaki Tajima

By Masaaki Tajima, Certified National Level Coach

I see players who can play above their level when playing against higher rated players but below their level when up against a lower rated player or, in practice, as an example, they can play at 2000 level but in matches, down to 1700. I am sure you been there or seen it often. It’s hard to overcome this behavior because it’s not as simple as telling them stop thinking about ratings or winning and losing, relax, stop being so tight and just play or explaining logically and rationally even to intelligent educated adults, because the fear of losing is innate in all of us. It’s difficult to overcome because competition defines clearly winners and losers and appears to define ones worthiness.

As an example, when I play matches with my students, they often play above their usual level because they know I am not a threat to their sense of self-esteem so they are freer about their shot selection. Their behavior is similar when they play other higher- level players because they see it as a challenge and an opportunity rather than a threat.

Higher-level player on the other hand, often play to survive, not giving full effort thinking that if they tried hard and lost, the loss to their ego is greater. By not giving full effort, they can always convince themselves they lost because they didn’t really try, believing that this lessened the impact of the loss. The tragedy of this behavior is that they increase the possibility of losing. They behave this way to protect their sense of image, ego and self-esteem, being defensive; they are playing not to lose instead of playing to win.

It is difficult to overcome this fear of losing because we are, a complex mix of inherited behaviors, chemical, social and environmental factors that makes us who and what we are. In our society, we learn that our sense of self-worth depends largely on our ability to win. To win is to be successful, competent and be worthy persons, to lose is failure, incompetent and unworthy. This threat of unworthiness is the fundamental reason for the fear, whether self-imposed or by other factors.

The solution is to remove this threat, that is, to become self-aware, have clear and accurate assessment of our behaviors, to discover who and what we are. This discovery gives us awareness in that we are all worthy persons regardless of talent level and that in the end, winning doesn’t equate to success. Successful players define themselves not by the win factor, level of rating or ranking but in how they play. In whatever sport, they became successful because they found self-worth and identity not in the results but in what they do and how they do it; “the journey, not the destination”.

I often query my overly anxious, nervous and fearful students; “you can’t play the way you want because you see your opponent as a threat while I see my opponents as a partner who is there to help me play.” An example of this is, players who tries to end the point, not technically because it was the right shot to take, but emotionally. They don’t want the ball to come back because that means they have to “win” the point again, often making more errors than winners; the relief behavior. When I see this, I also tell them “ why do you want to end the point? Did you not come so you can play?” The philosophy here is, ultimately, players want to experience the excitement and the thrill of making the shot, not necessarily to win the shot, but because they want to experience that feeling of playing free.

Who We Are

We all want the sport to become mainstream, attain marquee status because it satisfies our innate desire for fame, recognition and self-worth. But these desires are also detrimental if you don’t have the right approach on why you play. Attaining self-awareness, define the reasons, in order, why you play, gives you this direction.

If you believe you have high level of talent, realistic expectations, high sense of self-esteem, peerless agility and dexterity, no mental or emotional hang-ups, no vicarious parents or peer pressure that can distract you from your path, with no worries about how you can earn a living and why you chose this sport and unconcerned where it is headed, find the biggest club and the best practice partner money can buy and hire him/her as trainer/practice partner and you will do well. But this is not reality, here or even for the rest of the world.

To play free, we need to become self-aware as to who and what we are, strengths, weaknesses, limitations and setting the stage for an environment of personal as well as athletic growth because the two are inseparably related. Success in sports is not merely attaining wealth or recognition, winning by defeat of others and the sense of ascension, or achievement never thought possible, but identity that give us real confidence and completeness.

Too many are fixated on self-image, of winning, rankings, titles and recognition, doing whatever to win, believing this is the answer to their sense of self-worth that in the end is self-defeating. The key to athletic or any other success, is building the whole person regardless of their talent level that leads to real sense of self-worth and confidence. We play or do what we do because unconsciously, we are all looking for this sense of identity, acceptance, being connected that justifies or have meaning for our existence.




Table Tennis

Playing Free

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