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43. How Do You Sabotage Yourself?

Many years ago Timothy Galway wrote a book called 'The Inner Game of Tennis'. Up till then, sports coaching had largely focussed on technique, strategies and practice, the 'outer game'. But anyone who regularly endured the excruciating experience of watching Tim Henman play an important match will know that the most technically perfect game can become exceedingly imperfect within a very short time. 'The Inner Game' looked at why that happens, how people sabotage their game, and the principles in that book were taken and used in a series of other books - The Inner Game of Work, Music, Golf, Stress. This week's tip is about how, despite all our undoubted talents, we sometimes manage to scupper our chances in important situations. I've used the example of playing tennis, but please, feel free to apply it to any 'game' you play... I remember the first time I saw Tim Henman play at Wimbledon and thinking, yes, he could go far - he seemed to have that unflappable resilience that characterises the top players. It turned out I was wrong, and his proclivity for 'losing it' at some stage in pretty well every match he's ever played was probably the single factor that stopped him winning a grand slam tournament. He had a great game, and plenty of determination, but there was something he did inside his head at crucial moments that stopped him from getting to the top. Sometimes we can explain a 'bad tennis day' by being short of sleep, having consumed five times the recommended daily intake of alcohol the night before, forgetting our glasses, the effects of the wind, the rain, the sun in our eyes; but more often than not it has precious little to do with external conditions and everything to do with what happens inside our heads. How do people sabotage their game? Everybody has their pet ways of ruining their game. Here are some of the more common ones that many of us employ before and during a match:

  • before the match, remembering a previous match when we played appallingly, and imagining doing so again

  • imagining the opposing team as marauding amazons

  • worrying that the person we're playing with will be angry whenever we put a ball out

  • every time we make a mistake calling ourselves things we wouldn't call our worst enemy (A man I used to play with, on making an error, would bellow 'Corpse!', much to the alarm of any new partner).

  • Comparing ourselves with the other players and concluding that we're the worst.

  • When we lose a game, assuming we'll lose the match.

  • Repeatedly telling ourselves how badly we're playing today

  • When the ball comes our way, worrying that we're going to bungle it (like last time).

  • Allowing the opposing team to wind us up (eg by bad calls, lobbing all their balls, nit-picking over the rules, complaining about the conditions)

  • Getting annoyed with our partner (eg for tut-tutting every time we make a mistake, giving unsolicited advice, making lots of mistakes, taking all the balls)

  • Worrying about getting nervous (postgraduate level self-sabotage, because it involves having negative emotions about negative emotions)

It's stating the obvious to say, but I'll say it anyway, that if you're doing all this not only will you damage your performance through stress, but you'll have very little time to concentrate on what you're doing. How do you sabotage your game? I was once coaching a woman who had an important meeting coming up. 'How do you think you might sabotage the chances of it going well?' I asked. She was fluent on the subject. Most of us know what we do to ruin our chances, and do them anyway. You may do some variation on the above, but you'll undoubtedly have your own, special techniques. Try this: 1. Think of a time when you had something important to do, where you wanted to perform well, but you didn't perform as well as you know you can. (It might be a meeting, a presentation, an exam, a game, a conversation, a party, whatever) 2. What was the very first thing you did to sabotage your performance? Did you worry about it in advance? Did you think you were going to do badly before you started? Did you start worrying about the 'opposition'? What thoughts were going through your head at that time? How did those thoughts make you feel, and how did they affect your performance? Try and track what happened and make a list of the things you were thinking and doing that compromised your performance. 3. Think of something important that is coming up for you in the near future. How might you sabotage your chances of doing well? 4. What might you do differently? Have a good week.... Anita