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The loneliness of the long distance tennis player


Here’s a really interesting essay by Brittany Collens on what it’s like to try to “make it” as a professional tennis player:

The tournament week is starting, and match preparations are finalizing. At dinner with Magdalena and her coach, I tell her how jealous I am that she gets to travel with a coach. That can be a huge advantage – not only because you have someone watching you play and letting you know what you are doing right and wrong, but also because you simply have someone there to support you in person.

This is one of my biggest struggles. I call my coach, who is located in Boston, after my matches, but sometimes I can’t even tell him what went wrong. It’s one thing to play a match and another thing to see it.

Then, there are times when I don’t even want to call. I don’t want to tell my coach that I lost because I struggled with confidence. This feeling often drowns tennis players. No one wants to admit it out loud, usually for two reasons:

Doubts and anxieties can be detrimental to performance, so many of us subscribe to the Fake It To Make It method: If you can pretend your nerves aren’t there, then are they, really?

On the other hand, talking about your anxiety – which can be healthy! – also can signal to your coaches, sponsors, or opponents that you’re struggling. If they don’t believe in you, or if they perceive “weakness,” it can be a disadvantage on and off the court.

This typically leads to a vicious cycle of overthinking. You convince yourself that you are worthy, and then you get mad at yourself when you show signs of cracking. You flip back and forth emotionally. It can consume you.

Sitting with Magdalena at dinner is refreshing. She gets right into it. I tell her I am writing a piece on anxiety and tennis, and she immediately says, “Now let me tell you, why don’t we talk about this more?”

She starts talking about a feeling that I know all too well. It’s the worst kind of anxiety on the court. The kind that impacts your body’s ability to move. All of a sudden, you really believe that you don’t know how to play tennis. This is weird for us, considering that we’ve played tennis all our lives.

She says, “My arm goes numb and then tight.” I think about my best friend in college when she says this. My friend had the “serving yips,” which is what we call it when you can’t release the ball on the toss properly, causing it to go all over the place.

I come back to Magdalena’s experience. I wonder, does she really feel this to the same level that I do sometimes? It’s hard to tell. On the inside, it feels terrible. But on the outside, you often can’t see that a player is going through it.

I find the mental side of elite athletic performance particularly fascinating. For instance, Rafa Nadal, one of the three greatest tennis players of all time, has always been remarkably candid about how nervous he gets in the middle of matches, how he struggles with doubts, how he has to fight to control his emotions so that they don’t interfere too much with his play.

To a complete outsider to elite athletic performance such as myself, this just seems weird. Nadal has won 21 majors and 91 ATP tournaments; he’s been ranked in the world top ten every single week since April of 2005. I imagine that if I were Nadal I would just walk on the court and stare at the opponent and unless it was one of about three other guys he would pretty much collapse mentally right there (this does actually seem to happen sometimes at the French Open tbf).

But obviously this is very wrong. The mental struggle for even the very greatest players is clearly very real and constant. In terms of simple economics, professional tennis is an extremely brutal sport: the #1 player in the world will make tens of millions of dollars in purses and endorsements this year; the 50th best player will have a seven-figure income; and the 250th best player will struggle to simply cover all the expenses of playing.

Now the casual fan will think of the 250th best player as somebody who is “not very good,” in that even if you’re a hardcore fan you almost certainly will never have heard of this player, let alone seen them actually play.

But that attitude is, when you think about it, basically insane. David Foster Wallace wrote a great essay on this topic more than 25 years ago:

You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.

So many things go into making or far more likely not making it in an elite sport. In addition to the genetic necessity of having been born with a freakish amount of native ability, you have to have a freakish natural ability not to get injured, or rather not get injured too much (For example, people don’t think of tennis as a contact sport, but the extreme torque professional players put on their joints and muscles, tens of thousands of times in single month, would destroy an ordinary body fairly quickly. Collens mentions in passing that so many of her doubts arise from the simple matter of when not if she is going to get injured again).

And you have to have a freakish ability to handle levels of mental and emotional performance pressure that most people can’t handle, because most people can never develop the necessary levels of focus, single-mindedness, self belief, etc.

Plus of course you need the support, both financial and emotional, that will let you actually develop all of your freakish physical and mental gifts in an optimal way.

I was thinking about all this a few days ago when I encountered yet another story about an elite young woman athlete who died by suicide. There have been several such cases in just the past few months in the USA alone. People think being a great athlete is glamorous, and in some ways it is or can be; but it is also clearly a very lonely thing to be, in ways that we outsiders can barely understand.

That ultimately is what Collens is writing about, and what she says is worth thinking about.

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