Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Can the fear of success ever be fully resolved?

There were moments when Azarenka's old fear of success threatened to break through and help her lose the match to Brianti at Roland Garros 2012. It was a first round match. Azarenka is the top seed. It should have been a cake walk. Everyone expected her to blow Brianti off the court 6-0 6-0. Instead we almost witnessed the easy dismissal of the #1 player in the world. 

My personal belief is that her fear of success kicked in big time. The moment became too big, too much. Part of what drives the psychological fear of success is the fact from those who succeed, much is subsequently expected. Once you've been successful, the world comes to expect more from you, and those expectations can be crushing.

Back in the day Azarenka would mask her mental fear of success behind spectacular evidence of why she could not possibly be expected to succeed under the circumstances. Where others would gamely hobble off the court when injured, Azarenka would have to be carried off on a stretcher, groaning in agony, her hands or a towel covering her face covered, the very picture of despair. After such an extravagant display, surely no one could possibly doubt that she was really and truly hurting? Surely not even the cynical Tennischick would dare to query whether her pride seemed more hurt on these occasions than her limb? 

I've long wondered  if underneath Azarenka's histrionics lay a potentially crippling fear of success. If I'm correct, then it showed up painfully during her first round match at Roland Garros. If I'm right, it may show up again.

One only had to look at her body language after she went down 0-2 in the second set. Azarenka gave up. She stopped trying. At 0-3 she seemed like she wanted to burst into tears. At 0-4, you could practically see the waves of negativity spiraling off her body. Mauresmo and the rest of her team looked on woodenly, a combination of consternation and concern on their faces. 

In the post-match interview Azarenka admitted that she started thinking about the earlier flight she could catch back to Minsk. That too was an admission of how completely she had given up. 

And then a single moment turned it all around. A single second serve ace. And just like that she snapped out of it. And just like that she started fighting again, wanting to win. And just like that she reminded Brianti who was boss. And she started winning again. 

The fear of success is one that constantly needs to be addressed. I don't believe that it is ever fully resolved for any individual. The moment you start believing that you are beyond its grip is the moment you stop putting in the work to keep this monster at bay. And that work is an ongoing process of anxiety management. 

I don't mean by this to imply that the work is always difficult. Not at all. With time and practice it may become easier to recognize and to manage one's fear of success. But one must always be alert to those moments when the fear of succeeding threatens to return. And it is more likely to return just after a major breakthrough -- like winning your first Slam.

Tennis history is littered with the carcasses of careers hobbled and limited by the experience of success. Li Na's career has simply never been the same since her first Slam win. Kvitova just has not been a real threat since winning Wimbledon. Yankovic has remained a confused mess ever since surging to the #1 spot in tennis a few years ago. At the time she boasted that that would be something that she could tell her grandchildren. Already she was miles away from any thought of repeating her success. Dinara Safina no longer even plays tennis. And Oudin's breakthrough summer now looks like a fluke; she has packed on so much muscle and weight that she has become barely recognizable. These are the victims of success and the fear that sometimes accompanies it. 

By this I don't mean to give the impression that the fear of success is the only factor that may be interfering with these individuals' performance. There may have been other additional explanations, such as making changes in a winning formula. Players suddenly change coaches upon succeeding. They find new trainers who convince them that their team may no longer be adequate now that they are on top. They attract new endorsements and find themselves required to change their equipment or their fashion. Or it may be as simple as starting to eat out more often because they can now afford to, when their bodies were in fact used to a simpler diet that may itself have been part of their success. 

It's important to know when and if to change a winning formula. But part of that formula is also psychological. And just because you have the talent and ability to play tennis well does not mean that you have the psychological fortitude to handle succeeding at it.

Individuals with no fear of success have the ability to become single-minded and focused in their goal to achieve more. People with no fear of success actually have the ability to visualize themselves succeeding. They go into a match with a mental template of what they need to do to win. They have all of the moves already mapped out, all the points and counterpoints fully visualized. They have mentally rehearsed the steps toward their success. They do not contemplate failure. The excitement of competing is interpreted as a positive, addicting experience. They become flushed with positive thoughts and accompanying positive emotions.

(Part 2 of 2)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Does Li Na have a fear of success?

Yes I know that it has been a minute since I updated this blog. There are many factors that contributed to my neglect. One is that I played league tennis this spring. I will tell you about that experience another time. Suffice it for now to say that I will never play league tennis again. I'm done with that crap. League tennis is all about manipulation and politics. I don't have the patience for either.

So because my schedule overnight became spectacularly busy – between league tennis, a new house, a demanding full-time job, and a new boss whose expectations of staff have been enough to induce burnout – the blog ended up suffering. In fact, as I write right now, I am choosing not to work on one of six or ten reports due yesterday. It has been overwhelming.

But I decided today, after watching Li Na pull yet another defeat from the jaws of a decisive victory, that I just had to make the time to comment on this. After all, this is not the first time Li Na has done this. Indeed, this has been a distinct pattern to many of her performances. Some time ago there was a match against Clijsters in which Li Na had so many match points it was embarrassing. Yet she lost.

It's tempting to give some credit to the fact that the guy who used to coach Li Na is now coaching Sharapova. After all, Hogstedt probably knows Li Na's weaknesses better than she knows them herself, and may have had some suggestions for Sharapova about how to engineer a win. But the truth is that today's loss had less to do with Sharapova. Li Na was up 6-4 4-0. And then she quite simply imploded. And just like that I became inspired to write about the psychological fear of success.

It's a fear I can personally relate to. I find it psychologically easier to lose at tennis. Losing for me is no big deal. I don't beat myself up. In fact, I sometimes go into some matches with the mindset that I could give a crap and that whatever happens happens. And when I lose – and such an attitude practically guarantees that I will – well then I dust myself off and move on to the next match. I tell myself that I play tennis because I love it, not because I need to win at it. And I swear that this is true.

True or not, that is the kind of thinking that characterizes people with a fear of success. The underlying problem for such individuals – myself most painfully included – is difficulty managing the anxiety generated by the experience of psychological arousal in a competitive situation. That kind of arousal that is so enjoyable to the truly competitive, like Sharapova, for me feels like a kind of trauma. When I decide that I don't care if I win or lose, I do not become aroused and therefore experience no anxiety. But the problem is that you need to experience some anxiety in order to win. A lackadaisical, laissez-faire mellow attitude is all well and good – but it has no place in a competitive tennis match.

Of course all arousals are not created equal. Sexual arousal, for example, is a kind of arousal that I have been known to enjoy very much. Same for the arousal I feel when I read an exciting murder mystery or watch a thrilling movie. But the arousal of competing is anathema to me. So I bail.

I wonder if this may also be true for Li Na. Nothing else explains why she so often loses matches just when she is on the decisive point of winning, particularly during the pressure of a big finals. In the past she would discharge the anxiety by yelling at her husband. And for a while he stopped being her coach and the yelling also stopped. But anxiety needs to be discharged so that it does not interfere.

Psychologists also believe that some individuals with a fear of success may be crippled by the unconscious belief that they are not deserving of such success. They fail because of an unconscious pathogenic belief that they are losers anyway so why mess with the status quo.

What negates this for me is the evidence that the fear of success is not all-encompassing. Within the same individual it can exist in some domains and not at all in others. For me, the fear of success is specific to tennis, and it is associated with past trauma experiences that are specifically linked to this sport that I love. In other aspects of my life, I am not only competitive, I am a confident winner.

It's no big deal to me therefore that the fear of success interferes with my tennis game because I have no intention of ever being a professional tennis player. And like I said, I will never play league tennis again because thereby lies the complex mix of factors that make my anxiety worse, that trigger the kind of toxic arousal that I cope with by telling myself that none of it matters, that I could give a shit, that really who cares?

But Li Na does not have the luxury of this kind of self-talk. She has chosen to be a professional tennis player. But if you trace her career you will see evidence of ambivalence over this career path. There was a time when she quit tennis altogether and decided to become a journalist. The single-minded ones like Sharapova have no fear of success. On the contrary, they become hooked on it. Competing inspires them. The arousal of competing is addictive for them. And that is also why Maria beat Li Na today.

(Part 1 of 2)