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)


brian said...

does kaia kanepi also fear success?

Klaas said...

Interesting point of view. In my own experience, it is not the fear of success, but the fear of failure which completely freezes you. Especially when there are many onlookers and you value their judgment in some degree.

tennischick said...

People often confuse the fear of success with the fear of failure. Trust me they are not the same. What I wrote about IS the fear of success. But I will, thanks to your comment, also write a piece about the fear of failure.

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