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)


Anonymous said...

This is a subject near and dear... Can't wait for Part 2.
Glad that you're back. Love from North Hollywood

Mark @ Tennisopolis said...

Thanks for writing this - this is what I was thinking deep down in my subconscious as I watched this match fizzle for Na. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but she seemed so happy that the match was over so she could relax.

Courtney said...

I ,also, loved part 1 of 2 of your article. In your next article, I hope you delve into the complexity of league tennis for us who can relate. Thank you, for doing what you do.

tennischick said...

Thanks for all comments and for your patience with my writing schedule.