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The Rollercoaster Psyche

DEUCE

Stephen Huss© Getty ImagesAustralian Stephen Huss celebrates after winning the Open Sud de France doubles title with Ross Hutchins this past October.

Riding the high of his Montpellier doubles triumph, Australian Stephen Huss assesses the effect on-court performance can have on an athlete’s off-court self image.

As I walked through the train station at Lyon Part-Dieu after the recent Montpellier ATP World Tour 250 event, I was suddenly aware of a change in me. I was smiling, walking very upright, making eye contact with strangers – and I even tried my very limited French out on the ticket guy when I had to change my ticket. He upgraded me to first class, by the way. Maybe he saw the same thing I realised I was feeling. Confidence. My doubles partner Ross Hutchins and I had won the final earlier that day and I was feeling pretty good about myself. It really got me to thinking how I, and professional athletes in general, view ourselves.

Renowned sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr says that athletes should divide themselves into two personalities. He calls them ‘The Real Self’ and ‘The Performer Self’. The performer self is we as athletes and captures us when we compete and train for our sport. The real self is the person we actually are in our normal lives, and Dr. Loehr says that we need to distinguish between the two and not let our performer self affect our real self.

Good in theory, but as tennis players we are judged every day and that is very hard not to take to heart. In an elevator in Moscow recently, I bumped into a couple of fellow Australians who saw the tennis bag I was carrying and asked how the tournament was going. I told them I lost in the second round. “Oh that’s no good,” was the curt reply. I wonder if they were in the Top 100 people in the world in their chosen field?

“As tennis players we are judged every day and that is very hard not to take to heart”

It is not just the guy in the elevator either. The media is guilty by labelling guys like Thomas Johansson a ‘journeyman’ and Max Mirnyi a ‘doubles specialist’. Johansson won a Grand Slam title and accrued $7 million in prize money. Mirnyi had a highest singles ranking of 18 and finished the year in the Top 100 singles players nine times. Did he not specialise in singles? It does not seem to me it is something he was just dabbling in while concentrating on doubles.

The vast majority of people in society are not scored or judged on their performance every day like we are. Each Grand Slam starts with 128 competitors in singles and 64 doubles teams, yet there are only three people who will finish as winners. That’s a lot of losing going on for a lot of people.

Any player who plays professional tennis needs to learn to deal with this week in, week out, year in, year out. Dealing with adversity, being resilient and persevering through difficult times can often be as important as forehands and backhands to the tour player. Former ATP World Tour player Vince Spadea lost 21 straight matches yet returned to the Top 50 and had a career that almost any aspiring tennis player would sign up for. If I were picking players in the schoolyard, there is one winner I would want to have on my team.

Yet we players also see the sunny side of this arrangement. I have won a doubles tournament at the Futures level before and been hailed a champion in the small town where it was played. Texts and emails flood in with congratulations building the self esteem. Yet if I am ranked 750 spots higher, competing at Wimbledon during the same week and have a first-round loss I am a failure?

HussWe can lose one week and then come right back and win the next week, turning our self image and body language around in a matter of days. There are many opportunities for us and as much as the rollercoaster can go down it can also take us right back up. A ‘lucky loser’, somebody who has lost in a last round of qualifying, can get into the main draw through an injury to another player and have a shot to win the title. That is despite a loss. It happens, probably more than you think. The average worker avoids the scrutiny on a weekly basis but is also unable to increase their paycheck tenfold in a particularly successful week the way we can.

As much as we players try to control our ‘real self’ we can’t help rising a little with each victory and dropping a little with each loss. In a lot of players it is quite evident to see, so next time you are at a tournament try to take note of a player’s body language, their temperament on court or the way they interact with people and fans. WTA player Elena Dementieva recently retired but sounded like she had found peace and wisdom when she said, “You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to try hard. I did that all the time.” Pure class if you ask me.

In early October, I returned home from an exhausting travel schedule with very average tournament results, an impending cold and a back injury. I complained to my wife about almost everything and just wanted to stay at home. The contrast to how I feel after a tournament victory could not be more profound. Sorry Dr. Loehr, although I have read your books I guess they have not quite sunken in. For now, I think I will keep walking around with my chest pumped out just a little..... At least until the next tournament!  

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