Recently, I was talking with a friend about a problem he was having with his tennis game. He had come back to competitive play after a brief hiatus. In the conversation, he identified the problem of his wandering concentration, of large, multi-game gaps where he went somewhere else, much to the detriment of his play. So, we talked about drills he could use to stay focused, to sit the straying puppy mind. Then, he wrote me an email saying that he thought the problem was connected to his fitness level, and I wrote back agreeing that as fitness wanes, so too concentration. Then he wrote again saying that he thought that what the problem really needed was a thorough assessment. Again, I had to agree. So, since that conversation, the issue of assessment has been on my mind.
Most club-level, or even league-level players tend to solve problems in their games with an equipment change. It’s the easiest, least invasive procedure, promising the latest “game-improving” technology. But a quick peek into any golfer’s closet will reveal many such quick fixes: discarded putters and drivers by the dozen that were going to be The Answer. These rejected solutions hint at a truth we all know too well: retail therapy feels good in the moment, but doesn’t go very far in solving more pervasive, underlying issues. So, I have had the following thoughts for any athlete looking to improve, beat their nemesis, and achieve new personal bests:
Fitness. At any and every skill level, fitness will be a major factor in winning or losing, even in sports that don’t look all that physically demanding. Just look at what Tiger Woods has shown the world about fitness in the golf game. Most players use their regular play to get fit for their sport. But, if they were to dedicate even one workout slot per week to improving their anaerobic capacity, they would be amazed at the result. It’s not just concentration that frays with fatigue, but everything does. Everything. Another way of saying this is that without a good fitness base, every problem in a close contest will be one of fitness. So, get that problem out of the way.
Willingness. The next most important skill in assessing problems is really a frame of mind rather than one of technique: a willing attitude toward hearing or seeing the problem as it is. I recently read an article that reviewed findings from a study on self-assessment.** The bad news was that it turns out we are pretty bad self-assessors, and further, we tend to inflate our abilities in just those areas in which we have a weakness. Experts call this problem a problem of metacognition, which is, in essence, the ability to get some distance from our own thoughts. An additional dimension to this syndrome is how entrenched it is. We don’t give up our incorrect assessments easily. We tend to believe what we believe. So, in order to assess problems in our games we have to be both willing to be wrong about our own thoughts about our game, and willing to hear what the real problem might be.
Data. If the article I referenced above is correct, we do need outside eyes and some quantitative data to see the problem in a new light. We don’t need to get all Moneyball on the problem, but take a lesson from your pro, videotape yourself, or track yourself on a number of relevant data points. The data will help as long as it contributes to seeing the problem for what it is, not for how you think it. You may notice that some problems are brand new to you, while others are ones you actually knew about but were somehow avoiding bringing to your fully conscious mind. The more interested you can be in discovering problems, the more open you will be to their remediation.
One unifying feature of successful assessment is the absence of ego. Generally, you will find that greater ego investments yield fewer dividends in truth. And every skill I’ve discussed above requires a diminishing of ego investment. Often, the breakdown of ego comes when we are at our wits’ end for making the same mistake for the umpteenth time, or have lost to our rival yet again. But it needn’t come to that. Rather than buying the next shiny new thing, invest in some good assessment.
*A slightly different version of this article was previously published on the website The Daily Squash Report (http://www.dailysquashreport.com/), in the column “What’s On My Mind,” March 18, 2014
**Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. 1999. Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1121-1134.