Keeping Score: The Main Game
What is it about the addition of pressure that makes things so much harder? Some friends were recently telling me about their young son, who likes to play tennis with a friend. When they are just ‘mucking around’, the kids hit all sorts of amazing, impossible shots to each other and love the sheer fun they are having. They delight in what the other is doing as much as they are proud of what they are doing themselves. However, add big game pressure and it all changes. Suddenly, the main game has shifted and they're playing for real.
Big game pressure
But as soon as they start a proper game and scoring, it all changes. They know they're playing for real; they tense up, they concentrate and hunch over their rackets. Their shots become safer, more predictable – but less successful as well. And they certainly have less fun.
What’s happening here? More than likely, a whole combination of things. A key element is the desire to win. If they want to win, they fall back on the shots and techniques that should work; the ones that they have been taught and ones their coach wants them to practice for the main game. There’s method in this – if they keep applying what they have been taught, they will keep improving their game, bit by bit, through repetition and reinforcement. There is also a link between connectedness and winning, a relationship I have explored before.
Once they have spent long hours building their basic skills, their game will expand and they will be able to bring more and more exceptional play into their game. At this point their game will be solid, but they will also be capable of some innovation.
Tension, stress and playing for real
Another element is the effect of muscular tension and stress. Playing with such a focus tends to constrict and constrain, and drives out what might be termed ‘flow’ in their warm-up. Perhaps with further skill and practice they can remain disciplined but with less tension, helping them cope with big game pressure.
But stepping back from all this, an outsider might wonder – why score at all if it brings less joy? The counter is that there is a measure of joy in accomplished play – but that’s not available today. We are asked to give up the exuberance of play for the uncertain and postponed gift of mere competence. We might be playing for real, but we've lost something.
Let me know what you think in the comments – Now, read about the gift of giving.
– Tim Hill