The Deal With Doubt
Shake Off Those Second-Guesses and Play!
As I packed my one Black Knight “Boron” racquet and headed uptown to my first junior tournament (the 1987 TSI Fall Classic), my coach, Geoff Mitchell, offered some advice: develop a solid match preparation routine. He suggested that as a warm-up I hit five of each shot on both sides of the court. Had I followed his advice religiously, I think I would have avoided years of questionable match play. As it happened, I ignored it. I was on my way to my first tournament, I was on my own and old enough, I thought, not to take advice from anyone.
All through the juniors I struggled to find a pre-match routine that worked for me. Sometimes I went through an elaborate warm-up complete with biking, hitting and stretching, and other times I'd sit courtside chatting to parents, friends or coaches, hoping that by denying the inevitability of the match, I could circumvent the nerves that followed me onto the court. Since I flip-flopped between these approaches so frequently, I am unable to say which method was more successful. In college the question of how to warm up was taken out of my hands. Since somewhere in a dusty book hidden away in a dark vault it is mandated that women's squash teams warm up by dancing around a tape recorder playing Madonna and the theme from Rocky, I spent four years kicking up my heels like a rejected dancer from “Soul Train.” I got nice and sweaty, and was usually even ready to play.
Soon after college, when my squash goals became more diverse and less clear, my warm-up routine disintegrated again. I watched as the true professionals shut themselves off before they played, enacting strange rituals with jump ropes and massage balls. I struggled between going through the motions of warming up and doing away with the warm-up all together. Finally I realized that through all the waffling between warming up properly and not doing so at all, I had created my own ritual—every time I stepped on court, I did so wrapped tightly in a cloud of self-doubt.
Doubt became my greatest comfort, a companion that never left my side. Doubt was my warm-up, my safety blanket. I knew that I was finally ready to play when I found some crack in my armor through which I could squeeze enough doubt to taint my play. I became so used to doubting myself, that to play without it would have seemed uncomfortable, unnatural, like playing without socks or barefoot.
Doubt is a great distraction and a wonderful chameleon—sometimes it can be self-inflicted and others it can arise from a given situation. No matter how hard I trained I could always generate some worry that would undermine my current fitness—the recent need to see what drinking gin and heavy cream would do to my body or what happens in the “violet hour” between five and six in the morning. One little scar in a week, or even a month, of perfect training was enough to destroy my confidence and help create the warm nest of doubt that never left my side. When I could find no obvious floodgate for doubt to enter my head, I became a genius at creating one. If I had drawn an opponent whom I was capable of comfortably beating, I chose to play the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game”: I would run through a list of players she had beaten, looking for someone who had had beaten someone who had beaten me several years ago, until finally I had come up with a reasonable reason that I could lose. It was a long shot, but it was enough to make the match tougher than it needed to be.
At the last few tournaments I played, I decided to disallow my doubtful guest. I tried my best to turn away from the comfort doubt provided and ignore all the worries that flew into my head like a flock of clay pigeons that demanded to be shot down. Instead I let them fall unaddressed. It was a difficult task, like consciously leaving the cap off the toothpaste or the milk out of the fridge. The maze of thinking in which I usually submerged myself before getting on court had to be ignored, although it tempted me with its familiarity. But when all the usual comforts of my insecure thoughts were taken away, they took with them all the pre-packaged excuses for losing, which allowed me to play with an unfamiliar clarity. I'm not sure that I can say whether I believed in myself any more than usual, but I certainly managed to doubt myself less—and there is a difference between the two.
The result was a strange feeling, almost like being someone else, like being one of those focused players whose head isn't running through all the possible reasons she could lose at a given moment. I was able to actually think about squash. However, since I'm only at the beginning, I didn't complete the exercise perfectly, allowing worries about losing to flood my head at a certain match ball. (I was up 8-1 but squeaked in a win at 10-9).
I think I'm heading in the right direction. The next time you see me warming up, I'll be the one doing the strange things with the jump rope and singing “Eye of the Tiger.”