A couple weeks ago I had a frustrating, uncomfortable, and somewhat novel experience. I lost a match that I had really wanted to win. The novel part isn’t the fact that I lost the match- I have lost many matches throughout my career. The novelty was seeing my performance decline from an already flat state straight into gutter. I cannot recall the last time I felt so unconfident in my shots, my movement, and my game as a whole.
Pre-tournament prep done right: Seattle
The previous week I had competed in Seattle, where I’d had a pretty good string of matches, only to fall up short against the number one seed. Despite the result, I felt confident throughout each game, putting up a pretty competitive fight against the #24 ranked woman in the world.
Leading up to Seattle, I had been careful not to overtrain, and was confident in my shots and fitness. (I have been on the verge of overtraining many times during my athletic career, and have realized that at a certain point, any further training will no longer be beneficial.) Aside from match play, my time in Seattle was leisurely and well spent. After a solid breakfast, I would practice for no more than one hour in the morning, ensuring to foam roll and stretch both before and after hitting. Following the hit, I would grab some lunch, before heading back to the hotel to chill out (but not nap!) before my match.
Following Seattle, I returned home to Victoria for the weekend. I took Friday off (I had played matches Tuesday through Thursday), had a massage, and did some light soloing on court. Saturday and Sunday I put in some good training sessions of no more than two hours, including drills/matches, sessions with light weights, and some movement (all separate, of course). Monday I flew to Calgary, where I had a light hit for roughly 45 minutes. Despite feeling slightly disoriented due to the increase in altitude, I still felt confident in my game.
Pre-tournament prep done wrong: Calgary
Then came Tuesday- the first day of the tournament. I did my usual light hit in the morning around 9 am before playing my match at 12:45 pm. I was fortunate to be the more experienced player, and had a fairly comfortable match against my opponent. However, I still didn’t feel quite used to the altitude, so when I was invited to hit with a couple of really solid players later that afternoon, I jumped at the chance. This is the point where things started to go downhill, and where I was too ignorant to acknowledge it.
In total, the three of us played for about an hour and a quarter. For the first 30 minutes or so, I felt pretty good- relatively fresh, and excited to play. The remainder of the practice, I felt slow and flat. Rather than stop and “give in”, I kept playing, hoping that my quality would improve. It didn’t. At the time, I gave zero thought to how this would impact my performance the next day.
At practice the next morning, my body felt fine, but my mind only felt about 80% there. Nevertheless, I was still excited to hit.
When match time arrived (5:15 pm), my body still felt fine, however my mental capacity and sharpness had declined, probably to about 70%. The first game felt pretty off, but I managed to win 11-6, thanks to some errors from my opponent. The next game was a little shakier, but I managed to grab a 9-6 lead. However, for whatever reason, at 9-6, I lost focus, and ended up losing the game 12-10. I realized after the match, that this was the pivotal point. If I had won that second game, I would have gained a huge mental edge over my opponent, as it is very difficult physically and mentally to come back from a 2-0 deficit. Unfortunately, I not only lost that game, but the following one as well, only to lose the fourth 11-8. By the last game, I felt that I was mentally performing at about 40% capacity.
What went wrong?
In sports, I believe there are such things as “bad losses”, meaning a loss to someone you are much better than and should beat. This was not a “bad loss”. My opponent was a higher ranked, very skilled player. I knew this before, during, and after the match. This said, I was perfectly capable of winning. However, when I came off the court, I couldn’t shake that same unsettling feeling which occurs after one of those “bad losses”. I kept replaying the match over and over again in my mind, trying to figure out why I played so poorly. Tactically, I knew what I had done wrong (basically everything). The issue that I couldn’t figure out was why I hadn’t been able to turn it back around.
The next day, Thursday,I tried to play squash again, and once again felt incredibly off. Not sore, not stiff, just off. Normally, if I’m not tired, I can and will play for ages. This time, I was actually glad when the 45 minute session (which included a lot of breaks) was over.
My friend had won her match that evening, so I offered to warm her up the next morning before her match. I knew we were only going to be practicing for a small amount of time, and when I stepped on the court, for the first time in 2 days, I felt excited to be there. I proceeded to have a great hit, feeling sharp and motivated, even though I wasn’t about to compete. A little strange, isn’t it?
Right after our practice, it finally dawned on me: the 3 hours of squash I had played on Tuesday, prior to my Wednesday match, had taken a toll on me, not physically, but mentally. Throughout my athletic career, I’ve learned to become weary of overtraining my body before competition. However, I somehow forgot to acknowledge the impact of training on my mind. I tend to take for granted the fact that I love to train, and since I train more than I compete, if I have a bad training day, it’s okay, I can take a day off and come back later. In competition, you need to be ready on match day. Furthermore, anything less than 100% of your best isn’t good enough. This is something I’ve realized throughout the few pro tournaments I’ve played so far- if you are not both physically and mentally at your best, your opponent will not only take you apart, but will not let you back in the match.
This is exactly how I felt during my match on Wednesday, where I couldn’t seem to grasp the confidence in my game, hence letting my opponent dictate the match.
I will always be one of those athletes who wants to do more. I am often told to “do less” when it comes to training (which I don’t like hearing, I’ll admit). However, I have learned the hard way that leading up to competitions, less is more. Leaving practice wanting more is what gives you that extra spark on game day. The excitement of competing is what feeds confidence and self-belief. The mystery and anticipation of an upcoming match is what makes you know what you’re doing is worthwhile. Entering competition with overconfidence takes away from this thrill, and makes a win all the less enjoyable. While losses are by no means fun nor pleasant, they never fail to provide a lesson to be learned, if you are willing to dig for it.