Learning by playing the mental game

My idols Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were together in interviews on BBC during Wimbledon 2014. They are such great athletes and champions who inspired so many people. Seeing them together brings back a lot of memories.

Watching tennis is more fun if you have a favourite. Especially if you play tennis and you are a young competitor yourself. My favourite was Chris Evert. I liked her style, how she composed herself, her technique and the success she had. I liked to achieve what she had achieved. Could I?

Looking back in time I remember that when I was little I played for who knows how many hours against the wall when my father was playing against my brother on court. The racket I played with belonged to my older sister. It was too big and too heavy. I was not allowed on the court yet. I don’t remember my age but I know that if this would have happened in the present, I already would have had tennis lessons for years. Not afraid and already determined I kept on practicing on my own against the wall. They would soon find out that I belonged on the tennis court.

When I was eleven years old, I played my first final at a Dutch national tournament. A great achievement for an eleven year old, coming out of nowhere in such a short time. From that moment on my passion was playing competitive tennis. I believed in myself, won a lot of tournaments and at the age of fourteen, I was still number two of the Netherlands, playing at the European Championships. It looked like I had a promising future.
As a teenager though, I had to deal with a lot of expectations: my parents and my coach expected me to win every time that I stepped on the court but they also expected me to do great at school. Between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I focussed more on improving my game and achieving tennis results than on school and friends – hence the great tennis results.

I remember the moment very well when I had to make an extremely difficult choice between tennis and school, when I was fifteen years old. It was so difficult that my sister had to speak for me. Talent only would not be enough anymore. I had to put more training hours in, getting high-level hours of training every day and switching schools. Although I did not really have a choice since my parents could not afford paying for this expensive education, they left the final decision to me. Having to deal with the consequences of this decision would become a mental challenge for me in the coming years. To ease the pain, I convinced myself that I could never achieve what Chris Evert had achieved anyway.

It was a consolation that with little training in comparison to my peers, I would remain a very good player for years to come, especially in doubles. And what’s more important, I enjoyed tennis so much. Another consolation was that I had more time for socialising with my friends and would have a Masters degree in my hands while other tennis players would have no other option than to become a tennis trainer. And so I lived on, at times enjoying the good tennis I played and at other times learning to accept that with the little training I had this was the best I could be. It was at times mentally very difficult to accept losses but it helped that I had a new goal: a Masters degree.

One more time I got the opportunity to be able to show how well I could play. At the age of 21, during my second year at the University of Utrecht, I received a scholarship to play tennis in Texas. This was an opportunity I could not resist. And what a great experience it was: playing five hours a day, in the extreme heat, very competitive, experiencing teamwork, in the USA. I’m convinced that I played my best tennis ever then and there, probably because I enjoyed so much playing tennis every day and compete a lot, without expectations from anyone and not judging myself. How wonderful it was to feel free on court and to combine tennis and school in the USA, whilst in The Netherlands this system did not exist. It was almost as if I was living the professional tennis life I dreamed of as a little girl.

In Texas, at the end of the season, I made another very difficult decision. I decided to give up tennis altogether. The immediate reason was that my body was protesting. It was in too much pain: my right arm muscles and my knees were in constant pain when I played tennis. Although my father tried to convince me otherwise, I did not consider a break from tennis. The body pain was a sign. Although it would take me some time to definitely say goodbye to tennis, I believed giving up tennis altogether was the best for me. The competitor I was I needed all my energy for my studies at University and my extreme motivation paid off. I passed exam after exam and felt great. I convinced myself that at the age of 21 and in so much pain, I could never achieve anymore what Chris Evert had achieved. Off course, now I see that I was forced to make the decision not to be a pro already at the early age of fifteen.

Looking back, I’ve learned so much from this whole experience. I’ve dealt with extreme tension, disappointments, expectations, being judged by others, confidence, difficult decisions, concentration, my will, loneliness, hard work, fair game, relationships, goal setting, etc., or in other words, I’ve learned plenty and important stuff about the mental game.

The most important lesson for me is the power of focusing on a goal. Having the belief that if you put all your energy to whatever goal it is that you have, you will succeed. At 15 and 21, I started to see things completely different and changed my goals. What I wanted with heart and soul – to achieve what Chris Evert had achieved – unfortunately was not realistic. What could have happened if I would have had the chance to start playing tennis earlier than at nine or ten years, is not relevant. Nor is it relevant to wonder what would have happened if my parents would have had the money to put me through a professional tennis school. It was far from easy for me to accept the situation in both cases but I had the courage to decide to give up a future professional tennis career and move on.

After I had given up tennis, I did not watch tennis anymore and avoided the subject for years. I changed this attitude during the last couple of years and started to watch Grand Slams again. During the past two weeks, watching many fantastic Wimbledon matches on TV, I suddenly realised how much I’ve learned and still know about inner tennis, how exciting the mental game is and how relevant it still is today for the professional tennis players but also for me, to use it at work and in my private life!

They say accepting who you are is the most important goal in life. My tennis education not only enriched my life, it also made me stronger mentally and I’m extremely grateful that my father passed his passion for tennis on to me and gave me a semi-professional tennis education. Learning by playing the mental game has helped me a lot in life so far. Going forward this knowledge remains very relevant. It’s exciting that I have a wealth of experience gained at the tennis court that I can still use in my business and private life.

I have not achieved what Chris Evert has achieved but I did learn how to play the mental game. And to me that’s very valuable.

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