By Dr. Dan Zimet, Psychologist & Sports Consultant-
Welcome to the first 2016 edition of Wrap Around! Have a question about the greatest game played with a ball? Send it in to MDHandball@hotmail.com, where each month a new question will be addressed by Dr. Zimet and many of our games greatest legends.
This month’s Player Question:
“For a highly competitive and skilled player, how do you accept defeat but still have fun and feel fulfilled playing?”
-Bo, parts unknown
Daniel Zimet, Sport Consultant:
Let’s start with the obvious – nobody likes to lose. If you’re a competitor you should feel deflated, frustrated, angry and/or disappointed by a loss. Chronic losses should not feel fulfilling, and there is no way to make a cycle of loss “fun.” The hallmark of a mentally strong athlete is the ability to learn from losses or tough matches, to see those losses in a constructive light (e.g., an opportunity for growth), and to use losses as a way to grow and feel inspired.
Defeat can be a profound motivator. As a beginner losing 21-0 to your father or getting strung around by some old guy with a nasty lob serve. The humble feeling of consistently failing to dig a ball out of the deep left corner needs to be channeled into a powerful desire to stop it from happening. Growth and change is difficult and often aggravating, but essential to developing a complete game. Without the pressure of failure and the need for new skills, what would motivate anyone to develop new shots, practice, and train?
Actually, chronic winning can be a curse. If a player won every match, his or her game would only develop to a level slightly above what is needed to win. For instance, if an elite player stays at a local level, he’d become the biggest fish in the pond but never know how he compared to the fish in the lake or ocean. You never know how big you can become unless you’re tested by stronger competition. Few athletes reach an apex of clear dominance at the National level, although in 4-wall handball we’ve seen several recent eras from Brady, Chapman and Alvarado Sr. Players who rarely lose can be challenged to keep their game from getting stale or becoming over-confident.
So how can an elite athlete create a balance between winning and losing? In his discovery of flow states in sports, researcher M. Csikszentmihalyi observed that athletes are faced with situations that vary along two dimensions: 1) the degree of challenge (i.e., how tough is the competition), and 2) the skill level of the athlete. Let’s only consider the highly skilled/elite athlete, and look at how he or she is likely to respond to four types of opponents: much less skilled, less skilled, similarly skilled, and more skilled.
- When a highly skilled athlete competes against a much less skilled opponent, he or she will feel bored. Not a lot of fun because there is no challenge.
- Against a less skilled athlete he or she will feel in control. These conditions are excellent for working on weak elements of your game that need improvement and for bolstering confidence.
- When playing a similarly skilled opponent, he or she becomes fully immersed in the match and has the strongest likelihood of experiencing flow states. These are memorable matches where a victory means you had to perform at your highest level.
- When playing a more skilled opponent, an athlete feels heightened arousal or anxiety. Interestingly, it is under these conditions – playing a better opponent – where learning The superior player reveals your weaknesses, exposing vulnerability in your game and demonstrating strategies that can beat you. When an athlete appropriately assesses these situations, motivation and development are the reward.
Mentally tough and elite athletes have the ultimate objective of finding out how far their game can go. Learning, advancing skills and seeking out challenges in order to test one’s abilities become the primary objective, and facing situations where loss is a possibility is part of that process. Take the attitude of welcoming the opportunity to challenge yourself against tough opposition and compete at the highest possible level. Athletes who are strongly motivated by winning and losing often suffer from anxiety, motivation problems, emotional dysregulation (mood swings) during matches, and burnout. These athletes may also limit their tournament play to ‘winnable draws’, thereby missing opportunities for growing their game and finding the upper limit of their ability.
An athlete is best served focusing on the challenge of competition rather than thinking in terms of wins/losses. I think of Andy Schad as an example of an athlete who exemplifies this philosophy. Despite having lost to me three consecutive times at the 3-wall Nationals (2011-2013), he asks me every year what singles division I’ll be playing in so he can come back and try again. It’s only a matter of time before he beats me, and when he does consider this: How much more satisfying will that victory be for him than if he played away from me and won more National titles? Also, how much farther will his game have advanced through the effort?
A major part of coping with defeat is making the choice to learn something from the loss. This requires asking the right questions, including:
- What did my opponent do in order to win? Of those things,
- What was in my control to change;
- What was not in my control – what effective skill-set did my opponent bring to the game?
- How does my game (skills), strategy or preparation need to evolve in order to compete against those skills next time?
- What did I do right during the match?
- In what way could I have changed the outcome of the match…as I look at the physical, strategic and mental skills in my game, how do I rank myself on each one?
- Physical: footwork, conditioning, hydration and nutrition, skill breakdown (serve, return of serve, pass/kill execution, defense, retrieving, etc.)
- Strategic: general game plan, playing to opponent weakness, changing in accordance with the flow of the match, using the clock effectively, choices of serve, shot selection, etc.
- Mental skills: staying focused and being present, managing stress and intensity, self-talk, recovering from mistakes, using effective routines, coping with adversity, etc.
Use the loss as an education. Interestingly, the less skilled the player the greater the difference improvements tend to make to overall performance. I suggest journaling the answers to the above questions (and add some of your own), and pay particular attention to your opponents strengths and weaknesses. When possible, watch your opponent play the next round and take note of how his or her game pairs up against someone else. Sit near a superior (or wise) player and ask a lot of questions to gain additional insights. Don’t hesitate to ask how you can improve, and get specific ideas on how to go about making those improvements. Watching film of your loss can also provide invaluable data. As you do this analysis, start plotting your revenge! After all, there is no greater way to overcome the sting of a loss than by returning next time with bigger guns and ready to rumble!
MUSINGS FROM THE MASTERS
G Michael Driscoll, Oak Park, IL. b. 1938. 22 National Masters titles, 1, 3 and 4-wall, 2 Worlds titles. Prefers 3-wall small-ball
I never like to lose a tournament match but when I do I realize that I am not perfect. In any facet of life, someone is better than me. As long as I try to perform to the best of my ability, I have to realize, at least on that day, my opponent played a better game of handball. After a tournament loss I try to have a good meal with my friends and wife and forget about the loss. I try to be good company and not be a wet blanket by dwelling upon the match.
Concerning non-tournament losses, I play those matches for improving the various aspects of my game, friendship and conditioning. Therefore, I am not that concerned about winning or losing, whether it is a singles or doubles match. Most of the time I am playing opponents who are much younger than me and the loss is somewhat expected.
Joseph Durso, Brooklyn NY. Handball Hall of Fame, Thirteen National Open 1-wall singles titles. Prefers 1-wall small- and big-ball
I submit that the two concepts (i.e.,‘defeat’ and ‘have fun and feel fulfilled’) are diametrically opposed and there is no way to reconcile them. You’re not playing to have fun. You’re playing either to improve or to compete. Fun is not in the equation. Similarly, you can never feel fulfilled because there is always the possibility of improving or expanding your skill set, and there is no fulfillment until that goal is reached. Yet it never can be reached, so there can be no final peace.
David Chapman, Saint Louis, MO. b 1975. Eighteen National Open 4-wall titles (9 singles & 9 doubles). Prefers 4-wall
As a highly skilled player I do not accept defeat and I want to light myself on fire when I lose. For me it is not fulfilling to ever lose a match. I’m too competitive.
Charlie Wicker, Tucson, AZ. b 1934. 30+ National Masters Titles. Prefers 3 and 4-wall
All Handball players are highly competitive and want to win. The beauty of our sport is that no one has ever won every game they’ve played. You learn to take defeats. I find Handball players are gracious in the fact that when they lose their normal response is, “He/She played better than I did.” I only have met a half dozen or so that credit losses to something other than their opponent’s skills. When you lose, look at your game. Could you have done anything differently? If no and your opponent was just better, give him/her credit. If you play Handball you are going to lose. Give credit and look forward to your next match. You notice that all the Pro players (e.g., Sean, Luis, Brady) are very gracious losers. I have never witnessed any of them blame their loss on the ref or anything else.
Sean Lenning, Tucson, AZ. b. 1985. Fifteen National Open 3-wall titles (7 singles & 8 doubles), Worlds Open 1-wall title. Prefer to play outside
Upon receiving a good old-fashioned whoopin’ on the 40×20, it’s perfectly reasonable to be a Negative Nancy. But prolonged self-loathing is destructive and apathy will get us nowhere, so try to find that sweet spot in between. Allow yourself to be sad and disappointed, but graduate to higher thinking after a day or two. Focus that boundless mental energy on all the reasons why you’re a wonderful person and not on why you can’t return a serve. This will inevitably give you an overwhelming sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that a sport alone cannot provide. Now you’re ready to go have fun and play ball again.
Vern Roberts Jr., Tucson, AZ. b 1954. Handball Hall of Fame, induction 2002. Preferred to play outside (prior to replacement parts)
First of all, losing sucks! But the thrill of playing, getting a great workout and testing yourself, trumps the potential for losing every time. Besides, we’re handball players and we can rationalize losing in a bazillion different ways. But there’s nothing more fun than putting it on the line, enjoying the sweat and quenching your thirst and celebrating…or drowning your sorrows. Since I’m no longer very skilled, I’m also not as competitive (with other players and/or within myself), so the joy of playing is what’s left.
As my dear wife would say: “If you’re playing, you can’t be complaining,” and that includes injuries/re-injury while playing. As I tell my brother: “There’s only one thing worse than bad handball…and that’s no handball.”
Edward Grossenbacker, Portland, OR. b 1938. 51 National Masters titles; 8 Worlds titles. Prefers 3-wall outdoors
“It’s only defeat if you don’t learn anything”
Cesar Sala, Bronx NY. b 1977. Six National Open 1-wall titles (2 singles & 4 doubles), 1 Worlds Singles small ball. Prefers: 1-wall small ball
The idea of losing has always been difficult for me to accept. When I was younger I’d find myself looking for reasons outside of myself to justify why it would happen. I remember my friends teasing me about always having an excuse for losing and it really ate at me being thought of that way. So I made a conscious decision to make a mental adjustment to help shed myself of that issue. To this day it’s something that I have to keep an eye on. I’d focus on making sure I put the time into all aspects of the game as well as strengthening any weaknesses I had. If any part of my body would hurt or feel weak I’d focus on making it a strength. Any excuse my mind would come up with would make me look for an answer to resolve it. Any ref that I didn’t care for I’d try to learn how to win with his style of reffing (Didn’t always work lol). The bottom line for me was being prepared not only for what the field had waiting for me but for whatever mishaps may occur or issues I confronted in my past. One of my favorite quotes by Bruce Lee is “Like everyone else you want, learn the way to win but never accept the way to lose. To accept defeat, to learn to die is to be liberated from it.” I can go on forever describing how many things I’ve had to do to prepare for war but this one has always been the most difficult. The art of dying.
Fred Lewis, Tucson, AZ. Six National Open 4-wall Singles titles, three National Open 3-Wall Singles titles. Prefers any ball any wall
The question should be “how do you handle defeat,” because defeat is unacceptable if you are a highly competitive open player. Defeat should always be a learning experience where mistakes are analyzed and will not be repeated.
The emotional “down” after a defeat will quickly go away after a few days off from the game. Mentally you have to put it behind you and then slowly begin preparing for the next event. Those of us who have had long careers not cut short by injury truly love to play because of the many benefits derived from playing the toughest non-contact sport on the planet.
Dave Dohman, Munster, IN. b 1956, Handball Hall of Fame, 2009. Nine National Open 3-Wall Doubles titles, 22 National Masters titles. Prefers 3-wall
Be prepared to win, and by that I mean training in the form of playing, weight lifting, running (or biking as you get older), diet AND alcohol control, and preparation for extreme heat. Simply put, don’t blame defeat on conditioning. I have always carried a few “extra pounds” but I have won many matches for the simple reason my opponent tired long before I did. I can accept the fact that I may not have been one of the most talented 3 wall players but I will argue that I was one of the most prepared. Losing is much easier to accept if you truly felt prepared.
No one likes to lose, but it happens. You must be prepared to win when you are not playing your best, and that’s where the aspect of conditioning takes control. Afraid to lose? Absolutely. Paranoid about losing? Maybe just a bit. But losing to a more talented player is just a fact of life. Every player has their physical limits and I certainly have mine. The old saying “I would rather lose 21-3 than 21-20” sure rings true with my psyche. At the end of the day whether you win or lose, the health benefits of simply competing at a high level can be very rewarding. And trying to copy a more talented player will lead to future successes if you indoctrinate their style of play to yours.
No benefit to losing? On the contrary; it can and should make you a better player when approached from the right angle. I continue to adjust….and hope I always do.
Naty Alvarado Jr., Spring Valley Lake, CA. b 1973. Top level pro handball for 24+ years. Prefers 4-wall.
Competing at the highest level of handball for over 25 years came with moments of victory and painful defeats. There were some defeats I handled poorly and others I handled as a professional. It was most obvious to me that the feeling of defeat was internally dissolved quicker when I took my defeat in professional manner. Using this professional approach came with an air of confidence that I would be more prepared both physically and mentally for the next tournament. It was that professional attitude that allowed me to both compete and enjoy Handball at such a high level for so long.
Dr. Dan Zimet is a Psychologist and Certified Sports Consultant (anticipated 2016). Dr. Zimet has been working as a Psychologist for more than 15 years in private practice, specializing in young adult and adolescent issues, marital counseling and sport psychology.
Drawn to handball because his father, uncle and grandfather played, Dan has accrued an astounding 24 combined singles and doubles National Masters Titles in 1-Wall, 3-Wall and 4-Wall, while also serving as the Maryland Handball Commissioner from 2003-2013. He cites victories against Andy Schad in the 2012 3-Wall National Final, 2013 4-Wall National Masters semifinal victory against Kendall Lewis and sharing three consecutive national championship tiebreaker victories (11-10, 11-9, 11-10) with partner Andy Schad as his most fulfilling moments on the handball court. Dan has set his sights on a top four WPH SR48 ranking and winning a USHA Masters Title in each of the USHA national events.
Dr. Zimet lives in Columbia, MD with his wife Danielle and son Fletcher.