It’s ironic that everything you describe about yourself — the need to be perfect, the obsessive need to overthink and control, the concern that your opponent is trying to fuck you up — are the antithesis of everything psychologists have learned about peak performance.
Read anything about the greatest champions in sports and you will find that they do everything in their power to train harder and smarter than anyone else, but they have almost no short term memory when it comes to the mistakes they make when they compete. Their unwavering confidence in themselves has nothing to do with perfection, even though they come as close as any human will come to perfection during their best performances.
Being a perfectionist is the flip side of someone who pretends the match doesn’t matter so they don’t leave everything on the court — both types of people avoid the gut wrenching fear that even if you play your absolute best, it might not be good enough. (In my days, trying to make it on the ATP tour, I used the second approach to avoid being completely paralyzed by my own flawed mental state.)
There is always someone who is better, or gets hots on a given day, or simply hits a net cord on break point at the end of the third set. It is a manifestation of ego and the desire to control an activity where you have no control over external circumstances (playing conditions, opponent, bad referees, etc.).
It’s a major step forward that you were able to see the psychological problem of perfection as a handicap, and thereby lower your expectations.*
But it’s only a first step.
It took me twenty years to finally learn how to overcome those competitive demons. Here are some of the major stepping stones:
- Read “The Inner Game,” and “Inner Golf” by Tim Gallwey. In the golf book, he adds other insights that need to be incorporate into an updated version of the tennis book, as they are vital components of inner game learning.
- Find an Inner Game coach and take a few lessons. It has nothing to do with your strokes, but everything to do with breaking through all of the perceptions you’ve built up over your life time. I read the tennis book when I was trying to make it on the circuit, but never really absorbed the lessons. It was only after I retired and started teaching that I stumbled upon an Inner Game teacher and he had me do an exercise that made me realize I had spent my entire career figuratively playing with one eye closed.
- Read “Sports Psyching” by Tutko, and learn the powers of visualization. This is perhaps the most important skill an athlete can learn, and should be incorporating into your training routine both on and off the court.
- Read “Mental Toughness Training for Sports” by Loehr, in order to understand how to optimize your preparation before a match, and how to track and identify your energy and emotional state throughout a match so you can regain your ideal performance state more quickly when something throws it off.
Good luck on your path to becoming the best you can be.
If we average all of our performances, based on a scale of 1 to 10, our true average performance would be 5.5. I learned through many painful lessons that expecting to be play like a 7 or an 8 might cause me to play like a 2 or a 3 when I was actually playing at an average level. In most cases, elite players are able to accept playing poorly at the beginning of the match and use various techniques to lengthen the points and run enough to burn through excessive adrenaline that might cause them to overhit. And if you really feel like a 2 or a 3 on a given day, using those same techniques might eventually raise your level back to 5.5, which is a fantastic victory in overcoming your own limitations on a given day.