Who Are You, Really?
Who are you when everything you own and accomplished is taken away from you? This question came up in one of my recent conversations with the player I currently work with, Alize Cornet. Alize and I, we are very much alike and it’s one of the reasons we often arrive at such profound questions during our talks. It inspired me to write a piece on how we are so used to attaching our identity to what we do.
As for tennis players, this case might be even more intense. To become a professional tennis player, you need to start practicing at a very young age and if you are doing good, soon your whole life starts to revolve around tennis — practices, tournaments, traveling… you know the drill. So, from an early age, whenever a player travels to a tournament with their tennis bag hanging off of their back, they get asked the golden question by curious passengers — “are you a tennis player?” And the answer to that question is always the same — “Yes, I am”.
Despite the fact that it’s quite subconscious programming, tennis players are priming themselves to believe that this is just who they are — tennis players. That’s a place that I have been in at one point in my career as well. I was lucky enough to be a decent player (some would say good, some would say bad, I say decent — in the end it’s only a matter of perspective) and for many years I haven’t even been aware of the fact that I was tying my identity to what I did. The first step to realising that was when I played my first and only main draw of a Grand Slam — 2012 Wimbledon. I was playing qualifying and after winning three matches, I earned my spot to compete among world’s best players (literally). You’d expect me to be head over heels, right? At least that’s what I thought my first experience would look like — immense pride and sense of accomplishment of taking such a big and important step towards the direction of my dreams.. it didn’t really play out this way though. Instead, when the draw came out and I saw my section of it (first round against 31st seed Shuai Peng), after careful examination I arrived at the conclusion that the only ‘worthy’ result in that particular tournament would be reaching at least (!) 4th round. Now, that would sound like a feasible goal for a player that would have at least a few Grand Slams under their belt and someone with some experience of beating top players. But… was that really a feasible goal for a first time qualifier? I’d say it was more of an unrealistic expectation, and while some of you might think that it was very ambitious for me to look at it this way — there is a fine line between ambition and irrationality. Long story short — I lost in the first round and my experience of the whole tournament was one of disappointment and in consequence I hardly enjoyed any second of it. At that time I haven’t put much thought into why I haven’t enjoyed my first Grand Slam experience — I was stuck in a bubble and I was not even aware of it.
Not long after that I got injured and that’s when I felt like my life started getting really complicated. Because who am I if I am not a tennis player? What am I supposed to do? What do I like? What else can I do? Is there anything else I can do at all?! The questions just kept spiralling and it didn’t seem like I was about to find any answers… until I had this great talk with my coach back then, Elise Tamaela. I don’t remember most of it, but I certainly remember one part, where she told me — “You are not a tennis player. You just play tennis.” That’s right. Read that again. This was one of my eureka moments that shifted my perspective on pretty much my whole life up until that point. You know how they say — you can only connect the dots looking backwards? Well, that was when a big chunk of my dots connected. Little by little, I started understanding so many things — the way I acted, the way I felt and most importantly to me (back then) — my Wimbledon experience. I was stuck in an identity bubble, which made me think and believe that the only way in which I am worthy is by being a good tennis player, because just as I’ve answered that standard question countless times, this is who I thought and believed I was — a tennis player.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I am pretty sure that there are many players that have had a similar experience. And maybe it’s going to help knowing that they are not alone. But I’d like to shed some light on how that affects players fundamentally, as human beings.
In tennis, players are assigned a number in the ranking based on how many points they acquire every year, which directly translates into how many matches they won — basically your ‘worth’ as a tennis player is determined by that. You are obviously better when you are number 1, than when you are number 120. That’s quite understandable and there is obviously nothing wrong with that — we need to have systems in place, which reward the players that play better than others, just like in any other sport. The problem starts when players start believing that the number that’s next to their name or the amount of matches they win or the players they beat, determines what is their worth as a human being. And I’ll tell you — this line can get quite blurry, very early on.
Let me unpack that feeling of worthiness a little. It can mean a lot of different things to people, because there are simply different ways in which we look at ourselves as human beings, but to me, feeling worthy means feeling like I am accepted and loved for who I am. Being trapped in an identity bubble, in which I tied myself to the outcomes I had on the court was obviously a difficult and vicious circle, which led me to believe I was better when I was winning and worse when I was losing (not just in tennis terms, but in human terms as well). This was definitely not helpful in building my confidence on and off the court.
I believe that as human beings, we all have the fundamental need to belong and be accepted for who we are. And in my eyes (and I hope all of yours too) we have the right to that, we deserve that. That obviously does not mean that we will always be accepted for who we are wherever we go, but my point isn’t to look for acceptance and belonging outside. The whole trick is for us to be able to do that ourselves — see ourselves for who we are and accept the person that we are today. Not the tennis player, not the CEO, or the janitor, but the human being that we are. We might not be perfect and most of us probably want to change quite a few things about ourselves and that’s more than okay, but it’s important to understand that we do not become better or worse people depending on whether we win or lose a match, close this or that deal. It’s important to give ourselves the space to love ourselves with all our quirks, the positive and the negative ones and never stop striving to become better, not just for us, but also for the people and the world around us.
But now the most important question — what can we do about it? That depends who you actually are — I used to be a player and I was lucky enough to have someone explain that to me and then I continued with the process of separating my identity — creating strong boundaries that helped me to draw a line between the tennis player and human being in me. The most important part in that process was the actual revelation of the fact that this is how I’ve identified myself without even being aware of it. Right now, from the perspective of a coach, I think it’s extremely important to treat players as human beings at first. It’s easy to get caught in this cycle of wanting to have more, do more, win more, have a better ranking, but at the end of the day — to me — the only thing that matters the most is that my player is happy. Not a happy tennis player, but a happy human being. In my eyes, tennis is just the extension of life and I believe it is my duty to help a player grow in all areas, simply put — it’s not only about hitting forehands and backhands. Giving players the right environment — non-judgment, good energy and high quality practice set ups are definitely factors that help in making them feel cared for (and factors that are essential in helping them become successful), but at the same time I believe it’s important to remind them that tennis is not life, but rather a part of it and encourage them to look within and dive deep into the process of self-discovery that has nothing to do with the quality of their tennis shots. So, who are we when everything we own and accomplished has been taken away from us? I sincerely hope that we all get to find our answer to that question, because the more aware we become of ourselves, the better we can contribute to the world around us.