Why I miss the stress of competition

My table tennis club has been open for six weeks. We have less tables and the number of players are restricted. But the sessions are full – and we usually have a waiting list. People are itching to play again.

I have enjoyed the dedicated practice time. I’ve been trying to develop my attacking game – topspin rather than block, flick rather than push. This week I even hit a few backhand winners. This is a new experience for me!

But whilst this extended period of practice is having some benefit on my game, I am really starting to miss competitive play – league matches and tournaments. I am a little surprised by this, as I generally find league matches and tournaments quite stressful.

I always like the idea of competition, especially when competition is in the distant future. I have a tendency to overestimate my abilities – so I always have visions of myself playing brilliantly in matches and having lots of success.

But as a league match or tournament approaches – usually a day or two beforehand – I begin to doubt my abilities. My anxiety levels gradually increase. I start to get a little nervous and a little on edge. I try not to think too much about whether I will win or lose my matches, but this fear of losing is always there, lurking like a mischievous monster in the back of my mind. What if I don’t play well? What if I lose? What will others think of me?

On the day of a league match or tournament, my anxiety levels ramp up a notch. I wonder why I put myself through this and contemplate how it might be nice to stay at home and watch TV instead.

But I always pack my table tennis bag and turn up to the match. My warm-ups are often half-hearted as I keep an eye on my opponents to see what form they are in. The nerves are still jingling through my body. I have to constantly remind myself to focus and try to make the most of the warm-up.

My nerves reach their highest level just before the first game of my first match. My heart is racing and my legs feel stiff. I try to breathe and compose myself. Why do I put myself through this? Then the match begins. In the first few points I am usually quite tense, as I try to work out my opponent. My mind is subconsciously working out if I have anything to fear. But as the game progresses, I usually calm down and start to focus on the process of playing. The fear of the unknown is replaced by the lived reality of the challenge facing me. I start to enjoy the experience of competing. This is fun!

After an evening of league matches, I experience a mixture of emotions. First is relief – relief that the matches have finished and I managed to hold myself together. If I won two or three matches, I may be feeling elated. This good feeling will carry me through the rest of the week. It’s silly isn’t it? It’s only table tennis, but the highs of winning really can have a transformative impact on your mood.

The flip side of this is the crushing lows, when I play like a stiff plank of wood and lose all my matches. Now I feel terrible. I sleep really bad and my mood for the next two or three days is pretty low. I question why I bother playing at all and contemplate an alternative activity, like watching TV. Whilst these low periods can be quite miserable, they never last that long. I always manage to refocus, analyse where I need to improve and try to take the positives from any bad performances.

Playing competitive table tennis – no matter what standard – can be an emotional rollercoaster. There’s lots of highs and lows and always lots of anxiety, nerves and stress. But this is what I miss right now. I enjoy the practice time, but I miss feeling some more powerful emotions – the joys of winning and the despair of defeat.

The past few months have felt like an exercise in extreme risk aversion. By trying to avoid all risk, no matter how small, we end up living a less meaningful life. In order to protect lives at all costs, we have stopped doing activities which make life rich and worth living. Which begs the question, what’s the point?

Some local leagues have managed to restart. Well done to them. I applauded their determination. The Cambridge league is hoping to restart in January 2021. I really hope we can play again, but we’ll just have to see whether the ever changing rules permit us to do so. If we can restart the league, then I’ll be the first to play. I’ll get stressed again. I’ll experience highs and lows. But I’d much prefer the emotional ups and downs, compared to experiencing no emotions at all. Competitive table tennis, I miss you!

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