To achieve what you want out of life, to be secure and confident, to be in control, to live with yourself, sometimes the right strategy in the face of chaos and uncertainty is to play your game.
I learned this concept from my USTA tennis team in 2015. My teammates noticed that I played well in practice, but not well in competition. Why? They noticed that my playing style changed due to the pressure and stress of competition, and the type of opponent. When I was at practice, I allowed myself to be myself and embraced my natural strengths and weaknesses. As a result, I played optimally for who I am. I was good at backhands so I hit more backhands. I was good at slice serves so I hit a lot of slice serves. However, when I was in a competition, I felt like I had to be perfect in every way in order to win. I had to play my opponent’s weaknesses rather than my own strengths. As a result, I made the game about hitting forehands, because that’s what traditional strategy says is safer, and about hitting top spin serves. In other words, I wasn’t playing to my strengths. As a result, I performed worse because I was using my weaknesses to compete.
“Play Your Game” means several things. For one, it means you should set the pace, the rules, the actions. Take control of the situation rather than be controlled by the situation–don’t play someone else’s game (your opponent’s) and instead, impose your game upon your opponent. Second, it means stay within your comfort zone. Everyone has a different set of advantages and disadvantages, and out of that comes that person’s unique strategy and style. Play the strategy and style that is best suited for you, and not the strategy and style that you’ve seen other people different from you do. You will do better when you make decisions based on the reality of the situation, which is that you have advantage A and disadvantage B, than when you make decisions based on theoretical ideas on what it ‘should’ be when it isn’t so.
Last year, 2016, I learned firsthand the cost of not playing your game when I played in the Mountain View Open Tennis Tournament. Here I was ‘out of my element’ in the sense that I was surrounded by tennis players who were much higher level than I was accustomed to. They hit harder and more accurately than me, and moved faster and got tired slower than I did. I immediately felt the pressure from my surroundings to not be myself, because if I was myself I felt I wouldn’t survive against this level of competition. As a result, I pushed myself to play my opponent’s game rather than my own game. I played into his hands. He trained for years to hit hard, accurately, and quickly, while I trained for a few months to simply get to the ball and hit it high over the net and into the court. Rather than stick to my training, I tried to do things I’d not practiced–hit the ball low over the net with high pace-and compete on his terms. As a result, not only did I lose, but I injured myself because I was straining my body and mind and muscles past their breaking point, past what they were used to. The cost of not playing your game is not only that in the short term you do works, but sometimes that you injure yourself and you do worse in the long term as well. Don’t hurt yourself trying to be someone you’re not. What I should have done instead is done my best, stayed within my game, and played according to my rules. Even though I would lose, I wouldn’t get injured. That way, I can work on improving and getting better so that next time I won’t lose. Instead of being delayed from training by the injury recovery time.
At the end of the day, “Play Your Game” is a way of saying ‘be yourself within a competitive context,’ when under duress–when an opponent is trying to make me play his game, I should play mine; as the world is trying to change me to conform to its measuring stick, I should maintain my own measuring stick. As Einstein said, don’t judge a fish by how it can climb a tree. Find your game and play the game that’s meant for you. As in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, play to your strengths: when facing a dragon or large problem, approach with your best foot forward, not someone else’s foot or a borrowed contraption you don’t know how to use.