Or have you ever wondered why you don’t perform as well in a competitive environment as you do in training?
In this article I’d like to explore that tendency we have to keep score, to track progress, and to put so much emphasis on achieving.
Then we’ll discuss tossing our obsession with results aside in favour of Zen, Zanshin and embracing our Inner Child (and Perfect Tea).
What does all of that mean?
Playing To Win
There are two ways to win any game which pits you against an opponent.
You can win, or your opponent can lose.
You may argue that these are one and the same thing – i.e. when you win, your opponent loses, and vice versa.
What I mean by this is you can play to win, or you can play to make your opponent lose.
In a Table Tennis match, for example, in any given moment there will be several options for how to react to an incoming ball, how to move, which shot to attempt to play at that given moment, all of which is determined by many factors: the speed, spin and placement of the incoming ball, my own position, my strengths and weaknesses, my mental state, my opponents strengths and weaknesses, my opponents position & the position of the ball in relation to the table, myself and my opponent, the current score in the match, my opponents mental state, what I know about my opponent from previous experience etc. Believe it or not, all of these things and more should determine the best course of action in that moment.
Then within all of that, we can play to win (or play to our strengths) or play a little more tactically, hoping instead to make our opponent lose (play to our opponents weaknesses).
To give a specific example, the variables above may be set up to play a favourite shot, an attacking forehand topspin, played long and at speed to my opponents forehand side. Though this shot may be a strength and a preferred option for me, it could also be a preferred option for my opponent who maybe likes to receive long topspin balls to his stronger forehand side (but is weaker on the backhand side). In this example, playing to make him lose may mean a tactical decision to instead play a shorter backspin ball to his backhand side, trying to force the error.
There are many tactical nuances we could get into here because even these two choices are over-simplifying the situation.
It’s very easy in a game to get into a repeated mindset of trying to win or trying to make your opponent lose, or even playing somewhere in-between and trying to play ‘safe’ shots (never works), so that it’s not just one shot but an approach and a style of play for that entire game or at least a portion of it.
So for a time I chastised myself for playing safe, for playing to make my opponent lose and for failing to play ‘my game’ in Table Tennis matches. Even worse, if ever finding myself secretly hoping that my opponent would make mistakes and give me a few cheap points.
My focus was on trying to win the match but I kept on telling myself I just want to play well. If my opponent wins, then let him/her do so by deserving it because I will be playing to win & I’m not going to give them any free points. If I do this and play my game, then I must be happy.
Zen Mastery: Playing To Win Becomes Redundant
What I’ve come to realise is that the best way to approach any sporting endeavour (or any endeavour for that matter) is to focus solely on the performance and in turn, enjoy the journey (as opposed to focusing on the outcome).
In this sense the above position regarding winning and losing becomes completely redundant.
Introducing Zen & A Focus on The Process
The Zen-like, performance based approach tells me that such decisions about whether to play to win or to play to make my opponent lose are completely irrelevant.
Instead, a focus on the process – the performance of the art – is what is needed.
Not only that but the process should include absolute focus, a commitment to playing the best shot possible and doing so completely and utterly from start to finish, with perfect poise, elegance and technique and enjoying the process. In this moment the outcome is irrelevant.
The tactical decision regarding your own strengths and your opponents weaknesses, along with all other inputs can and should inform the best shot selection, but winning and losing, and indeed, emotion and personality are removed from the process (because they get in the way).
Simple version: I now try to focus as much as possible on my performance and on enjoying the process of every single challenge, every shot, every moment and to think less about the result.
It’s really not easy to detach completely from outcomes and it’s still a little frustrating to lose games or to miss shots but it’s something I’m working on and in doing so, I feel I am becoming a better player.
Increasingly the reason I lose and miss shots are far more attributable to a lack of mastery of the skill needed because I have removed other barriers (nerves, thinking about winning/losing, getting distracted).
I do still struggle with distractions (such as noises from spectators) but that is something I’m working on.
People around me know that I’m very keen on Golf and Table Tennis and often after a game of either they will ask me if I won. Perhaps this is a supportive question, first of all showing an interest but also because they think that if I won, then I will be happy and they want me to be happy. In fact these days, I am perfectly happy if I can say ‘[Yes or No] [and/but] I played really well’.
I have found it a lot easier to apply this approach to my golf game and have further been able to really focus on individual aspects of the golf swing to fine tune things. Complex though it is, this is much easier with the golf swing – the ball remains static and broadly speaking in the same place and the full swing is broadly the same repeated action, even when using different clubs. Table Tennis is a different beast altogether, it’s the approach I’d like to take but to be honest I’m finding it difficult, perhaps because its a faster, more immediate game. The difference which always gets me between these two games which are both technically challenging is the gap between two shots. In golf if I hit a bad shot, I have some time to reflect and re-group (and usually a long walk) before I hit the next one.
In the example given so far the ‘art’ in question is the process of playing a Table Tennis shot, and of performing well in Table Tennis matches, but this concept can be applied to anything and to life itself as we will explore further.
Zen, Zanshin & The Art of Archery
In his book with the same title, the author Eugen Herrigel describes his teachings in the art of Archery in Japan which he did as a route to understand more about Zen and the Japanese culture.
It’s a pretty amazing book (check it out here: Zen in The Art of Archery) in which he describes his long journey to mastery with the aid of his teacher, the legendary Awa Kenzo.
In the book Kenzo teaches Herrigel how to draw the bow with technique and proper breathing rather than any strength or conscious effort and the way the book describes the difficult process of loosing the arrow is simply fascinating.
Needless to say, Herrigel struggles for years but eventually achieves mastery and along the way an understanding of Zen and Zanshin required to get there.
Mastering the art involved correct breathing, being in the moment, letting go of fear, allowing the timing of the powerful loosing to take place naturally rather than weakly letting go too early or strenuously holding on too long to the string. It involved Zanshin, a state of oneness with the process and complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal (whilst letting go completely of any attachment to the goal).
Zanshin relates very strongly to mindfulness which we’ve written about often on this site. It is being constantly aware of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. Literally meaning ‘the remaining mind’, it is the mind of complete action, complete follow through, complete awareness, an effortless vigilance, a state of relaxed alertness.
The Inner Child
As adults we can often get overly concerned with our capabilities, with past mistakes, with what others might think, with distractions or with outcomes. These are all effectively barriers we create which detract from our focus on the action concerned.
In the book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis‘, Timothy Gallwey addresses the most frequent complaint he received from his tennis students: that they kept making the same mistakes over and over even though they knew, and had practiced, better ways to play.
In other words, much like Herrigel in ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’, they were getting in their own way – their brain was being their worst enemy.
Similar to the Zen Master Kenzo, Gallwey presents various approaches aside from the technique of the actual tennis shots — focus on the ball, where the racket is, where you want the ball to land.
He asks the reader to embrace their ‘Inner Child‘ and enjoy the process rather than focusing on outcomes.
Like Herrigel’s book, Gallwey’s book is all about self awareness and shutting off the distracting voices in your head. He says we each have two selves (Self 1 and Self 2), one (Self 1) being parent-like and relating to the brain and the other (Self 2) being child-like and relating to the body. Self 1 instructs, Self 2 acts. We get into trouble when Self 1 tries to tell Self 2 how to do something the latter already knows how to do — when we try too hard.
Gallwey was clearly influenced by Herrigel’s book (he quotes it in his book) and there are certainly a lot of similarities between the two. Both books refer to silencing concious thought and becoming ‘childlike’. Both authors make reference to the animal kingdom and how an animal is mindful, in the moment and simply reacts. Just check out this section from Galwey’s book where he references the balanced movement of a cat stalking a bird:
He asks his reader to be like the cat, to quiet the mind. He tells us that the mind is still when it is totally here and now in perfect oneness with the action and the actor.
This is embracing the inner child.
The Perfect Cup of Tea
Back to Zen.
The Japanese believe that making tea is an art (so do I, by the way). The tea ceremony is an integral part of Japanese culture and one which is taken very seriously to this day.
There is a specific and definite ritual to be followed in the Zen art of cha no yu (the Japanese Tea Ceremony), the purpose of which is to provide a known environment where participants are able to reflect and meditate without distraction. The tea-house is a place specifically for drinking tea and is very small and simple. Tea houses often have very small entrances, the idea being that if everyone must crawl to get in, such an act of humility reminds us that we are all equal. The room is simple and built of natural materials, straw mats (tatami) on the floor. The utensils used to make the tea are simple and should be aesthetically beautiful and again made of natural materials such that their beauty may be appreciated mindfully, all this being part of the ritual. If the utensils, or any parts of the building are weathered, all the better, such things are to be appreciated.
You get the idea.
Personally, I love this idea. Whilst I don’t have a house dedicated solely to tea (though, my house can’t be too far off) or spend entire afternoons making a cuppa, I do love tea and have always said it’s not about the drink it is about the moment.
To me having a cup of tea is a very definite signal to take a moment to relax, to reflect, to step back or alternatively to create a moment that I’d like to share with someone.
Of course the Zen approach to tea takes this one stage further, showing us how tea is the perfect metaphor for a mindfulness meditation ritual.
Zen – Simple Yet Complex
Zen whilst it seems simple enough at first (and in fact is often wrapped up in seeking and appreciating the simplicity of things), it is at the same time complex, elusive and contradictory.
This is because Zen aims to achieve Satori– “the unfolding of a new world hither to unperceived in the confusion of a dualistic mind” (Ref: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.88).
Zen teachings emphasize that enlightenment can be achieved by anyone and further to this that enlightenment can be achieved anywhere and in the doing of any activity – even in the midst of everyday activities.
Zen aims to accomplish this enlightenment or inner spirituality as shown above in the examples of zen in archery, the inner child, the tea ceremony and the other activities mentioned and believes in the inner purity of mine. Zen can find an inexpressibly deep thought in the simplest of actions such as taking a single step, placing a stone on the ground, drawing a bow, greeting a friend, taking a seat or lighting a candle.
Final Thought – Can Zen Be Applied to Everything?
I have to wonder then if some activities are more suited to Zen practice than others – perhaps slower and more deliberate activities such as making tea, flower arranging and archery – whilst others which are faster or more complex are more difficult to apply the concept of Zen to (such as table tennis). Or perhaps the more complex an activity, the longer it would take to master via Zen practice because it would need to be broken down and simplified into its lowest forms and movements and each one appreciated and mastered as completely and fully as it could be.
Given that Eugen Herrigel took 3 years to learn how to draw a bow and a further 5 years to learn how to loose an arrow, I wonder how long it would take me to master all of the shots in Table Tennis?