Saturday, January 23, 2016

How poker makes me a better tennis player

I wanted to share something from my personal journal about how the poker mindset helps me be a better tennis player.

Last edited 1/23/2014

There are many skills I learned in poker I wish I had learned in competitive tennis.

1. Caring about the result too much will stunt your growth.

Having success in the under 10 and 12s can sometimes stunt the growth of a tennis player. At those stages, generally the more mentally focused player who can make fewer mistakes and take care of the ball will win a ton of matches. However, in the long run, without developing a more offensive game, it’s extremely difficult to excel at higher levels. Players often refuse to alter parts of their game or strategies for long-term development in favor of short-term success. This was definitely my biggest weakness in tennis because I feared and detested losing so much. At the same time, this also helped develop my competitive edge.

In poker, you can play the hand perfectly right and still lose…quite often. My greatest weakness in tennis carried over to poker. I would obsess over my results, constantly checking my exact dollar progress during every session or recounting my chips. What I really should have been doing was focusing on what the right play to make was and how to exploit my opponent’s weaknesses. It took me a long time to figure out that each individual hand didn’t really matter that much. It’s about playing the percentages and making the right decision time and time again to be a winner in the long run. In poker, making the best decision is the execution, while in tennis you also have to worry about the physical execution. With a better mental state, you give yourself the best opportunity to execute.

2. Poker teaches you to be humble and how to handle failure.
Rafael Nadal comes to mind. While having millions of dollars, Nadal carries his own bags and plays like he is broke. His humility is what makes him so dangerous and his effort level is always amazing. It’s also how he always keeps improving. It’s hard to improve when you already think you’re the greatest. But if you’re not improving, you’re falling behind the competition. It’s not hard to see why Rafa’s attitude has translated to his quick growth as a poker player as well. On the other hand, being guilty of being a cocky, spoiled tennis player growing up, poker really taught me how to be humble out of necessity and I wish I had learned this attitude earlier.

You’re not always going to have positive feedback in poker. Being a poker player means that you are going to have losing days and downswings. Complaining about a bad beat is similar to a boxer complaining about getting punched. What you need to be doing is manage your bankroll and play enough volume to withstand the variance. There’s a delicate balance between confidence and arrogance. To clarify, I think it’s obviously good to be confident in your abilities, but you have to remember that nobody deserves anything. The worst player can get lucky at any time and take your stack. Stay humble and alert!

3. Poker taught me to observe and identify what my optimal state to compete is.
Before each session, I pre-game by making sure I’m in the right mindset for poker. It’s about rituals, rhythm, and balance. What do I have to do to put myself into the best mindset to win? For me, there are a few things that ideally need to happen before I play a session.
1. I need to feel physically fit. This is more important than I ever thought. Being physically fit allows me to play long hours during the tournament season and focus mentally. It really just translates to better overall performance. For tennis, my coach preached that you should never lose a match on fitness because that just means you’re not training hard enough. There’s a certain confidence you feel when you know you can outlast your opponent.
2. I deal with my nerves. Sometimes I still get a little nervous before poker sessions. It’s important to realize that it’s natural and okay to be nervous. In fact, it just shows that you care. Do what you need to do to calm yourself down and transmute that nervous energy into productive, focused energy. Have a pre-game playlist to listen to or a pre-game checklist. I have mine posted on my wall in front of my desk and had a checklist in my racquet bag. I also take my PPP if I need it (pre-poker poop). I went to the bathroom before every single tennis match and I found that it would always relieve my nerves.  

In poker you have to be more adaptable. You need to be ready at any moment’s notice because you never know when a game is going to run. In tennis, you know what time you are going to play and can schedule your day accordingly. My tennis ritual was very consistent and allowed me to feel a sense of security. I would eat either a turkey sandwich or a bagel 1.5 hours before my match and then warm up for 30-40 minutes. Then I would go to the restroom and check in 20-30 minutes before my match and listen to music on my headphones and walk around near the check in desk until my name was called.  

Everyone is different, so you must take note of how you feel and find out what is optimal for you. Ask yourself the right questions. For instance, do you need to be alone or is socializing before a match good for you? How long do you need to warm up for? I know for me, limited social interaction was preferred and that I perform optimally when I am in more of a “silent killer” mode. It’s that quiet confidence you feel when you don’t doubt what you’re doing but don’t feel any need to brag about it. It’s about staying present. The only thing on your mind is being alert and handling business as usual.

4. Being honest with your weaknesses and working on improving them.
Being honest in poker is crucial to development. Do the math to find out if you were right or not. If you are not honest in your play and just attribute your losses to bad luck when in fact you are making the wrong decision then you will have to find a new profession soon.

My biggest regret in tennis? Not hitting more practice serves. At the time, I was immature and didn’t want to work on it because it was boring. Looking back, now I would kill to be able to hit 30 minutes of serves a day. Sometimes in order to get to what you want, you need to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do. Do it before it’s too late or regret it like me.

5. Focusing on the things you can control.
In poker, you can manipulate your opponents to perform certain actions, but you certainly cannot control that unlucky river card nor can you put a gun to your opponent’s head to make him fold. Poker can be a cruel game with mean people. People will try to swindle you into giving them more information. How will you handle yourself then? Will you keep your calm, not give anything away and keep your class or will you complain and lose your cool?
Similarly, think about how this translates to tennis. How do you handle things when your opponent is cheating or zoning? Do you panic and complain, or do you find a solution? If you give up that mental focus, then you are reacting the way your opponent wants. You should continue to think about what you’re going to do to counter your opponent’s play and adapt accordingly. Make life difficult for your opponents!

Poker teaches you how to make decisions and this easily applies to tennis. You know in your heart what the right play is. This not only includes on court training and tactical decisions, but off court mental preparation as well. The sacrifices you make such as coming home earlier to rest from your Friday hangouts and eating a healthy diet will pay off in the long run. All you can do is be honest and try your best. Once you realize that that’s all you can do, just keep focusing on how to improve yourself and cancel out the noise.