Did you know that most people believe they are better looking, funnier and a more skilled driver than the average person?
Have you ever heard of the term Illusory Superiority (IS)? It is defined as a condition of cognitive bias where a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other persons. Illusory Inferiority (II) would be the opposite where a person underestimates their own qualities and abilities. Pretty much every tennis player I have ever coached falls into one of these two categories. The outlier was the player that had a good grasp of reality! Why is it that most tennis players, including myself, would be at one end of this spectrum or the other. Well I will give you my take on why!
The players that suffer from IS were the ones that could never really take responsibility for a poor performance or loss. They would be very creative with their excuses and could be quite convincing. One of the reasons they likely developed this habit was as a protection mechanism to deal with their parents who suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect:
Dunning – Kruger Effect: a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.
Because Mom or Dad, or both, played a bit of tennis, watched a set and half of the Wimbledon Final in 1996 while eating their cornflakes, and are “successful” in their own industry, they believe they can translate that “expertise” into providing cutting edge wisdom to their child. They somehow always have an expert opinion to bestow and mistakenly assess their tennis knowledge and coaching abilities as greater than they actually are.
I only write about the things I have experienced and learned. I don’t write articles about the biomechanics of the serve or how to increase the dorsiflexion in the ankles even though I am very familiar with these areas. In my daily life I definitely don’t provide advice or give opinions on the stock market or governmental fiscal policies (even though I have a degree in finance). I have touched upon all these areas in my life, readings and education but I would not feel comfortable giving advice on such matters. Basically, I KNOW WHAT I DON’T KNOW, and I am willing to admit when I don’t know something. Why is that so bloody difficult for people??
Many parents I have experienced have a strong view on tennis development despite only touching upon tennis or high performance athletics in their own life. Because these parents can’t help themselves, and attempt to give an opinion on something they have no clue about, their kids start to insulate themselves from this barrage of uninformed advice by developing excuses. They often start to make excuses and end up overestimating or underestimating their own abilities in order to protect their ego and relationship with their parent.
The players afflicted with Illusory Superiority are the ones that college coaches tend to struggle with the most. These players have developed a Captain America type shield against any feedback or criticism. Penetrating this shield can take years and often leads to players transferring before the coach has had a chance to break down some of these barriers. Of course, these players parents again have an opinion on how the player should or should not be coached, and do very little to help the situation. The cycle continues and their child is even further away from developing any self-awareness and progressing into adulthood.
On the other end of the scale we have those players that suffer from Illusory Inferiority. They constantly feel like they are not good enough. They downplay their success, discount the skills they have developed through years of hard work, and often don’t feel worthy of praise. They likely have some self-esteem issues, but are generally much easier to coach as they don’t take criticism personally because they are usually their own worst critic. In this case the coach has to point out all the things they have done well, remind them of their previous successes and get them to celebrate their small accomplishments along the way.
There is a time to be positive and a time to be critical, with healthy doses of reality sprinkled in between. I will introduce you to another term, Performative Positivity; this means there will be times in your performances that you need to be positive despite the score-line or uphill battle you are facing. In those moments in a match, I believe it is much better to be positive and continue to fight for every point. However, once the match is done, be honest with yourself and others about your preparation, your performance and what you have learned.
Stop comparing yourself to others and ruthlessly evaluate your own game and results. Remember that the level of tennis player you are is all relative, like most things in life. If I go down to my local club, I might as well be Roger Federer compared to the next best players. At the national level I am considered to still be very good, but no Roger Federer. At the international level I am just one of thousands of players that devoted countless hours to their tennis development and have a nice game to show for it, in other words, just another fish in the pond. So, when I am down at my local club l I would be well served to not walk around like I am Roger Federer and think I don’t need to work on my game because I can beat everyone. Equally, if I am playing an international tournament, I am not going to curl up into a ball and think that I am no good because there are so many talented players competing in the event. I am going to compete and train at the same intensity regardless of my surroundings, and not attempt to impress anyone or hide in the cupboard.
Focus on your own goals and standards, not somebody else’s (who may or may not be particularly well informed ;). Put in place a plan and strategy that keeps you focused on the process and less on the outcome. Don’t get too high or low as there will always be another tennis match around the corner. You are definitely not as good as you think you might be and equally you are definitely not as bad as you may believe. Learn to live somewhere in the middle, and do not let the latest result, good or bad, overly impact your approach to training and life. Maybe you can also start to think about what other areas of your life in which you suffer from Illusory Superiority, Illusory Inferiority or Dunning Kruger; I guarantee you we all do it in some way.