The Psyches Of Champions

Posted on: September 20th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

THE LAST MATCH begins previews October 28, 2017


The Last Match brings the audience into the minds of two top tennis players engaged in intense competition. According to sports psychologist David Fletcher, professional athletes differ from most people. “Winning in sport isn’t normal; so being psychologically different in certain ways is not just advantageous, it’s necessity.” Fletcher notes a tendency towards positive characteristics like resilience and extroversion in pro athletes, but also towards negative traits, like obsession and selfishness. An understanding of how the mind impacts athletic performance has led to a profession called sports psychology, which can help explain the drive to compete.



Since the 19th century, psychologists have seen that athletes perform better in head-to-head competition versus practicing alone. Competition improves

Actor Alex Mickiewicz practices his serve.

performance, such as speed or hitting a ball, and it also impacts physiology, such as endurance, heart rate, and the ability to withstand pain. Social comparison—the tendency to compare ourselves to others—helps drive competition. Athletes or not, most humans rank ourselves to determine if we are “ahead” or “behind” others. Comparison usually raises our competitive edge; however, if we sense too many competitors in the field, the desire to compare and compete may actually decrease.


Rivalry, the focused comparison directed at one individual that we see between Tim and Sergei, plays a greater role in single-player games like tennis. NYU researcher Gavin Kilduff has shown that athletes compete more intensely against individuals or teams they view as rivals. Kilduff explains that rivals “are motivated to outperform each other not just because of what is at stake in the competition, but also because of their history with one another and the implications that future competitions between them have for this competitive relationship.”


MOTIVATION: Extrinsic vs Intrinsic

Comparison and rivalry both serve as motivation, but people compete for a variety of reasons. Sports psychologists look at distinctions between extrinsic motivation (external goals) and intrinsic motivation (internal reasons). Sports offer many external rewards: money, scholarships, fame, and glory. However, intrinsically motivated athletes find a sense of success through their own improvement and growth, and in the pure enjoyment of the game. For pros like Tim and Sergei, long-term dependence on extrinsic rewards can actually diminish internal motivation over time. Coaches and sports psychologists now see the benefits of stronger intrinsic motivation to support a long sports career.

Actor Alex Mickiewicz visiting the U.S. Open.

THOUGHTS: Focus vs. Distraction

Thoughts during the game have significant impact on performance—especially in tennis, a game played with no teammates or coaches. Maintaining focus is crucial in a match that can last a long time, with no pauses. Under pressure, the player who keeps their attention on the game and does not allow distractions to break their focus has a competitive edge. Additionally, self-talk (how an athlete speaks to her/himself during the game) can affect performance either for better or worse. Ziegler allows us to hear the “self-talk” of two highly competitive athletes. Even if we can’t hit a ball, we can  understand how competition informs our own lives, be it in school, work, or at home.



The Last Match begins performances at the Laura Pels Theatre on September 28, 2017 . For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, The Last Match

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