You know the symptoms too well: you are aware of your own skill level and the levels of other players around you, but today you have to match up against a player of higher caliber—maybe slightly higher, maybe a lot higher—and you roll your eyes and think, What’s the point? Or a different scenario, of which you are less aware: you are in a tournament and draw a very good opponent who has been on fire lately and who, perhaps, just came off a stellar match against someone else, and you know you can beat him (you have before), but you also sense butterflies in your stomach for some reason because today your opponent seems different—confident, towering, and able.

You don’t know it yet, of course, but you have already lost the match.

This is fear, and its translation, if it is not handled quickly, is (an often unconscious) loss of confidence, which, in turn, creates self-doubt, and in no time at all, a loss of said match. It is common and normal to respond to a confident or cocky or simply very good player with fear. This is the body’s mechanism of awareness and potential defense, and it means you are human and invested in the outcome. The downfall, unfortunately, is that you may be unprepared to “fight” in this fight-or-flight response. Sure, you face your opponent squarely, but your confidence is gone, your ability to do what you were just doing twenty minutes ago in your practice session or in your previous match may be diminished, and you can’t figure why. You have not chosen the “fight” response, although you think you have; you have chosen the “flight” response and mentally vacated the premises. And the reason is simple enough: you believe you should lose.

That is, you unconsciously believe you ought to lose to this player—for whatever reason of many; but your subconscious has made up its mind, and now you simply sit around and wait for the inevitable and shoot when your turn comes (but with little authority, of course, for you are simply standing by for the end), and in time, maybe thirty minutes, maybe an hour, your opponent shakes your hand and heads to the tournament desk to report his win. You, on the other hand, cannot understand what has just occurred, and so unscrew and put your things away and, if you’re lucky enough, await your next match. Or you go home.

Let me be clear: you don’t want to lose, but you feel that you have no standing to win. That you’re not good enough to win, at least not at present, or not worthy enough, or not known enough, or not credentialed enough, or not this or that or whatever enough . . . and so you lose. The world is right. Your opponent, who seems to have no fear about him (a facade that he has mastered to be sure and the first way that you were tricked into feeling worthless in the first place) runs through opponent after opponent in mostly the same way until he finally meets someone who knows how to play him and this situation and shake his opponent’s once apparently immovable confidence.

Overcoming such a feeling of self-doubt comes with experience, and there is no easy solution. The first step is in recognizing the presence of your fear and the selection of the flight response you have unconsciously chosen. When you know that your confidence is lacking and that you don’t feel prepared to win, unless your opponent implodes, you can be sure that you will indeed not win. As this is a multi-part article, finding a solution will take more than one writing. For now, I want you to think back to matches past when you felt fear (not mere nervousness; these are two different things) and to when you can agree that your match was over pretty well before it ever began. Then think of why you felt the way that you did; what caused such a response in you? What caused the sudden self-doubt? Was it the bravado of another player? or his or her confidence? or reputation or accomplishments? or something else? Take the time to write these down.

You will have to be honest with yourself and admit up front what caused the fear and for your game to shut down. Without this honesty and sincere searching, you will not pinpoint this mental weak point in your game.

We lose for many reasons, and I am asking you to think deeply about particular instances of fear, anxiety, and doubt that crept in and arrested your ability to play the game that you love.
In the next article, we will go deeper into the issue and try to uncover some possible responses to such situations, but first, you must identify them.