Former WTA tennis professional Michelle Jaggard-Lai knows what it is to have a competing mindset. While some of us are born competitors and some believe they can learn, others feel they just don’t have it in them – yet, says Michelle, all of us are capable of achieving more.
Success is not always about winning. As an ex-professional tennis player, sports coach, mentor to aspiring tennis players, parent of aspiring champions and currently a voluntary principal of a sports venue, I try to encourage the concept of learning to compete with oneself first, to truly enjoy competing. Many might disagree; they motivate themselves by money, wins, beating fellow players, being ranked above others or looked up to by their peers.
In business you also see some looking for the edge over others, enjoying competitors’ failures or even talking themselves up to be bigger than life. Is this a healthy mindset to enjoy competing?
One thing I know is that we can enjoy the game, compete and have fun without the need to involve others in this journey of self-improvement, and in turn have more fun competing.
When I played on the WTA tour I loved the idea of finding answers, outplaying the opponent, being determined to find ways to play at my best more often. I enjoyed a win-win mindset of learning from every experience, knowing I can’t win everything but I can experience winning in every situation.
I learnt I can have control over how I perform; I found ways to respond or react and rejoiced in the successes, big or small, alongside the progress I made on a daily basis. This motivated me every day to want to get better. It was no easy feat, as our pay on the WTA women’s professional tour was determined by wins and losses, but I was committed to continually improving. I figured if the number one in the world claimed they could improve then certainly so could I. This inspired me each day to be better than yesterday.
Today, after teaching thousands of children in sport schools programs, I believe when introducing competing it is vital that the first experience is positive, fun and just a natural progression that they feel ready to enjoy. I do this by educating students to learn to play the actual game, to understand that competing is just another way to enjoy the sport even more. It explores self-awareness, allows us to make quick, informed decisions and shows us where we are at, and how to grow even more. My belief is preparation is the key to competing confidently and as you practise this skill of competing more often it becomes instinctive.
I enjoyed a win-win mindset of learning from every experience, knowing I can’t win everything but I can experience winning in every situation.
One of my biggest challenges was when I taught a large elite schoolgirls’ team to learn how to compete at their personal best. They seemed to have a ‘brain freeze’ in what they thought were big events, so we wanted to improve their self-awareness. Many had the importance of beating each other for a position in the team as their priority, didn’t understand their own strengths and weaknesses or couldn’t analyse their opponents to devise a game plan.
We changed the focus to learn how to become a great competitor, understanding the importance of competing and the value it brings to their overall life skills, and knowing it is just a game we play, with no relationship to life or death circumstances. I noticed after explaining this the change in their approach to training; many members of the team started to enjoy learning from each other and playing against each other for training purposes. They began to believe they deserved to win after recognising their own self-worth and contribution to the team.
It soon became clear they started working harder on their overall skills because they began to really enjoy the game. When we implemented a plan designed around performing at their best, they began playing to their strengths against their opponents’ weakness more often, started setting realistic goals each match and were interested in helping the overall team results, and in turn, produced better personal performance. They were later rewarded by reaching their goal of coming at the top of the schoolgirls’ team competition.
It was a very proud moment for our team. They even forgot who performed best as each contributed their personal best and reached their potential as a competitor. My proudest moment as a coach was to see them fall in love with the game and hear that they all increased their practice time without being forced to turn up. They have continued playing tennis in many forms today and recall some of these moments as pivotal experiences that made a positive impact on them.
Alongside this, I often found that their performance in sport helped them with other areas, like their academic performance and social relationships with fellow students, and gave them the belief to achieve new goals in life after school.
I believe every person can compete to their best if they have a strong desire not to accept anything less. We all have it in us as we were born competitors; we just need to learn how to access it, learn what is really important about what we want to achieve and go for it like there is nothing to lose – or just like you had all the money in the world and can make clear, unemotional business decisions.
I recently spoke to a principal owner of a real estate business who is currently selling our own family home and I asked what it is he loves about his job. He said, “I love the thrill of the chase”. What I took from this is that he enjoyed competing by fighting to get the sale over the line, understood the importance of those last few moments of negotiations and the need for clear decision-making at pivotal moments – but he also got a thrill and thirst for the battle of competing and the crunch time of sealing the deal. It was almost like a sport, and this made me realise how closely business and sport can be.
As a player on the WTA I remember one of the greatest compliments that another player gave me. We were going for breakfast in the hotel together before starting our matches for the day at a tournament in the USA and she said, “Michelle, do you know why you are so tough to beat? It’s because you never give up – anyone who plays you must go out and actually beat you.”
I must say I was a little shocked that a fellow competitor would offer such important information to me over breakfast, but I thanked her for her insight on what it felt to be on the other side of the net.
This is something I can be very proud of when I look back on my career, as in every match I always gave my best and fought till the last point. It still stands today and I have been told the same thing in different roles or jobs I have been in or opportunities I have been blessed to be given.
One thing I have come to recognise is that I love completion and getting to the finish line, but also have a deep appreciation for the journey it takes to get there. I must admit that often I have been guilty of saying to my closest support lines, “I really want to give up” but for some reason I just can’t agree to it in my soul, because it is who I am: a born competitor who loves fighting till the end. However, I stay true to what I stand for and how I want to be known by others – and most importantly myself.
In short, there are five contributing factors to being a champion at whatever you do:
1. Build a thirst for self-improvement
2. Accept purposeful practice is needed
3. Learn to play to your strengths
4. Enjoy a performance-based approach
5. Have fun competing and being at your best.
You were born a competitor. Good luck!