Today I played my last 9-ball league match of the season. I lost 7-4. I observed some of the thoughts barreling around my head while I was performing poorly.
“I’m going to lose, I just want to get out of here.”
“I don’t have my stroke locked in, let’s just get this over with.”
“John (this is me imagining a conversation with my teammate), I just don’t have it today, I’m sorry I suck so much this season. I lost my stroke months ago and I picked up this bad habit where my eyes drop at contact and I’m super shaky when I’m using sidespin and my confidence is totally shot and every time I practice, I’m absolutely miserable, blah blah blah”
I only just lost the first two racks. I missed a couple shots that are normally rock-solid for me. But still, the match had barely started. Yet these self-defeating thoughts quietly set up tent in my mind.
I start to blank out a little. I stop focusing on the present, like I’m de-vesting myself from the stakes of the moment. I’m trying to trick myself a little–like I don’t care that much–so the pain can go away just for a little bit and I can at least finish the match with dignity. On the outside, I might just look like I’m standing still like a robot but I feel like a ghost, just drifting away without support. The self-defeating thoughts from above don’t go away. They politely hang around. At least they’re not picking up in intensity. I notice it a little less, like a conversation that’s next to me and just happens to be about me. I’ve been honing this “coping skill” for the past 3 years, maybe longer. This is one of those maladaptive coping mechanisms that seems okay because maybe it seems like I’m taking emotion out of the equation but it’s very suboptimal and comes with destructive long-term consequences. This is a post for another day but I made millions of dollars putting my mind through the ringer and then having to numb it out between 2020 and 2022, and now I can’t turn the switch off and I’m trading worse than I ever have. Again, a post for another day. Emotion is still very much there and I’m just sort of ignoring it and going through the motions rather than resolving it. It’s “helpful” because at least the thoughts aren’t avalanching into much worse… like
“I’m terrible at this game and I should just quit.”
“I should throw all my cues into the Hudson River when I’m finished with this match.”
“You’re an idiot for caring so much about a hobby. All these people are laughing at you. They view you as one of the frauds.”
“I can’t believe how much time I waste into something only to suck. I should just consider killing myself.”
Yeah I know. You don’t have to tell me. The end result felt inevitable. I have a losing mentality so I lost. Lesson learned right? Maybe.
I read all the books. Mental Game of Poker. The Psychology of Trading. Trading in the Zone. Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect. The Inner Game of Tennis. Talent is Overrated. I’ve read all that shit since I was 18. All the pop psychology stuff that says you need to think like a winner to win and here’s what the winners do so copy all that. It works for a little bit, maybe a few weeks, maybe months even, depending on how long I sustain actual improvements.
“I’m a new Pete now. I don’t have these self-defeatist thoughts like the old Pete.”
“I dream big and I set big goals. You only live one life, why not shoot for the stars?”
“Pressure is nothing. Who cares if you lose, it’s just a game.”
“Trust your shot. Just let it loose and trust it will go in, that’s how the elite athletes do it.”
Then reality hits. It’s fine to miss the shot. It’s tolerable to miss it twice. Then you miss ten times and you start to question reality. You miss it all day, a hundred times, at a practice where nobody is even watching and you start to feel undignified for deluding yourself. You want to fucking scream. You do and think all these things that betray the very principles you were you trying so hard to adapt. Did you simply create a false reality where you thought you believed those things? Why do the self-defeating thoughts just come back and get even louder? Actually they aren’t the same thoughts–they get more violent and intense, almost like a harsh warning to yourself: Stop caring you idiot, otherwise feel more pain! Nothing ever changes, so stop caring and stay home and don’t believe in anything, especially in yourself. You dumb fuck.
I can’t believe I ate all that shit up. It’s not real. Maybe it works for some people because they always had it in them. I don’t and maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s actually great and all the other schmucks are just greedy fucking assholes and 99% of them will fail and still delude themselves for life. I’m cool for wanting less or if not that, at least being aware that my ambitions to be “great at things” is just nothing more than a joke.
Let me go on a small tangent and tell you something–I’m terminally online in the sports world. It’s awful and I can’t stop. I’m constantly on sports twitter and NBA/NFL/MLB subreddits and staying up until 1am consuming podcasts and fucking up my sleep on this shit. I don’t watch garbage like Skip Bayless so I’m at least a few rungs above the absolute bottom but there is so much toxic discourse in sports that is parallel to the themes I’m writing about–wanting, winning, losing, and coping. Here’s one stupid “thing” (of many) in the online sports discourse: Ring culture. You know what that is? It’s when nothing counts other than winning a championship. That’s the only way you are judged. MVPs and individual accomplishments are pretender bullshit. Regular season wins are pretender bullshit. Only championships matter. And then from there, all the derivative jokes stem from these attitudes we have about winning There’s a whole meme economy for elite players who are perceived to underperform in the playoffs like James Harden or Joel Embiid or Paul George. It’s hilarious when they fuck up every year. It’s FUN to stomp on their graves when their repeated failures confirm our biases about them.
Because of ring culture and winning mentality and all that whatever-ness, we celebrate Michael Jordan as the ultimate icon. Dude punched his teammate in the face and gambles all night and he’s just in general, a cantankerous and petty asshole of a man, but we love him. I’m no better, there’s posters/figurines/books of MJ in my childhood room and he’s THE GUY who got me into sports… so maybe my takeaway ought to be that I got sick at such an early age with this toxic bullshit mentality that I shouldn’t blame myself. LeBron James, the second greatest player of all time is constantly criticized for not being Jordan. He’s literally better than every other player who ever picked up a basketball in the history of the universe except maybe one. Some dude at a poker game I was at 7 weeks ago saw my interest in an NBA game and after some chit-chat, he just had to know my “all time player GOAT rankings”–of which I declined to give him. So he took it as invitation to offer his own list. And by the time he got to the top-3, he couldn’t stop sneering at how he would always hold Jordan as the GOAT because… 3-6 finals record vs. 6-0 finals record. LeBron’s a choker, Jordan’s a winner. He didn’t know I’ve read through this conversation a million times online and that’s why I didn’t want to get into it. You’re not interesting because you have an opinion on Jordan and LeBron, shut the fuck up.
When you actually live life and want things and go after them (and sometimes don’t get it), and then you try to apply some kind of intellectual/moral consistency and see everything as wins and losses and proof of some greater mentality or some weaker mentality… you know what happens? It kind of SUCKS.
Imagine judging the people around you on these terms?
“My dad got depressed because he lost his job. He didn’t put in enough time to rise above so it’s really on him.”
“My pal struggled in college and had to drop out. He’s not a good test taker because he’s a total choke job waiting to happen under pressure.”
“My sister’s restaurant failed because her kids took up too much of her time. In the end, she just didn’t want it badly enough and had a quitter mentality.”
So yeah, I’m kind of tired of it. Yeah I know I have a loser mindet when I’m playing pool. Or when I am trading. It’s just been happening more and more and yeah I’m pretty sure this isn’t what goes through the mind of a Kobe or Jordan so yeah, I’m the antithesis of the mamba mentality and I am a total loser and a non-winner. And maybe in some sick way against all the values I held higher from age 7 to age 33, that’s fine. It’s whatever. There are 9 billion people on Earth, we can’t all be champions. Or even half-decent recreational 9-ball players. I don’t know. At least I can live in peace now that I’ve admitted this to all my readers.
You know what I realized on the way home? The self-defeating thoughts have always been there. They’re just one voice though. There’s another voice… one that says
“Fuck everyone. I’m going to do it.”
or even sometimes..
“Hang in there. You got this.”
And I don’t know where that guy went but I hope he comes back.