Three Types of Opponents

 As an athlete, you're going to face three types of opponents throughout your career:

  1. Opponents who are worse than you.
  2. Opponents who are better than you.
  3. Opponents who are at the same level as you.

Each of these types of opponents have their own challenges and benefits. Let me explain.

When playing against weaker opponents, the obvious advantage is that you're better than them. With more talent, skill, athleticism, toughness, or experience, you'll have an easier time winning. But improving your chances of winning isn't the only benefit of playing weaker opponents. It can also give you a confidence boost, which is sometimes very needed after going through a slump. Furthermore, playing against an especially weak opponent gives you the opportunity to take risks and work on making improvements during the game. It can be hard to make these kinds of improvements against tougher opponents, when you're only focused on trying to win.

The biggest challenge of playing against weaker opponents is that they often cause you to play down to their level. Most athletes don't take weak opponents serious enough. Instead of giving their best effort, they want to simply give the minimal amount of effort needed to win. This can cause teams to greatly under-perform. Also, on top of this, there's added pressure that comes with playing weaker opponents. As the favorite, you are supposed to win, and as the underdog, your opponent has less to lose. And since athletes often expect to beat weaker opponents easily, they get frustrated when they start to under-perform, and this can cause them to get over-emotional and play even worse. Lastly, beating weaker opponents can sometimes give you a false sense of confidence. The joy of winning can blind you to your weaknesses and cause you to get complacent.

The pros and cons of playing a superior opponent are the opposite of playing an inferior opponent. When playing against a stronger opponent, the obvious advantage is that they bring out the best in you. It's exciting to play against great teams and have the opportunity to pull off an upset. Also, if you don't bring your A game, there's a good chance you'll get blown out, which no one wants. And by testing your limits, playing a stronger opponent can greatly help you improve. You may not work on your weaknesses while playing against a stronger opponent, but you can still improve by giving your absolute best effort. This can improve your fitness, skills, and mental toughness. But most importantly, playing a stronger opponent exposes your weaknesses and teaches you what you need to work on. Also, losing to a stronger opponent can humble you and give you the motivation to train harder and improve. Lastly, playing a stronger opponent takes the pressure off of you. As the underdog, it's easier for you to play loose and aggressive, which greatly improves your performance. 

The obvious disadvantage of playing stronger opponents is that you're more likely to lose. Although winning isn't all that matters in life, it's still important. Even if you play your best and improve, losing still sucks and it can hurt your seeding for the postseason. But besides this, there are more disadvantages of playing superior opponents. For one, losing by a large margin can hurt your confidence, and without confidence, it's hard to beat even weaker opponents. Secondly, like I said earlier, it's harder to work on your weaknesses if you're only concerned with keeping the score close. Lastly, playing against a team that is physically stronger can sometimes be dangerous and cause injuries.

Playing against equally-skilled opponents has the same pros and cons of weaker and stronger opponents, but to a lesser degree. When playing against an equally-skilled opponent, neither team has the motivational, confidence, or pressure advantage. With all else being equal, it comes down to who is mentally tougher and executes better. Also, playing against an equally-skilled opponent can bring out the best in you and help you improve in many ways. For these reasons, playing against equally-skilled opponents gives you the best of both worlds.

As you can see, these three types of opponents have their own sets of challenges and benefits. What does this mean for athletes and coaches? First, it means you need to be prepared for the challenges that each of your opponent brings. For instance, if you're playing an opponent that you think is weaker than you, you need to be careful about becoming overconfident. You need to brace for a challenge and cope with the pressure of being the favorite. But if you know for sure that your opponent will not challenge you, you need to use the game as opportunity to take risks and work on your weaknesses. If you're playing an opponent that you think is better than you, you need to remain confident and embrace the role of an underdog. But if you know for sure that you have no shot at winning, you need to remain positive and use the game as a learning opportunity. And if you're playing against an equally-skilled opponent, you need to be especially mentally tough, knowing you can't rely on talent or lack of pressure to carry you through.

However, mentally preparing for all kinds of opponents is not enough. You need to physically prepare yourself for all kinds of opponents as well. This means you need to practice playing against weaker, stronger, and equally-skilled opponents in practice. Many athletes only want to train with athletes who are at the same level or better than them. They think there's no use in training with weaker opponents, so they never do. However, this is a big mistake. If you're not used to playing against weaker athletes in practice, then you're more likely to under-perform when you have to play them in games. As an athlete, you rarely get to choose your opponent in games. You're going to have to play against all kinds of opponents, so you must prepare for each one of them. 

Lastly, as a coach, you can purposely design your schedule to maximize the development of your team. Ideally, a team plays against an equal mixture of weaker, stronger, and equally-skilled opponents. This way, you gain the benefits of all of them throughout the course of a season. Also, it can help to purposely schedule weaker opponents at the beginning of the season to give your team a boost of confidence before playing gradually tougher competition.