The fear of losing a match is a very paralyzing state of mind—it will peek its head up after every lost point, it will cause hesitation in the decision-making process, and weaken one’s courage to take risks. In my experience working with competitive youth tennis players, most can rationally identify a fear of losing and acknowledge that it is a normal part of the sport, yet they do not know how to overcome their fear and cannot stop worrying before a match.
So, if logical understanding isn’t enough, then what is this fear truly about? The short answer: Emotions. In my experience both as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and former professional athlete, I know that feeling of disappointment, the embarrassment, guilt and regret are a natural part of the journey. There is no way of removing these feelings from the experience, yet most are terrified to feel them because they are not equipped with tangible emotional management skills. Instead, they are encouraged to control their emotion, and as you can imagine, this advice can lead to even greater anxiety.
As a coach, you can help your players overcome a fear of losing by gaining a better understanding of the emotional dynamics at play and altering your language to follow suit. First and foremost, it is essential to know that emotions are being taken on as disposition rather than a temporary physiological state. So if your player is feeling disappointed after a loss, they are interpreting that feeling as being a disappointment as a person. This is a gross miscalculation that, over time, will strengthen a fear of failure and disrupt one’s ability to learn from mistakes.
In actuality, emotions come and they go, they can be pleasant or uncomfortable, and have varied intensities and combinations. I’m sure at one point or another, you have delivered the message, “Let go of your mistakes,” which seems to fall on deaf ears. So if the fear is really of an emotional state, then we must teach our players to let go of that emotion, which can be accomplished with the following steps:
1. Identify specific emotions and label their intensity
As a coach, give your players an opportunity to label how they feel after mistakes or failure. Many actually don’t know and may say “Bad” or “Not good,” which are mood states, not emotions. This hazy sense of discomfort actually exacerbates fear and anxiety before a match. Just think, how could you overcome a fear if you don’t know exactly what you are afraid of? So instead of telling them, “Just be confident” or “Don’t be upset,” start asking your players to identify specific emotions and label their intensity.
2. Experience the physiological feeling and breathe in oxygen
For some, emotions can be quite overwhelming, making it difficult to breathe and causing a rapid increase in thoughts. Since emotions are associated with a physiological change in the body, the quickest and most effective tool to move out of an uncomfortable physiological state is to breathe.
3. Accept your emotions and give them permission to fade away
Concurrently, you have to remove the stigma of feeling uncomfortable emotions during competition. It is truly a natural part of the environment, and young athletes must start to hear the message that “It’s okay to feel __________________.”
By allowing them time and space to process these feelings, you will encourage emotional acceptance and develop players who can successfully navigate adversity with courage, resilience and confidence. They will know that the feeling is not a representation of who they are as a person–it’s just a temporary state.
Highly competitive players don’t want to feel negative emotions because they interpret them as a sign of failure or weakness, yet they are human and it’s a normal part of tennis. In order to develop fearlessness, emotional management tools are vital. As coaches, you can better service your players by understanding, communicating and guiding them to face the emotional component of their fears. Competitive players want control, and although they cannot control their emotional experiences, we can give them control over the management process.
Amanda Ferranti is the director and founder of Ferranti Empowerment where she has firmly established herself as an AASP Certified Mental Performance Consultant for youth athletes, teams, and coaches. Amanda also has years of athletic experience as an ex-professional soccer player and Princeton graduate. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.