You can imagine that, in the 28 years I have been coaching varsity high school tennis teams, I have virtually seen it all. To be a bit more clear, I have worked with players who have thrived in pressure-packed situations and others who have turned into mental “mush” when the match was on the line.
Let’s assume that the players on the court are of relatively equal ability, as often happens in rated USTA matches, high school varsity tennis matches, or when players are competing recreationally. It’s a two out of three set match, and the first two sets have been split. Both players clearly want to win the match, but here’s what will most definitely impact the outcome:
Player A is feeling quite relaxed and confident, enjoying his time on the court. Winning or losing the match is not something he has learned to spend a lot of time on while playing. Instead, he is focused on hitting each ball, concentrating on using angles wisely and taking advantage of short balls by hitting strong approach shots and getting into volleying position. He’s not worried about his errors because he knows it’s part of the game. Even the very best in the world make errors, he reminds himself. He continues to concentrate on his follow through, attempting to keep the ball deep, especially to his opponent’s weaker side.
Now let’s see how Player B is feeling. Keep in mind that his skill set is very similar to Player A, but here’s how they differ: He knows the match is on the line and he’s really starting to feel it. “I better not take chances,” he’ll say to himself and begins to play just to keep the ball in the court. In other words, he’ll start playing not to lose. As he worries more and more about making mistakes, he’ll begin gripping the racquet more tightly and his swings will become shorter and shorter. Quite naturally, Player A takes full advantage of the mental environment and goes on to win the match handily.
Walking off the court, Player B berates himself for being “chicken,” and just cannot quite figure out why he collapses when the pressure is on.
But we know why this happens all too often. Having control of one’s emotions is crucial to playing competitive tennis on a high level, or on any level for that matter. There’s a huge difference between playing defensively and playing not to lose. Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game. Watch him make his opponent hit ball after ball until he gets an opportunity to turn defense into offense and hit winners. Watching him play Novak Djokovic in the recently completed French Open was a wonderful example of that. Nadal was patient and knew that the slower surface of Roland Garros would allow him to get to run down almost any ball.
Here’s the bottom line: The successful tennis player knows that the game has its ups and downs, and all players make unforced errors. But, it’s the more successful player who knows that controlling one’s emotions and staying focused will more often than not make the difference in winning and losing.
So, the next time you get on the court, especially when practicing, play to win and not to just keep from losing.