We all walk onto the court wanting to win. The reality is, tennis involves winning and losing. It’s no secret that unless you are in the top five in the world, you will probably lose as much as you win. Even if you are in the top three, you will probably lose 20 percent of the time. The only way around eliminating losses is to play an opponent half of your skill level every day. What do you think would happen? You guessed it … boring! It would be like surfing in a lake. Sure, you would stay on the surfboard, but it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.
So, how do you measure success?
Defining your game based on losses is self-defeating. You may even feel personal failure and get angry about it, unable to learn or reflect on exactly what happened. There are certainly times that your opponent played better or you could have done something differently. After a loss, the only way to learn is to separate from the situation, clear your head, and reflect on what you can do the next time out. Remember, failures are not fatal, they are feedback.
On the flip side, defining your game based on winning is equally limiting. John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, was known to have said, “Don’t try to play better than the next person, just play your best.” When you do that, the results take care of themselves. And even if you do win, you may not have played your best, and the score may cause you to miss a key opportunity to reflect and ultimately improve. There is always something you can learn, no matter the outcome.
When working with clients, I often tell them, “Focus on the path, not the peak.” This means focus on what you can control, and let go of what you cannot control. This is about focusing on the next step, the present, not the past or the future.
Imagine this … if you are a mountain climber focusing on only the peak, you will surely fall. The key is to focus on the little steps in front of you, the steps you can control. These little steps can add up to big things/wins.
As a player, here are three key questions you can ask yourself to help you focus on what you can control while letting go of what you cannot control:
1. Can I control what happened?
This is easy! The answer is always NO! If it happened in the past, you cannot control it. For example, if you have lost the first set, are fuming about a lines call, or are angry about a missed approach shot, unfortunately, you cannot control any of these. They already happened and are in the past.
2. What can I control?
The answer here is always, “I can control what I do and how I approach things next.” For example, I can control resetting and getting myself in a calm and aware place to play the next point and letting go of the baggage from the past or the future; rather, bringing your focus to the present.
3. What’s “one thing” I can do that I can control?
This is the big question! Answering it will help you re-focus on a strategy, mentality or even a technical issue that’s in front of you. For example, after losing a set, refocus on playing your game-style, not your opponents’, being more patient or hitting higher over the net for depth. These specific process-oriented goals will take your mind off the past, future and the outcome.
When adversity strikes, take a deep breath and ask yourself these three questions. They will keep you focused on next steps. The next time you are on the court, in your quest to win, keep your focus on the little things that you can control!
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder and director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes and teams at the middle school, high school, national, collegiate and professional levels. His work focuses on helping athletes and teams gain the mental edge, often the difference between winning and losing. Rob has spoken to athletes, coaches, parents both nationally at USTA, USPTA, ITA conferences, and has conducted international workshops and has worked with top-ranked juniors in India, Israel, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He was awarded the 2008 USPTA-Eastern Division High School Coach of the Year Award. He may be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.insidethezone.com.