The Key Mental Skill Of Tennis Champions
In your quest to find more solutions to the psychological challenges of tennis, you will come across terms like concentration, focus, thought control, arousal control, visualization, breathing techniques, rituals and so on.
But there's one ability that works on a completely different level and confronts the biggest obstacle to inner calm and peace of mind, allowing you to play your best in tennis.
The biggest obstacle to your best performance is fear.
There are all sorts of fears that may be present while (or before) you play:
- fear of losing
- fear of embarrassment
- fear of disappointing yourself, parents, coach or someone else
- fear of success
- fear of responsibility
- fear of missing an easy ball
- fear of wasting an opportunity to close the set (close the match, win a tournament)
- fear of losing rankings
- fear of losing to a lower-ranked player (embarrassment again)
- fear of not being fit enough and therefore shortening the points
- fear of making a double fault (fear of missing the serve)
- fear of volleys
- fear of overheads
- fear of hitting close to the lines, fear of hitting deep (both variations of fear of missing)
- fear of being criticized (for missing a shot, not winning a match, …)
- fear of punishment (mostly from parents)
- fear of not playing up to your potential
- fear of playing poorly
So how do we deal with all of these fears?
Courage is the hidden mental quality of every successful tennis player (and other athletes). Courage is rarely discussed or written about when it comes to sports psychology, and yet it is the key mental ability that separates winners from losers.
How Fear Hurts Your GameYou have undoubtedly found one or more of your fears in the bulleted list above, and you probably realize that your fear prevents you from doing something.
Fear of volleys and overheads prevents you from coming to the net. Fear of losing to a lower-ranked player prevents you from playing aggressively and taking chances – you just play very safely and hope that he / she misses.
Fear of being criticized for a mistake again prevents you from playing tennis with intelligent risk taking. Every risk of missing the shot is also a risk of being criticized.
You can go through the list above and think about what the fear prevents / stops you from doing.
In general, the fear will stop you from doing something that is NECESSARY to play better tennis and win more matches in the long term.
The fear stops you from reaching your full potential. If you don't come to the net enough, you'll never develop a good volley or a good overhead. They will remain your weaknesses forever.
If you are afraid to play closer to the lines, you'll never develop the accuracy of shots needed to beat higher-quality tennis players. Your shots will just be too easy, you won't move them around enough and they'll never be in trouble. You'll also never beat them.
If you're afraid to serve a double fault, your second serve will always be a poor one hit with low speed, and it will be an easy target to attack. That way, you'll never be able to prevent attacks on your second serve and never be able to get an advantage in the point thanks to a fast and accurate second serve that will force a short ball.
The list goes on and on, and as you can see, the main obstacle to your improvement and reaching your maximum potential is fear.
And in order to overcome the fear we must simply be brave. Courage is nothing more than being willing to do what is necessary in spite of feeling the fear.
Courageous players are not fearless. On the contrary, they feel the same fear as you do, but they are willing to go against it. If the fear is telling them not to serve a fast and aggressive second serve because there is a chance of a double fault, they do it anyway. They serve a fast and aggressive second serve.
Sure, they make an occasional double fault, but they also force many poor returns and prevent many attacks. In the long term, hitting a good second serve with an occasional double fault is definitely the right solution. The statistics of top ATP players prove that, as the average percentage of their second serve is around 90%.
Top players have so much control over the serve that they could easily serve 99% better or more if they wanted. They could literally eliminate double faults from their matches.
But then they would have to serve much more slowly, which would allow their opponents to attack more, and they would never get an easy ball after the second serve.
So the long-term strategy of hitting faster second serves with an occasional double fault is definitely a better solution.
This also means that the players MUST fight against the fear of making a double fault. They know that there is a 10% chance of making a double fault, and yet they go against that fear because they are aware of the long-term (statistical) advantage of serving more aggressive second serves.
I've used the example of the fear of missing the second serve because it's easier to show with statistical analysis that the fear actually hurts you (or listening to that fear).
But that's in fact true for all the fears listed above and others that may come into play. I cannot think of any fear that would help you become a top-class tennis player that you should always listen to.
On the contrary, you need to go against your fears with courage and determination and know that the fear only stops you from improving and playing better tennis.
Sure, you will make more mistakes when you first confront and fight your fear because, for example, your second serve hasn't developed yet under new conditions (serving faster). You'll also be more affected by fear – you won't be able to focus that well, and your body might feel tense or shaky.
But the key is to continue fighting the fear. The key is to courageously confront the fear again and again. That's where the drastic change will happen.
You won't be affected by fear that much anymore. Your body won't be so tense or shaky, you'll be able to calm your mind better and your shots (or decisions) will improve in the long term.
You'll start serving better. Or hitting more accurately near the lines. Or hitting better volleys. Or improve in some other way.
That's when you must look back at the journey you have taken thus far and at the key decision to go against the fear and do what has to be done in spite of the fear. You'll see that your improvement was caused by that key decision to go against the fear – to be courageous.
Courage can improve your tennis in giant leaps. Once you understand that fear is your worst enemy in the long term, you must become very attentive to your inner chatter and try to detect if there are any fears present.
How to Uncover the Subconscious FearsThe main problem with fear is that it's often subconscious. Often there is no fearful self-talk in your conscious mind.
It's just a feeling that you have. And that feeling prevents you from doing something.
Find out what that feeling prevents you from doing – perhaps coming to the net – and you'll be able to uncover your fear.
Once your fear is conscious, you can deal with it. If it's subconscious, it will continue to control you.
So it's critical that you take time to introspect yourself by looking deeply and honestly into your mind and see what fears may be there.
Once you uncover them, go against them with the full courage you can muster. You will undoubtedly reach new levels of play in the long term.
How I Handled My FearsLet me finish this article with how I learned all about this many years ago.
When I played tournaments, I would often play against good players who could easily attack my second serve. At first, my fear of missing the second serve was subconscious – I didn't know that I was afraid. I just served very safely. And I kept losing points on second serves.
Once I realized that pattern, I saw that I needed to serve better. At that moment, I also realized that I was afraid to serve faster. I didn't trust my serve, and I was afraid to give a cheap point to my opponent.
But if I didn't change anything, I would keep losing. I knew that those players were beatable if I didn’t execute a poor second serve.
At that moment, the decision was much easier, although I intellectually knew what I had to do; my fear was still there.
The courage to go against the fear feels very much like forcing yourself to do something that you don't want to. But you must believe that you HAVE TO.
You HAVE to go to work to earn money so that you can live, although sometimes it may feel like you are actually forcing yourself to do it.
Courage is similar. Courage is basically forcing yourself to act in a way that you intellectually know is the right thing to do in spite of feeling the resistance caused by the feelings of fear.
So I forced myself to serve faster and more aggressive second serves despite the fear of missing. I missed some, but I also saw very clearly that my opponents were unable to attack my second serve when it went in.
That encouraged me even more to keep serving that way. In a matter of a few months, my second serve developed into a great shot.
I thought about what happened when I uncovered my fear, how I became aware of it, how I became aware of its negative consequences of my game (losing matches) and how the key to my improvement was courage to fight that fear.
I then became more and more aware of my fears and actually developed a certain hatred towards them. I saw that these fears were all stopping me from what I really wanted, which was to win matches and tournaments.
So I actually declared war on all my fears. As soon as I became aware of a certain fear, I would do exactly the opposite of what the fear was telling me.
“Don't serve fast second serves. You might make a double fault!” I served very fast and aggressively.
“Don't come to the net. You'll embarrass yourself with poor volleys.” I went to the net over and over again.
“Don't play aggressively against lower-ranked players. What if you miss and lose to them?” I went and played attacking tennis.
(By the way, I saw that I could literally blow less-skilled players off the court in 40 minutes. While they might have had some hopes at the beginning of the match that I would drop down to their level and play it safe, they soon found themselves under constant attack and 5:1 or something like down. Then, most of them simply gave up – and the match was over even more quickly!)
“Be careful on that easy shot! You don't want to waste such an opportunity!” I attacked aggressively, aiming close to the lines.
My general attitude towards the fears was this: “Who are you to tell me what to do? I'll do whatever I want.”
I was like a rebellious teenager doing exactly the opposite of what parents told him to do. But I actually didn't behave that way in reality. ;) I just behaved that way when a fear started to tell me what to do or what not to do.
I would immediately start to do the opposite. That required courage, but that courage was helped a lot by me realizing how quickly I was improving.
My fears now had two opponents: courage and my logical mind, which could see all the positive consequences of doing something against the fear. The fear then had no chance. ;)
SummaryThe purpose of this article is to help you realize that there are many fears that are holding you back. You won't defeat them with classical sports psychology techniques like concentration, activation control or others.
You'll defeat them with courage.
The purpose of this article is also to engage your logic so that you realize intellectually that fears prevent you from reaching your potential and from playing your best in tennis.
Logic and courage will help you overcome your fears. It's now two against one. You cannot lose.