How To Improve Self-Confidence In Tennis
And Why Most Players Build A Fragile Type Of Confidence Which Doesn't Last


Losing confidence in tennis
One of the biggest struggles for players regarding the mental aspect of tennis is developing strong self-confidence.

In fact, I dare to say that at any level of tennis from juniors to club players to professionals we rarely see really confident players.

Why is this so? Why do so many players struggle with confidence?

Let's see what confidence really is:

Confidence is generally described as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct or that a chosen course of action is the best or most effective http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confidence

full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing - http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/confidence

Athletes will have self-confidence if they believe they can achieve their goals.
http://www.brianmac.co.uk/psych.htm

Looking at these definitions and, of course, asking tennis players what it means to be confident, we see that there are two types of confidence and as you will see one is permanent and the other is not.

Fragile Confidence

From my experience as a tennis coach, with over 25 years of playing tennis and over 15 years of teaching tennis, I believe that most tennis players build this type of confidence a fragile one.

For most tennis players, being confident means believing that they WILL succeed. Note the word "certain" in the first definition from Wikipedia.

"Confidence is generally described as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct..."

That's exactly what tennis players are looking for they are looking for certainty. For most people, certainty equals confidence.

"If I am 100% certain that I will achieve this goal, then I am confident."

But - if there is uncertainty, it also means that there is doubt present. Doubt, of course, cannot exist at the same time as confidence at least not in a way where most people equate confidence with certainty.

Therefore, the confidence based on outcome and certainty is not the right type of confidence. It's actually a very fragile type of confidence that vanishes as soon as the seeming outcome(s) is no longer favorable.

Since tennis players are not stupid, it is very clear to them that the outcome of tennis matches played with opponents of similar levels is NOT certain therefore, they are not confident.

Permanent Confidence

The other definition of confidence we can find is this: "Athletes will have self-confidence if they believe they CAN achieve their goals."

There is very small difference in words, which makes all the difference between the fragile and the permanent type of confidence.

The above definition is the definition of what confidence SHOULD be in your mind.

However, for most players, it goes like this:

"Athletes will have self-confidence if they believe they WILL achieve their goals."

See the difference? It's the words CAN and WILL.

The word "can" implies that there is still uncertainty and that the player's confidence is not based solely on the outcome of the match.

The player's confidence is based on the assessment of their abilities and their assessment of the task faced, where the player sees a possibility ('can') of overcoming this task with their abilities.

They are not certain of it, but they see a chance. They believe they are capable of overcoming the task and are therefore they are willing to invest the energy to achieve their goal.

The Difference Between Permanent And Fragile Confidence

As I mentioned before, the "right" type of confidence (permanent) is the one that is based on the word CAN. That's when confidence is based on abilities and skills.

The word CAN implies abilities and skills 'I can' therefore I am able to. (or capable of)

Our abilities and skills do not suddenly get worse in a match unless we are injured or very tired.

Hand-eye coordination, balance, stroke technique, understanding of tennis tactics, and other abilities do not change in the match or even in the long term. In fact, they can only improve with more practice and more matches played.

The "wrong" type of confidence (fragile) is the one based on the word WILL. The player is confident only when they are certain that they will win.

When the score goes their way, when they have the momentum, when they play well, then they are confident. As soon as something looks negative and it looks like they might not win the match, they lose confidence.

This type of confidence is therefore not permanent in fact, it changes very frequently during the match (that's why you also see so much fluctuation in tennis matches especially with juniors!).

How We Learn The "Wrong" Type Of Confidence

The player learns the wrong type of confidence when they are praised and criticized based solely on the outcome.

Coaches and parents are the ones who teach (unknowingly, of course) the wrong type of confidence.

When we praise the player for hitting the ball in or for hitting a nice looking winner, our message to them is that they are good.

When the player misses, we criticize them the message now being that the player is not good.

Consequently, the player starts to associate their level of tennis (and thus their confidence about how good they are) based on their hits and misses (the outcome).

If they hit the ball in and / or the score goes well, they are good (and, therefore, confident in the outcome of the match), whereas if they miss and the score doesn't look that good, they are not good players.

That's when they start to doubt themselves: "How can I win the match if I am not a good player?"

The parents and the coaches create non-confident players, not the players themselves. The players are influenced by our feedback and, based on it, they create their own sense of self-confidence or lack of it.

Why do parents and coaches praise and criticize the outcomes?

They do this because, as kids, they were also praised and criticized on their outcomes their grades in school, their sports successes, and the everyday tasks, for example, when a child makes some mistakes in a homework assignment and is criticized for it.

This is not about punishment this about association of child's self-confidence, either based on the outcome (which is always uncertain and can NEVER be only positive) or the skills and abilities which in fact improve all the time with training and competing.

If we coaches and parents are to help build self-confidence in our children / tennis players, then we MUST praise more than we criticize and we must criticize (if we really need to) ONLY the things that are under the player's control.

The outcome is not. Even hitting one single ball in the court is not 100% under the control of the player.

(If hitting the ball in was under the player's control, then we would see no unforced errors as every player would choose to hit the ball in.)

What Can The Player Really Control?

The player is often said to control only their effort, attitude, and the overall strategy but, as you'll see, even that is not the case.

We are not in total control of our thoughts or the emotions that arise.

Both of these can be triggered by subconscious processes and it usually takes us some time to become aware of the negative consequences, before we can consciously choose to think about something else and start emotional control techniques.

In most cases, though we humans simply follow the thought and the emotional process at all times. We are creatures of habits and most of our behavior is repeated behavior from previous days.

The player cannot control the effort level if they are upset or frustrated. The player cannot control their effort if they are thinking negative thoughts of how badly they played in the last game, for example.

They certainly cannot control their attitude if they are frustrated.

They may "wake up" and realize that this emotional state does not help them achieve their goal but it usually takes quite some time and some points played before the player realizes this.

With many years of mental training and lots of positive coaching, players do get really good at becoming aware of their emotional states and negative thoughts patterns and they are able to change them consciously, almost as soon as they appear - but they are still not able to do that all the time every time - therefore they are not in total control.


When it comes to strategy, things are very similar. As soon as the point starts, we no longer think consciously (only rarely on very slow balls), as there is no time for conscious analysis.

While we can be aware of the general strategy almost all the time (play to the backhand for example), we are unable to come to perfect tactical decisions in all situations. No tennis player is hitting every ball with ideal tactical decision!

Our tactical decisions HAPPEN based on our past practice and matches played and we simply follow them. Sometimes fear and doubt prevent us from following the first thought that comes to mind, and we become indecisive and decide late; thus, we miss the shot.

As you already found out, we cannot control our emotions with 100% certainty.

Therefore, we cannot control anything. (Again, by control, I mean 100% control of the outcome.)

If we cannot control anything, how can we be responsible for mistakes?

It's our emotional and overthinking brain that makes mistakes not us. We would prefer NOT to overthink things and we would prefer NOT to get emotional but we can't stop or control these events.

With practice and awareness, our INFLUENCE over thoughts and emotions grows and we become much better at controlling them but, in my opinion we will never gain complete control over thoughts and emotions.

At that point, we would stop being human and become machines...

If controlling our emotions was under our control, there would be no more drug, alcohol, or food addiction or any other kind of addiction.

There would no more violence in the world, as everyone would control their emotions and debate in a totally calm state about things they disagree about.

As this is obviously not reality, it is also not a reality that your son or daughter will not succumb to their emotions during the match. They are unable to control them 100%.

We only improve the level of control of our emotions and thoughts through constant mental training and exposure to pressure situations.

Playing in the zone is something that happens rarely for most of us and only then, we release ourselves from the control of our minds and emotions and play "out of our minds."

Every other moment, our play can be affected by our thoughts and emotions, which we cannot control 100%.

Therefore, we cannot be criticized for mistakes that are caused by our inability to control our thoughts and emotions.

We all - parents, coaches and players - must be aware of this inability.

Our goal is to encourage the player to improve, to work on weaknesses, to TRY to become better in controlling emotions, to TRY to have better awareness of thoughts, but we must know that it is impossible to reach perfection and the total control of yourself.

Criticism Kills Confidence

If we are criticized as is usually the case we blame ourselves for something that we cannot control. Yet, at that moment of self-criticism, we are unable to see this.

A young tennis player is not able to analyze the reality of world with the level of detail that it is analyzed in this article.

A young tennis player is not aware that the criticism received from parents and coaches is UNJUSTIFIED!

The parents and coaches are wrong as they simply do not understand the reality of what a player can and cannot control. In most cases, they are not aware of the devastating consequences of criticism on the young player's self-confidence and self-esteem.

When players are criticized for something they didn't do well, they believe that it CAN be done well if only that "elbow was higher in the follow through, or the swung faster through the hitting zone, or they concentrated better, or they took the ball earlier, etc."

They falsely start to believe that it is actually possible to eliminate mistakes and that every missed shot has a reason and that that reason is within their control therefore, it is their fault for missing.

Of course, if that were true, surely some of the most gifted and most hard working players on this planet would have eliminated mistakes by now.

I see no one who can do that, though and it will never happen in any sport...

Therefore, once the player falsely believes that it was his fault for missing, he also believes that other players don't make these mistakes, because if everyone did these mistakes all the time, why would he get criticized?

If a group of people decides to go into a town with a group of cars and they are all stuck in a traffic jam, would one be picked out of that group and be criticized for not going faster?

Obviously not.

However, that's exactly what coaches and parents do to young tennis players they criticize them on their missed shots (the outcome) while everyone else on this planet is making the same mistakes at about the same stage of the learning process.

The young tennis player then subconsciously starts believing that something is wrong with him.

He starts to think that he is inferior to others (keep in mind that everyone else thinks that!) and thus loses confidence in himself.

It's a cycle that keeps repeating from generation to generation. With this understanding of how all this happens, I hope that we'll able to break this cycle and help the next generation to become more confident and play to their maximum potential.

How To Build The "Right" Type Of Self-Confidence

The right type of confidence is based on the abilities and skills of the player and not on the ever-changing outcome of shots hit and matches played.

The abilities and skills only improve with more practice therefore, confidence can only grow.

The players learn to base their confidence on their abilities when we praise them for successfully demonstrating these abilities.

We also need to remind them that the outcome is not within their control and that focusing on the outcome takes them out of here-and-now, builds up lots of strong emotions, and activates the mind to think a lot, and therefore decreases the performance.

Decreased performance, of course, decreases the chances of success.

A typical real life example of this process is when a player is practicing a playing pattern.

Let's say the player is receiving a short cross-court shot, which he will hit down the line with pace, in order to put the opponent into defense.

The long cross court drill

The coach needs to look for elements of that shot that increase the probability of hitting the target.

These, among others, surely include:
  • good dynamic balance
  • coordinated preparation of the shot
  • early decision
  • the desired right trajectory of the shot (desired trajectory in NOT the same as the eventual trajectory of the ball played. The player obviously cannot hit the ball exactly the way they want!)
  • the desired pace of the shot
  • the correct imagined target, where the player is aiming in their mind (again the desired target may not be the same as the target where the ball lands the player can control where they aim, but cannot control where they actually hit. Therefore, how can we criticize him for missing the target is he cannot control that?!)
  • some technical elements like perhaps not rotating too much
  • and so on...

All of the above are the ABILITIES and SKILLS that are developed in time and the better they are, the more confidence the player will have and the higher will be the probability of hitting the shot well.

The coach can praise the player for hitting the ball well and hitting the target but both the coach and the player needs to be aware that the outcome is simply the consequence of correctly performed elements of the stroke - and critically important, that it is impossible for the player to ALWAYS perform them perfectly.

With lots of repetition, the player will ingrain these elements into their subconscious (or muscle memory, if you will) and will be able to hit the shot with high probability into the target.

The players will KNOW that it is impossible to hit the target every time and will, in their minds, be aware of the probability which, based on their abilities, is very high.

Therefore, even if the players miss the shot, they will NOT lose confidence in it which is so often the case at all levels of tennis especially in junior tennis.

Again, the reason for losing confidence in strokes is because that confidence was based on the outcome and not on the abilities and skills to execute that shot.

The players were criticized for missing the shots in their training and practices, instead of being praised for performing the shot with the elements it requires.

As mentioned before, the common misconception is that if all the elements of the shot are present, then the player will hit the target with 100% certainty.

If that was true, I am sure we wouldn't see any more double faults from top pros, for example, after 20 years of practicing the second serve daily and yet we see them in every match.

Perfection is unattainable and we will still miss shots even if everything we did was correct (at least on the level of our human abilities). The minute errors in racket angle, and timing the ball to the hundredths of a second accuracy, are not things we can control.

These minute errors are always present and, with speeds and distances played on a tennis court, they can result in missing shots for a big margin.

That, in fact, is the whole point of the sport it is designed in way so that no human being can completely control it and, therefore, there is always an element of unpredictability.

This element of unpredictability is one of the main reasons why we all want to play tennis in the first place and why sport is so popular with fans around the world it keeps them at the edge of their seats and it's the emotion they are looking for. (Why we look for this emotion so much is the topic of another article.)

Summary

If we want confident tennis players, we need to instill confidence in them. They do not question our logic and our claims and simply believe what we say (at young age).

In the process of coaching and training a young tennis player, we can build a very fragile type of confidence that will dissolve as soon as things don't look that good, or we can build a permanent confidence that stays strong regardless of the score or any other outside factor.

Fragile confidence is created when the player is criticized (and praised!) based on the outcome of their actions.

The players then falsely believe that they cannot possibly miss if they do everything correctly. They falsely believe that mistakes are their fault and that when they miss a shot something is wrong with them. They think: "A talented and intelligent tennis player would not make these mistakes."

Therefore, they develop a feeling of inferiority and, in the process, low confidence and low self-esteem.

Even if they are confident, it's only for the period of time when things go well. When they miss a shot or two, or when the momentum of the match changes, they lose all confidence; they don't believe they can win and therefore they stop investing so much energy and effort into the match.

That, of course, is the main reason why they eventually lose.

Tennis kid winning the match
Strong and permanent confidence is created when we praise more than we criticize and when we praise the player based on their abilities and skills.

If the player misses a shot, but otherwise tactically played the ball correctly, with the right mental approach, then the player needs to be praised for the correct approach. That's what they can control.

With practice, their probability of hitting the target will increase.

The player then learns to trust their skills and abilities and is aware that it's impossible to hit every ball in.

They accept missed shots as a normal part of tennis.

They believe that can succeed and are confident even when things don't go their way.

In that state of mind, they are able to play to the peak of their talents and abilities, which brings them fulfillment and certain satisfaction, even if they happen to lose the match.

Their skills could have only improved even in a tough loss and that actually builds more confidence for future matches.


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