A tennis player is somewhat confident in his skills but not really when it comes to big tests.
One of the main reasons for that is because his confidence is fragile and built upon certainty. (I am confident if I am certain I will win.)
This topic of 100% belief in yourself contradicts the previous article somewhat, but you’ll learn how to reconcile both ideas later in this article...
Since there is no certainty in sports, confidence remains fragile and it breaks down at the first sign of trouble.
But there’s another reason why tennis players struggle with being really confident...
How I Learned the Power of a Confident MindI was about five years into playing tennis and competing in club tournaments and leagues when I realized the secret to winning matches.
I played a match against a very good player who quickly realized that my backhand was my weaker shot.
He kept playing to my backhand and I kept playing the ball short or making unforced errors.
I was aware of the score the whole time, of course, and while my opponent’s numbers kept increasing, mine didn’t.
I lost the first set and fell behind 1-3 in the second. At that point, a very simple idea flashed through my mind: “This isn’t going to work.”
This is an idea that has saved me many times since then, and it’s an idea that I really miss seeing other tennis players apply.
“This” refers to how I played backhands. I played them according to my belief about how good my backhand was.
My belief was that my backhand was not that good, so I played it that way. Of course, until then, this “decision” had been unconscious.
At that moment, I realized that I did NOT have to play the backhand according to my belief; I could play it any way I wanted to.
Believing that my backhand was not that good, I played it like this:
All of that was subconscious and based on my assessment of my backhand.
In a flash of clarity, I realized that I actually made these choices without EVER testing whether they were true!
I was simply negative about my backhand and never even tried to see if it was really that bad.
(Or in other words - I paid attention only when I played a poor shot and didn't really remember the good shots. By doing this over and over again I started to believe my backhand was worse than it really was.)
And in that match, I realized another simple truth: “If I keep hitting my backhand the way I have been hitting it, I will lose with 100% certainty.”
Therefore, I had nothing to lose if I tried something else.
So, what I did at that moment was decide that I would play the backhand how a good player would play it.
I’d played lots of tennis, but I’d also watched probably thousands of hours of tennis on TV by then. I KNEW tactically how to play tennis well.
I knew how and where to play the ball in all common situations in the game. But before, I had believed that I was not capable of doing that.
So, I decided that I would change my approach, since the old one was not working.
I started hitting the ball with courage, determination, and total decisiveness. I was playing without hesitation or doubt. I made a decision and I stuck with it.
The balls went in.
My opponent was stopped. His attacks did not work, and he became confused and impatient.
He started going for more and more and made more and more errors.
I, on the other hand, just kept hitting the ball strongly and decisively, and I developed more and more feel for that kind of shot during the match.
My backhand was rock solid. I won the second set, and eventually, the match.
And a huge light bulb went off in my head—which was one of the key moments in my life as a tennis player and a tennis coach—when I realized the importance and power of the mental game.
So, what really happened was that based on my previous performance on the backhand side and my lack of trust in myself and my abilities, I saw my backhand as a poor shot. I also played it with that approach.
At one point in a match, when I realized that playing the backhand like that would not work, I ignored the “facts” and beliefs about my backhand and played the backhand AS IF I my backhand was GREAT.
At that point, I believed something for which I had no proof. At that point, I was somewhat delusional.
I am using such a strong word on purpose because trusting 100% in yourself or your shots when the reality is never 100% means being out of touch with reality. And that’s called being delusional.
But that is the state of mind of a winner on the tennis court—and most likely in other sports.
And that’s the main reason why so many tennis players never reach this state of mind: they find it hard to LIE to themselves.
Keep in mind that when you listen to the interviews of top players, they won’t say that they believed with 100% certainty that they would beat the opponent (or that they would surely win the match point), because that would be demeaning to the opponent. It would not be respectful.
So, they are taught not to say that. (Younger players often slip here and speak the truth about what they really believe.
Here’s what Novak Djokovic said after losing to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinal of Roland Garros in 2006:
He was 19 at that time and was not really mature enough to know that in the world of media, you always speak respectfully about your opponents.
But it just shows you what Djokovic really thought. It's what top players think most of the time when they play.
(Not always though - Nadal recently said that he doesn't really feel confident to win Roland Garros 2011 - which he won a few days after that interview...)
Why Most Tennis Players Resist Total Self-Confidence and Belief in SuccessDoubt is the biggest enemy of performance in tennis. To eliminate doubt means to be certain. And that’s not being realistic; it’s being somewhat delusional.
A normal person resists such thinking and allows himself to feel doubt, because that’s the reality of any sport and life—it’s unpredictable.
Many players also resist such thinking because they feel it’s not modest—which is an important value that we learn from our parents and society.
Top players are not really modest in their view of themselves. They simply act that way in social situations and interviews in order to be accepted and liked.
In order to become #1, you need to believe you deserve it. And that’s not being modest.
Novak Djokovic was interviewed in the June 2011 issue of Tennis Magazine and on the first page of magazine there's a quote: "I have the talent to be the best in the world."
That's not modest thinking. It is the thinking that eventually will give him the #1 ranking.
Many players find that such strong self-confidence borders on or is even the same as arrogance and boastfulness. Other words that come to mind are vanity and conceit.
These are all words that most people do not want to have attributed to them.
But you need to clear things out of your mind and know exactly what is what in order not to sabotage yourself on the brink of success because you felt you were thinking of yourself too favorably.
The Difference between Strong Confidence and Total Belief in SuccessBut how do we reconcile the idea of the fragile confidence that I described as confidence based on the outcome (i.e., I am confident if I am certain I will win) — and the idea of this article, where I say that believing in the outcome with 100% certainty is the trait of real champions?
The reality is that most people are not capable of such “blind belief” or this slight delusion that you need in order to believe in your success even when reality suggests otherwise.
Most tennis players simply adjust their thinking according to reality.
If they lead 5-1, they believe they will win. If they are behind 1-5, they believe they will not win.
The score and other factors determine their thinking and, thus, their confidence.
That’s why, in the previous article, I suggested thinking (building confidence) based on the skills and abilities and not on the outcome.
(Most players are able to adopt this kind of thinking as most players resist thinking that is slightly out of touch with reality as I suggest in this article.)
The predictions of the outcome keep changing during a match, but the skills and abilities do not.
“I believe I CAN (I am capable of) win the match” is a statement that does not change during the match.
But even this kind of positive thinking includes doubt and realism.
The thinking is “I believe I can win, but it’s also possible that I will lose.”
The underlying message is still positive, though, and is based on hope.
The message of this article, on the other hand, is of having 100% belief in success regardless of the reality.
You don’t hope anymore; it’s not about being positive but about having determination and the faith that any obstacle or problem you’ll encounter you’ll also overcome.
You must be convinced beyond any doubt that you will succeed.
This kind of thinking is somewhat delusional, and that’s why most people cannot accept it or adopt it. But if you do, you will play the best you’re capable of.
Not Being Confident Is also DelusionalIn my efforts to help tennis players understand and adopt the kind of thinking that enables them to believe in themselves 100%, I show them that not being confident is also not realistic. A really non-confident person is thinking “I will not win this match.”
Of course, that’s not realistic either. As long as you’re still playing, there’s a chance of winning the match.
Your opponent is not a robot; he can start playing less well, twist his ankle and have to forfeit, lose his temper because of bad luck and start playing really poorly, and so on.
Therefore, being sure that you will lose the match or that there is no way you can win is also being delusional.
Once you understand that you’re being a slight psycho (that’s how I put it sometimes to tennis players to really emphasize my point) when you’re being totally negative and that you’re also being a slight psycho when being totally positive, why not choose the positive psycho thinking, which will actually achieve great results?
It’s a choice you make in your mind. You control your thoughts if you CHOOSE to!
Whether you choose your thinking, the thoughts will happen anyway. Thoughts keep appearing; we cannot stop them for long periods of time.
Usually, the thoughts that appear without us choosing them are negative. We are aware of the uncertainty of the match, and we haven’t really learned to think in the right way to build confidence.
In order to make the best of our potential, we need to take control of our thinking and use our minds as tools. We need to think thoughts that allow us to perform to the best to our ability.
That is mental toughness, and that means being a mental winner. You use your mind to help yourself.
The ultimate goal of mental training is to make your mind your best ally.
Summary – Learning to Believe in YourselfSo, why do some players struggle with confidence?
Because they mix confidence—which is a positive trait—with negative traits such as arrogance, conceit, and showing off.
They resist being really confident because they are afraid they’ll be seen as arrogant and boastful.
The reality is totally different, though:
Being really confident means that you don’t feel any need to intimidate opponents and you don’t feel any need to cover up any of your insecurities with false bravado.
As John McEnroe said, “I’ll let the racket do the talking.”
Therefore, do not be afraid to embrace full confidence in yourself. You’re not crossing to the dark side of over-confidence or arrogance. You simply KNOW you’re good.
One of the more important values for most people is also modesty.
Being strongly confident in your abilities and being modest hardly go together, though.
The key is to act modest, but be very confident in your abilities—believe in yourself.
That thought includes the lesson we probably all have to learn or have learned already—and that’s a lesson on being over-confident.
That happens when you don’t respect your opponent. You might not respect him because of his playing style (pushers come to mind), physical appearance, gear and outfit, or rankings. In all cases, you’re making a big mistake and getting into trouble.
The key to real confidence—a state of mind that only the best possess—is to be slightly delusional; in other words, you believe in your success even when things don’t look like they’re going that way.
It is a state of mind where you are certain even of the outcome (which, in reality, is uncertain).
While it’s true that this state of mind is slightly out of touch with reality, it’s also a fact that attempting to hit the ball with complete certainty, lack of doubt, and decisiveness will make the highest percentage of shots go in.
NO OTHER mental state calms and coordinates the mind and body as well as total certainty toward a positive outcome.
If you can adopt this kind of thinking and realize that this is the best use of your mind to achieve the best results of your play, then you’re on the right track to be a supremely confident player and play to your full potential.
Listen very carefully to what Andre Agassi says at around 1:00 into the video (unfortunately the video and audio are out of sync...):
And in this sentence, Andre reveals the secret to success.
It is to believe in yourself even if current events and situations suggest your failure.
This kind of thinking needs to be understood and learned in order for you to develop deep and strong self-confidence and be able to play your best when it’s really needed.
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