James Blake frustrated after losing a lead Photo by Getty Images
Losing a lead in a tennis match can be a very frustrating experience. You can lose a 40:0 lead in a game or a 5:1 lead in games in a set, or lead by a set and then lose the match.
This doesn't happen only to club players and inexperienced junior players; even the top players on the ATP and WTA tours can become victims of nerves or other factors that cause them to lose a lead.
As you can probably guess, the reason for this is all in the mind; and although there can be many reasons we lose a lead, the #1 reason is that our focus (mindset) changes at some point in the match.
We get ahead of our opponent (e.g., 40:0 or 5:2) and we start thinking that we don't want to lose the lead. It seems quite logical and not very dangerous, but this is one of the biggest mental tennis traps you can fall into.
When we focus on what we want
Here's why this doesn't work: you very likely were focused on how to win points up to the point when you realized that you were leading and that you had a chance of winning. You then suddenly changed your focus from what you wanted (winning a point) to what you DIDN'T want (losing the lead).
When we change this focus, we also change our perception of our mistakes. When we want to win a point, we know that we have to play well, be aggressive and take chances at the right time.
We might lose some points, but we can see that we win more and that the score is changing in our favor. That's why we ACCEPT mistakes as a necessary part of winning in the long term.
When we focus on what we DON'T want
BUT, when we change our focus to NOT wanting to lose a lead, we also change our perception of mistakes. Every mistake that we make now is in direct conflict with what we want (we don't want to lose the lead but every mistake we make causes us to lose some of the lead), and our opponent is now getting closer to us.
We now focus on not making mistakes so that we don't lose the lead. And when we don't want to make mistakes, we start playing tentatively and our shots are easy for the opponent to attack because we play well away from the lines and too slowly to put pressure on him.
Our main concern at this point is not to blame ourself (later) for making easy mistakes and allowing our opponent to catch up easily.
But what we don't take into account is that we are now making it VERY EASY for our opponent to play and plan his attacks.
Before, we were attacking and our opponent was under pressure. We won points in three ways:
and getting unforced errors from our opponent (because he KNEW that he had to make a good shot, otherwise we would attack again).
When we change our focus to not wanting to lose a lead, we start playing too safely, we don't hit winners, we don't force mistakes and our opponent now sees that there is no longer any danger and makes progressively fewer and fewer unforced errors.
This new tactic of play effectively stops producing points for us!
So what happens is that we STAY at our score (in our example, at 5 games) and our opponent now starts winning points by hitting winners and forcing shots because we're playing such safe tennis that our shots give him more than enough time to set up for each shot and pick a target.
Of course, holding the score at 5 for a certain time does not matter in tennis. ;)
What counts is who gets to 6 (or 7) first. We stopped focusing on what we want in the medium term, which is winning the set, and started to focus on what we don't want; but this second focus DOES NOT win points for us (which we NEED to win the set!), it only prevents us from losing too many of them.
I hope you can see where our mind gets this one wrong, and that you now realize that focusing on not losing a lead will not help us win points. I also know that when we do this we must count on our opponent (in fact, we are full of hope!) to make lots of mistakes so that we'll win the set.
Sure, that happens sometimes; but I'd say that 80% of the time, we sabotage ourself and allow our opponent to catch us.
Another huge negative effect of playing with a negative mindset is choking which negatively affects our mental and physical abilities.
How to Start Winning When In The Lead
My goal with this article was to help readers realize the faulty logic in the "I don't want to lose the lead" type of thinking.
When we know this, we have the power to ignore our negative thoughts the next time they appear when we're in the lead.
We can say to ourself, "Don't tell me to focus on not losing a lead; it won't work. If I play too safely, I will stop winning points, which I NEED to win the set.
"I'll continue to focus on the exact same thing I did that helped me acquire such a good lead. And that was focusing on what I want, winning the next point and, in the long term, winning the set and the match."
We can give ourself this self talk in 10 seconds, and thereby prevent this type of thinking ("I don't want to lose the lead.") from staying in our awareness and affecting our game.
Remember, always focus on what you want, and never focus on what you don't want! You will definitely win many more matches this way when you're in the lead.
Also, be aware of the reality of sports; no matter what you do, you will lose a lead, and a match, sometimes.
Everyone has lost a lead and everyone will lose a lead in sports at some point and this is inevitable. Too many elements in tennis are beyond our control - including, of course, our opponent.
At Masters 2005 final, Roger Federer lost a lead of 2 sets to 0, then Nalbandian lost a lead of 4:0 in the final set, then Federer lost a lead when serving for the match and having 30:0.
That's why it's crucial that we ACCEPT losing a lead as something normal in the game of tennis, instead of always blaming ourself.
You can increase the probability of winning when in the lead by focusing only on what you want (to win the next point).
This mindset will definitely help you win more and more sets and matches when in the lead, and make your tennis journey more successful and more enjoyable than it otherwise would be.