Tennis Is Messy
A Smart Way Of Looking At Mistakes


Tennis is messy. This may seem like a strange statement and one you probably haven't encountered before, but if you “get it”, your suffering and frustration in tennis will basically disappear.

Disappointed tennis player
The main reason why we get frustrated, irritated or even upset when playing tennis is because what happens is not what we want and like to happen.

For example, let's address our own missed shots.

We may simply warm up playing mini tennis and then we miss a backhand in the net.

We don't like it and we don't want it to happen.

The reality is – it will keep happening forever. You will miss a backhand sooner or later.

There's no way to avoid it, just as there is no way of avoiding missing a basket when playing basketball.

We may rally cooperatively and we miss a high bouncing ball to our forehand. We don't like it and we wish it wouldn't happen. But it just did and it will keep on happening.

Note: With practice and simply more tennis, this will happen LESS frequently, but you cannot eliminate any type of mistake permanently.

We are imperfect; our brains make mistakes when dealing with extremely difficult calculations of ball trajectory and timing, so that the game of tennis is simply too difficult for a human brain to find the perfect solution for every situation. We are not robots with supercomputer brains.

We may also play points, get a short ball on the forehand and attempt a winner into the open court and miss it into the net.

Most players will react to this mistake by trying to show to everyone, and to themselves, that it's a strange and rare coincidence that they missed this shot. They will wonder and ask themselves out loud: “How could I miss that?” as if this happens very rarely. In reality, it probably happens more often than not. ;)

It's very similar when it comes to volleys and overheads. There are tons of missed shots at all levels of tennis and yet almost all tennis players “cannot believe” that they missed them. Funny, isn't it? – since these missed shots keep happening and they are, in reality, not that rare or strange.

The reality is that hitting a good volley is EXTREMELY demanding for the brain to calculate and for the body to coordinate all body parts perfectly in order to position the racquet face correctly in the short time available to hit the ball.


Any small error in the timing, the angle of the racquet face, the force or balance will immediately cause a missed shot or a very poor shot.

That's the reality most players do not see, nor do they think about it. (Hopefully this article will help you to do that.)

Why Can't We See Reality?

When someone does see it – like those of us who have been watching and playing tennis for many years and have actually realized the truth (Note: some have been playing for decades and still fight with reality, so they haven’t yet “got it”) – it's quite hard to understand those who keep thinking that the reality SHOULD be different from what actually is.

For one, our minds are the problem. Our minds want to control things. We want to KNOW what is the cause and effect of everything. That calms us down. We are in control of the situation.

We also want to PREDICT with total certainty what will happen. Again, we feel safe and calm if we can predict what will happen.

If we go to a grocery store and there's bread available every day, we're very calm every time we go to the store. We KNOW the bread will be there.

Imagine the stress you would experience if the store instead RANDOMLY stocked supplies. One day, there would be no food and another random day there would be food.

How would you feel about that? Probably very anxious.

Let's come back to tennis...Your mind again wants to know and predict what will happen when you hit a backhand. However, we randomly miss and we CANNOT determine the precise cause!

The usual thinking of most club players is to immediately try to find the cause in their technique. In my experience, technique is almost never the cause of a mistake.

In most cases, the cause is simply the imperfect brain / computer, the extreme demands of tennis on the brain and body and often the lack of focus or focusing on unimportant things. For example, we think about the direction (playing to open court), but we don't imagine a parabolic trajectory and safety height over the net. Consequently, in most cases, we hit the net.

It's not that we must open the racquet face more (can you control the angle of the racquet face by a degree in a few thousands of second when you're contacting the ball? It's impossible and a ridiculous instruction – if you happen to hear it somewhere). Rather, we must simply aim higher.

We must imagine the ball flight higher WHILE hitting the ball. That's how we play tennis – we simply imagine the ball flight and let our body execute. That's how we walk, write, drive and do everything else. We simply ”want” it and our body “does” it.

Therefore, the reality of tennis is that we don't know what will happen – at least not with 100% certainty. Still, our minds want 100% certainty, so we must learn to think in PROBABILITIES!

We must teach our brains to think in high percentages and that this is good enough and safe enough to be calm. If we want 100% certainty, we'll realize, of course, that it's not attainable and then we'll be in a constant state of anxiousness.

The problem with this is that this anxiousness causes tension in our bodies and then causes even MORE mistakes! We are now the cause of the mistakes; it no longer is only random miscalculations made by our brains!

Therefore, the key to the first part of understanding why we don't see reality is because we are not aware that it is our brains that randomly miscalculate trajectory and timing and that our bodies are not perfectly coordinated to adjust to the ball in the short time (usually about one to two seconds) that is available from the moment our opponent hits the ball until our contact with it.

Once we know that it is our brains that cause the mistakes (over which we have no control) and not us (our personality), we can accept the randomness of mistakes.

It helps tremendously if you observe other tennis players and pros on TV and note how often and how randomly they miss ALL types of shots in all types of situations.

It's All About The Percentages

In order for our minds to start thinking in percentages and probabilities rather than certainties, let's take a look at some of the percentages on other sports and then also in tennis.

You can find the results posted below with simple Google searches...

Basketball NBA:
The best players in NBA score just over 90% of their free throws. There are fewer than 10 players in the whole NBA who are capable of such a high percentage in the 2010/2011 season.

Why doesn't anyone hit 100% of the baskets?

The answer is that it's too difficult for the human mind to perfectly calculate the trajectory and give perfect signals to the muscles. Even if that could happen, any slightly wrong movement by any small muscle will affect the ball trajectory and the ball will miss the small target – in this case, the hoop.

Baseball MLB:
The best batters in MLB are able to hit the ball only about 3 times in 10 attempts. Why? Again, it's too difficult for the brain to calculate the perfect swing and for the eyes to track the ball.

Tennis:
If you take a look at the ATP stats, you'll see that no player has a 100% stat in any category.

That's very obvious, right? Still, when it comes to ourselves, we don't want to see this. We don't want to accept that our missed shot was just a matter of percentages and that it doesn't mean that we have to correct our technique in some way.

We miss because the game of tennis is difficult and all we can do is to focus on the ball and play lots and lots of tennis and our percentages will improve.

Sure, there's a place for improving our technique, but what I'd like you to take home from this article and from the above stats from various sports is that the main cause for your mistake is not your "poor" technique; rather, it’s the difficulty of the sport.

If technique was the cause, Roger Federer would never miss the ball.

How To Deal With The Mistakes

Surrender and accept. Stop fighting reality. Whatever happens, agree with it. Look at this and wonder how extremely interesting, complex, unpredictable and difficult tennis is.

Accept it – accept that it's very, very messy and that the mess that happens in between is not important. So what if you miss? What's the big deal? It's a normal part of tennis and a normal part of tennis statistics for everyone. Even top pros miss easy shots in every match.

It's crucial that you keep this information somewhere in your mind as a reference, to remind yourself when you miss a shot. "The pros miss them too. Let's move on and focus on the next point."

That's all the internal dialogue that should happen at the beginning, when you're working on changing your perception of missed shots.

Eventually, missed shots will feel so normal to you that you'll think nothing of them. The game of tennis is demanding and you will miss shots in the same way as a basketball player misses his shots.

You don't see basketball players getting upset if they miss their attempts and yet you see almost everyone on a tennis court react to their missed shot in one way or another.

I believe it's because the probability of hitting the ball in tennis is much higher than, for example, the probability of getting a basket in basketball. In basketball, it's obvious that throwing the ball into that small rim is difficult. In tennis, the target is much bigger and the probability is higher – but it's NOT 100%.

Perhaps it's 80% and we are fooled by this high percentage into thinking that if we fix and correct something in our technique or movement, we'll never miss.

Of course, this is not true. We CAN increase the probability of our shots, but never to 100%. Therefore, we will always keep missing random shots – because our brains will make small errors in calculating the ball flight and timing of our shots, even when we're set up perfectly for the ball.

Once you accept the messiness of tennis – that the mistakes will keep happening and that they’re a normal part of tennis – you'll finally be able to play to your peak potential.

Surrender to the messy part of the game and realize that this imperfect situation will exist forever in tennis and in other sports – therefore, it makes no sense to fight it.

The more you accept this, the better your mental state will be and the better your tennis performance will be.



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