Pete Sampras explained a key reason for his success in his autobiography Champion's Mind - and that was having a really "short memory" when missing shots. Photo by AP
If you understand what goes on inside most people's minds while they play tennis, you'll realize that you can win matches simply by having a “thicker skin” than your opponent.
Typically, we use the term “thick skin” to describe the ability to withstand criticism.
But in tennis, the term “thick skin” refers to the ability to withstand errors—and our reactions to them.
Pay attention and you'll see that the same pattern happens every time, whether you watch two players just hit for fun, play a match or whether someone is taking a lesson.
Here's what happens: the person comes on the court and starts playing.
He is usually in a neutral state—which means neither positive nor negative or in some cases, he might even be in a positive state—and being optimistic about the outcome of the match.
Sidebar: You may feel slightly anxious at the start of the match but you'll still be quite hopeful that you can win. That's still a positive state of mind...
But after a while, the person starts to become more and more negative and there's a very simple reason for that: he just made more errors.
When the player entered the court his error count was 0. He felt ok or even positive.
But with time he will inevitably miss some shots.
If that player has not mastered his inner game and has not reached the state of acceptance (meaning that he accepts his imperfections as normal and that it's impossible to play tennis without mistakes), those mistakes will irritate and possibly upset him.
And the more there are mistakes—which of course accumulate with time—the more upset that player will be and the more he will react to those mistakes.
He will be losing the ideal activation state needed for playing at peak performance and his performance will of course drop.
The analogy related to “thick skin” would be like this: if someone criticizes you once, you probably won't become enraged and start screaming in a verbal fight. You'll be able to withstand that criticism without flinching.
But if someone constantly criticizes you for a few minutes or even longer, you'll feel very irritated and ready to explode. Your defenses won't hold up any longer and you will mentally break down and start trying to hurt the other person back or start crying.
Some people on the other hand (typically politicians and very successful businessmen) have a very “thick skin” and you can criticize them as much as you want and yet they won't lose their normal state.
The same goes for tennis; if you have a “thick skin,” you can withstand many errors and yet your state won't change.
Of course if you have reached the state of acceptance and you understand the nature of tennis and the imperfections of human beings, then you don't really perceive missed shots as mistakes (that could be somehow prevented) but you perceive these missed shots as a normal part of tennis and these missed shots are simply a part of the statistics of every tennis match or every tennis lesson.
You are simply unaffected by missed shots—which is what we see when we watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play and happen to make a mistake. Both are simply unaffected by that mistake (in most cases) since they understand exactly the risk they took when hitting the ball and the realistic probability of making it.
But most people have not reached that state of mind and will react (even if only slightly) to each mistake they make. This negative feeling will accumulate more and more and they will be more and more reactive to mistakes and their level of play will drop more and more.
So if you understand this process and you can observe it in your opponent, you need to focus on being strong and positive when you make mistakes (if you still perceive them that way).
If you have thicker skin than your opponent, you'll be able to play close to your peak play much longer periods of time than your opponent.
So what often happened in my matches was that I was simply playing a match, focused on my game plan, was not too concerned with the score and simply waited for my opponent to self-destruct—simply because the longer we played the more mistakes he made and at some point he reached a threshold where his skin was too thin and those mistakes started to affect him.
That means that he started to make more and more unforced errors and I won many more free points without really doing anything spectacular.
I on the other hand had accepted my mistakes as something completely normal and a part of tennis and was not affected by them at all. They only provided me with feedback as to how to adjust my tactics or aim in the next similar situation.
What you learn by understanding this process and observing it in your opponents is that some people will start to lose their state after just a few minutes while some people will have a very thick skin and will start to lose their state (and become more and more negative and irritated) after 2 hours or more.
The key to winning is to either have a thicker skin or simply reach the level where you accept everything that happens in a tennis match (or lesson or simply rallying with a friend) as something completely normal.
Fernando Verdasco lost his nerves totally against Richard Gasquet in the Nice 2010 Final and eventually lost the match.
Allow your opponent to self-destruct because of their strong negative perceptions and reactions to mistakes and remain strong and unaffected by your own mistakes and you'll win many matches that seemed impossible to win when you started to play.
You'll also enjoy fully your friendly tennis hours on court and learn much faster in your tennis lessons.
Simply see mistakes as something completely normal (since that's what they are—just watch the best players on TV for 2 minutes and you'll undoubtedly see missed shots) and use them only as the feedback on how to adjust and improve the next time you're in the same situation.