Being a Skeptic in Tennis - The Key To Confidence

Dinara Safina was not acting confident in the 2009 Roland Garros and therefore could not play her best tennis
Dinara Safina was not acting confident in the 2009 Roland Garros final and therefore could not play her best tennis
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
One of the keys to playing good tennis is feeling confident. If you feel confident before and during the match, you're relaxed, your body moves fluidly in a coordinated and smooth way, and your mind is calm and can focus on key elements of the match: strategy, tactics and clear tracking of the ball during exchanges.

But if you don't feel confident, you won't be able to play to your potential. Your body will be tense; it will move in rough, jerky movements; and your mind will be in a state of panic, unable to focus on the task at hand.

Therefore, we must strive for a state of confidence before and during a tennis match, right?

But what is confidence, really? I like this definition from Wikipedia:

"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."

When it comes to tennis, we feel confident if we feel pretty certain that we will win the match or that we will be able to handle our opponent's shots.

If, for example, you, as a club player, would have to return Andy Roddick's second serves, you would not feel confident; but if you had to return an eight-year-old tennis junior's second serves, you would feel confident.


Because you would predict the serves' difficulty and evaluate whether your return skills would be good enough to handle the task.

That's how our mind works. It constantly looks into the future and compares our PERCEIVED abilities against the PERCEIVED difficulty of the task we face.

The key point here is perception. (and NOT reality!)

It is impossible for us to gauge and/or evaluate our abilities, and what we are capable of, with 100% certainty and no mistakes. We also cannot determine with 100% certainty a certain task's difficulty, or how we will adapt to it once we face it for a while.

So our mind makes the best approximation it can.

The most common way our mind does that is that it usually decides that our abilities are not that good, and that the task we are about to face is very difficult.

Thus we perceive ourselves as not very skilled and the task as very difficult. And based on this perception, we don't feel confident.

We feel uncertain, so we are unable to play good tennis, just because our mind created a certain perception in our brain.

But we know that our mind cannot gauge every aspect of our skills, and all of the tasks we face, 100% accurately; therefore, we must NOT believe every thought our mind creates.

We must be skeptical all the time and question everything we think that makes us feel insecure and uncertain.

We must create a new perception in our mind in order to feel confident. We must perceive ourselves as good tennis players who can handle many different and difficult shots and situations on the court, and we must perceive the task at hand - beating our opponent - as not that difficult.

The first part - perceiving ourselves as skilled and good players - has been explained in the article about self confidence in tennis. So let's talk about the second part - how to perceive our opponent as no better than ourselves.

I call it "being a skeptic". I don't believe anything that suggests that my opponent is very good or that I will lose.

Here are some examples:

a) If an opponent is ranked higher than I am, the usual conclusion is that he must be better than I. Being a skeptic, however, I think, "He doesn't win all his matches 6:0, 6:0; and he definitely loses some points, games and sets.

I will find out where and why he is losing points, and will keep exploiting his weaknesses over and over again." This type of thinking immediately eliminates any fear of "better" opponents. "And if this opponent is not ranked #1 in the world, I will find the reasons for that. There must be many..."

b) If my opponent has a better looking technique than I do during the warm-up, the usual conclusion (perception) is that he is a better player than I am. Being a skeptic, I think, "This is not a competition of style and hitting; it's a competition of playing, which includes tactics and mental toughness.

I am not convinced one little bit that he is a good player just because he has nice-looking shots. In fact, players with nice-looking strokes are rarely winners..."

c) If my opponent is bigger and taller than I, then the usual conclusion is that he will beat me because he is stronger than I am.

Being a skeptic, I think, "I'd like to see this guy chase my drop shots, lobs and short crosscourts once we start rallying... Agility and having a massive body don't go together..."

d) If my opponent starts the match well by hitting winners or outplaying me, my mind will very smartly ;) predict the match's outcome based on the first game, with my losing it.

Being a skeptic, I wonder, "Let's see if you can play like this the whole match... Let's see how long you can keep it up. I am certain that you won't be hitting winners like this at 4:4 and 30:30... The first time you miss, you'll start thinking about it and criticizing yourself, and I am back in business."

e) If my opponent takes the lead (such as 4:1 or winning the first set), my mind again can automatically predict that I'll lose.

But, being a skeptic, I remember, "I don't think you have the stamina, focus and perseverance to keep it up until the end. You'll probably choke, have a letdown or scold yourself after a few mistakes; lose your zone and I'll be back in the match... I've seen it happen countless times."

f) If my opponent hits a big shot, such as a winner on the line, my mind can conclude that because these shots cannot be played back, I certainly will lose.

Being a skeptic, I think, "Yeah, right; let's see another one. Playing on the line is VERY risky and the statistics are definitely in my favor. Great, I can hardly wait for my opponent's next attempt to go for the line."

g) If my opponent is serving for a set, my mind can assume that that set is over. Being a skeptic, I remind myself, "He'll choke for sure; this is my chance! Most players overthink these situations, play too tentatively, don't want to lose the opportunity and just destroy themselves. Nothing to worry about here; just play my normal tennis, and he'll make all the mistakes."

h) If my opponent succeeds with a certain shot for a long time, such as making a good first or second serve, or hitting a big forehand, my mind will look for solutions but won't find them.

Why? Because the mind looks only at the CURRENT situation and tries to find the solution, instead of automatically assuming that the situation will change. But if you've played and watched some tennis, then you know that EVERY player loses focus at some point, starts to think too much and drops his level of play.

Being a skeptic, I tell myself, "He won't be able to keep it up - no one can. I am keeping my level of play high and as soon as he drops his level, I'll be the better player on court."

i) If my opponent wins the match, my mind will conclude logically that he will win again. Being a skeptic, however, I say, "I don't think you'll win next time. I learned more from my defeat than you did from your win; and I will improve more than you will by the next time we meet.

You also simply might have had a better day than I did, for whatever reason; and the situation most likely will be different next time. I can hardly wait to play you again..."

These are just some of my thoughts when I play tennis for points.

I hope you see how being a skeptic is not lying to yourself or trying to blind yourself from reality; on the contrary, it's a very realistic and logical way of thinking that constantly reminds you that a situation can change, that people are not perfect and that our mind might have created too simple a conclusion without taking into account enough facts.

By being a skeptic, you perceive your opponent (and his shots) as not perfect and superior; and you perceive yourself as someone who can find the solution to every problem, given enough time or enough attempts.

This perception creates a feeling of confidence.

Feeling confident allows you to play your best tennis (because you are relaxed and calm); and thus increases your chances of wining a match.

And when you do win a match, this proof will reinforce both your beliefs about your abilities, and your beliefs that your opponents are really not that good, that they all have weaknesses, that they all mentally faulter here and there, and that you ALWAYS have a chance to win.

This will create a POSITIVE, self-fulfilling prophecy, instead of a negative one; and you'll win more and more matches.

If you have some thoughts that make you doubt a certain situation during a match, share them below and I'll share my skeptical views on them. ;)



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

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