2 Ways To Deal With The Lack of Confidence In Tennis

Most tennis players experience lack of confidence sooner or later in their tennis journey. This feeling of not being confident can affect their shots, their movement and their decision making process.

The usual approach to dealing with a lack of confidence is to build confidence through positive thinking and talking, positive body language and similar methods.

However, as you will see, this helps only temporarily and the help is almost never permanent. So let's examine what confidence really is and how you can approach the lack of it when involved in tennis, or any other sport for that matter.

Guillermo Coria lost confidence in his tennis abilities
Guillermo Coria lost confidence in his tennis abilities - Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
"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." -from Wikipedia

Therefore, being confident when playing a tennis match means that you think you can successfully overcome a task ahead of you (i.e., a tennis match).

Why is this good for your performance?

Because it calms you down, there are no worrying thoughts to disrupt your concentration and there are no emotions like fear and anxiety to lower your performance. You believe you can do it and you go forward decisively, focused on what needs to be done.

Why is relying on confidence not so good?

The answer is because confidence is based on theory. It's a prediction (I can do it - in the future) and it's typically based on the outcome (I can win the match, the tournament, can beat this player, can hit this shot...).

However, one cannot control the outcome.

You cannot guarantee that you will win the match or beat the other player. And deep down inside, you know it. You know you cannot be 100% sure about the outcome and this feeling eats away at your confidence.

Another problem with confidence is that you may start the match believing that you can beat your opponent (you start feeling confident), but suddenly the score is 1:4 for him and now there is a lot of EVIDENCE that your THEORY (I can beat him) is false. (You end up losing confidence.)

There are also many events in the match that will suggest to you that your theory is wrong - like making a double fault, missing a sitter, making unforced errors, being outplayed, and so on. So, sooner or later, the confidence "theory" can be proven wrong.

For most people that's a lost battle, because they cannot argue with their theory (confidence) against the mounting evidence (losing points) that their theory (I'll win the match) is correct. Therefore, eventually they stop believing it - which means they start believing that they will lose the match.

This, of course, makes their performance plummet downwards and now they really have poor chances of winning.

This "first up/later down" confidence swing happens again and again with almost every player involved in any sport.

In order for confidence to work, one needs to convince himself, DESPITE the mounting evidence (losing points, losing a set, having lost to someone many times...) that his "theory" is right. In reality, it can be right only a few times, since he cannot win all points and cannot win all matches.

Consequently, your confidence thinking is only partially true and you know it from your previous experiences. You can convince yourself all you want that you'll win, but deep down you KNOW that, against an equal opponent, you can win maybe 50% of the points and 50% of the matches played.

Therefore, being confident is really trying to blind yourself from reality and that's why not many people can do it. They know the truth - winning maybe 50% of matches against equal opponents and much less against better opponents. They know that they cannot hit every sitter in, but being confident means they believe they will hit it in (100%).

Then what should you think?

I suggest 2 approaches. Test both of them and see which one works better for you... Even better, apply both of them to your mental tennis training.

1. Dig deep to find and face your fears.

Lack of confidence is not the real problem. Let's start with this hypothetical question:

Q: Can you perform well even if your chances of success are minimal? For example, can you give 100% effort playing Roger Federer and trying to win a point?

A: Of course you can.

So, we need to realize that the probability of winning the point (which means that you don't feel confident about it) doesn't automatically determine the level of your performance. A low probability of winning (a point, rally, match, tournament, ...) doesn't automatically make you play worse.

Here's another example:
Q: Andy Roddick is about to serve his first serve and you're about to return it. Would you feel confident about your chances of getting the ball back?

A: No, surely not.

Q2: But would that low confidence really make you return poorly?

A2: I don't think so.

I personally would concentrate 100% on trying to react as quickly as possible and to do the best I can. I would perform the same as if I was confident about returning the serve.

What really creates poor performance is fear.

It can be a fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of being scolded by parents, fear of not playing to meet expectations (yours, the coach's, the country's...), fear of winning, fear of the unknown, etc.

Your goal is then to find and identify the fear(s), first by vividly imagining the loss and its potential negative consequences. Then you need to face your fear(s) by imagining that those consequences have really happened and whether you'd still be ok.

Would you be able to handle this? Are you willing to accept all the negative consequences of losing (missing a shot)?

Once you deal with your fears, you'll realize that lack of confidence is really not a problem. It just means that you are not 100% sure that you can win and that's normal and realistic thinking.

You also know that regardless of this, you can and WILL give 100% of your effort in order to compete with honor and sportsmanship. If you do that, you'll greatly increase the chances of winning.

2. Stop thinking, clear your mind and look to enter the zone.

Another solution to deal with the lack of confidence is to stop thinking about past and the future and become immersed in the now. The solution is also to stop predicting (going into the future in your mind) and focus on playing.

You can control your effort and what you want to play (tactics) but you cannot control the outcome, where the ball will land, and whether you'll win.

So total concentration on what needs to be done in each moment of the match and giving 100% is all you can and all you need to do. You also need to be 100% congruent with reality-which means that whatever happens in reality (losing a set, missing a sitter, making a double fault...) is what you must accept as the part of the difficulty of this task (playing a tennis match).

There are many unwanted situations in a tennis match and that's just the nature of this demanding sport. When you accept these situations, your emotions don't rise up and cloud your judgment and affect your performance.

You just focus on each point and on each shot without ever going into predictions of what will happen(that's what being confident or not being confident is).

Therefore, you don't even experience low confidence because you don't think. You may even enter the zone and play your best tennis.

In Summary

In my personal opinion, relying on confidence in the long term is a two-bladed sword. While being confident can help you play better, this feeling can be very quickly lost and replaced by being unconfident. This type of thinking then really badly affects one's play.

We've all seen many top players lose confidence and never come back (Gustavo Kuerten, Guillermo Coria...), but there was nothing wrong with their technique, physical conditioning or knowledge of tennis tactics.

They were still able to play fantastic tennis but they lost confidence and made this mistaken connection in their mind that you cannot play well if you're not confident. The reality is that players too often DECIDE to give their best ONLY if it's worth it. And that's the hole they dug for themselves.

Because being confident means that there is a big chance of winning and therefore of good reward, the player is willing to give 100% effort in order to get that reward.

But when there is only a poor chance of winning - meaning that the player feels a lack of confidence - he then doesn't give 100% of his effort because it's not worth spending so much energy if there's such a low chance of being rewarded.

In this case, the player must not blame a lack of confidence for poor play but himself for deciding NOT to fight for every point. What is to blame is the excessive external motivation that drives the player (or NOT) and this creates these ups and downs in a player's performance.

If the player is internally motivated (competing to become a better player, competing to master the sport, competing because he enjoys the game and competition...) then the lack of confidence doesn't really affect his playing, although the player is aware that his chances of winning are poor (meaning he is not confident that he'll win). He still gives 100% effort and plays well.

The real core of the whole problem is thinking.

Thinking revolves ONLY about the PAST and the FUTURE. One cannot think about the NOW because this is an infinitely short moment. And when the player thinks about the past or the future, it breaks his concentration, it causes him to become emotional, and this all hurts his game.

If the player is therefore able to stop thinking, to become immersed in the "here and now", then the lack of confidence doesn't even enter his awareness.

Instead of fighting the lack of confidence by trying to blind yourself with unrealistic confident thinking (which can break down very quickly) and thus doing even more thinking, which disrupts your brain's processing of game-relevant data (ball flight and judgment, opponent's position and tactics, best shots to play...), try to STOP thinking and be HERE and NOW.

The final goal is to enter the zone, and your best tennis will be the consequence of this.



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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