How to Play Matches The Same Way As You Play In Practice

Rafael Nadal losing a tennis match
Even Rafael Nadal cannot always play well.
Photo by AP
How many times have you wondered: "If only I could play this match as well as I can play in practice..."

This is one of the most common and also one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when playing competitive tennis.

To find the solution to this challenge, you must first understand WHY this happens. Why is your match performance not as good as your practice performance?

The main difference between the two is caring.

When you practice, you don't care that much about the result and you don't care that much if you make an occasional mistake.

But when you play a match, you care a lot. In fact, you care too much.

You are worried when you make a mistake, every double fault you serve makes you insecure about your next serve and whatever the score is, you manage to interpret it in a negative, fearful way.

Or in other words, when you practice and don't perform well, you don't worry (you are not afraid), because there are no major negative consequences - no negative outcomes.

This is especially true if you practice without playing for points.

And when you play a match, there are negative consequences of losing; your rankings may go down, you won't be a seed next time, your parents and coach will be disappointed, you may feel embarrassed in front of other competitors and so on.

In other words, you are afraid.

You can approach this challenge in two ways - from the practice and from the match mindset.

Practice As If You Are Playing A Match

If you're a typical club or competitive player, then you probably practice much more than you play official matches. With junior tennis players, this ratio can be 20 hours of practice in two weeks and then 1 to 4 hours of matches in a tournament.

If the 20 practice hours are all done without caring-without really playing under some kind of pressure-then the player will experience a completely different kind of pressure when playing in an official match.

The player needs to:
1. Approach most of the drills with total commitment and give a 100% effort to succeed in them.

2. Play most of the drills with some kind of counting and keeping score. Even though this cannot completely replace match pressure, it does train the player to perform under some kind of pressure.

3. Avoid practice tanking. Many players don't want to realize the truth of their actual tennis level, skills and abilities. How does this show?

When a player is playing a practice tie-break, a game to 11, or another competitive counting game with a practice partner and the player seems to be losing, they stop giving 100% effort.

Why? Because they either consciously or subconsciously convince themselves that if they DIDN'T give 100% effort then they didn't really lose!

It's an escape from painful reality.

Because if the player outranks his practice partner and gives 100% effort and then loses the practice game, this could mean: that the player does NOT really deserve a higher ranking, that the opponent is better, that perhaps the player is not improving any more, that good results can not be expected in the upcoming tournament, and so on.

All these fears and doubts associated with losing a practice drill put the player under pressure and they prefer to blind themselves from reality, to protect their ego and tank the drills.

An illustration of this: the player starts a practice tie-break, gets off to a bad start resulting in their opponent leading 4:1, and then either takes incredible risks which he defends later as "just experimenting with something" or doesn't really bother fighting and running for every ball and thus proves his loss as not really trying, so that the opponent cannot get the full credit and of course the satisfaction.

The key for a tennis champion, and for someone who wants to become one, is to become aware of this escape - the tanking in practice matches and not willing to face the reality that even if you're a good player you cannot perform at your best all the time and that sometimes you'll lose a practice match / game / drill - and NOT do it.

The player needs to be willing to face defeat in training sessions.

The player needs to give 100% effort and risk losing a practice drill because only 100% effort can bring success in the long term. The player will also be much more aware of his weaknesses and will know what to work on.

Even if the weaknesses can be hidden in a practice-by losing on purpose-these weaknesses will sooner or later be exploited by good players in official matches.

Rafael Nadal giving full effort (at age 16) in practice drills

Play In A Match As You Play In A Practice

The "practice as if you are playing in a match" mindset will help you narrow the difference between the practice and the match pressure by upping the pressure in the practices.

You can also work on lowering the pressure in matches and imagine that you are playing a drill.

How do you do that?

Remember; the match pressure is created by you. Your expectations, your perception of the match situation and your fear of losing, embarrassment, disappointment and others; all of these create pressure.

And all of these are in some way connected to the NEGATIVE outcome of the match. This is what you're afraid of and this is what you don't want to happen.

At the same time, you may consciously or subconsciously KNOW, that you cannot control the outcome. This lack of control creates anxiety and doubtful thinking.

You can solve this in two steps:

1. Check your thoughts, be more aware of what you're thinking and if you notice ANY thoughts that are related to the outcome (what if I lose, what if I win, how will I rank after this match, ...), CHANGE them!

The outcome is not within your control and there is no point wasting your energy and time on something you cannot control.

Instead REFOCUS on things you CAN control; how you warm up, what will be your main strategy, what will be your specific tactics when serving, on which side you'll attack, what rituals you'll apply before serving and returning, how you'll work on the right level of activation and so on.

These are ALL within your control and you'll feel much calmer and focused both before and during the match.

What you need to achieve when you play a match is exactly the same as what a high wire walker has to achieve; and that is to BLOCK negative outcomes from your mind.

Imagine what would happen to the high wire walker if he was 100% aware of the situation he was in and if he was 100% aware of all the negative outcomes that could happen! The fear of falling, injury or even death would paralyze and totally cripple his ability to balance on the wire.

The high wire walker has to focus on only ONE thing: ONE MORE STEP.

He has to REMIND himself that he has taken that step thousands of times in practice and that his body is perfectly capable of balancing his weight on the wire. All he needs to do is to control his awareness and not allow the danger of the current situation to enter his mind.

He is focused ONLY on the process - one more step. He BLOCKS the thoughts of the negative outcome from entering his mind and this requires strong mental discipline.

It is exactly the same with a tennis player; in a practice you have hit the ball from various court positions thousands of times and your body is perfectly capable of making the shots.

You must also focus ONLY on the "next step" - the process of hitting the ball - and NOT on the outcome (especially not the negative outcome) - missing the ball, losing the point, losing the match and other negative consequences that follow.

This mental discipline has to be trained in a practice (practice as if you are playing a match) and then applied in a match (play a match as if you are practicing)

2. Accept whatever happens in the match. There are many unwanted things that happen in tennis matches: wind, sun, noise, disruptions, bad line calls, lucky shots from your opponent, and unlucky shots from you.

All of these can cause you to lose focus and to lose the ideal activation level by becoming too emotional. You need to accept all these situations as part of the difficulty of playing a tennis match. Don't complain and waste energy and emotions on things that you cannot control.

Accept them and focus on your effort and strategy. Let these unwanted events go by and focus on what you want to do in the next point. Acceptance is the key to playing in the zone which allows you to play your best tennis.

Deal With Your Fears

We are not always able to fight all the fears in the match; they are too strong. The fear of losing, the fear of embarrassment, the fear of not being a real good tennis player can be a heavy burden and instead of fighting these fears in the match, you should fight them off court.

The best way to deal with the fear of losing (click to open in new window) is to "attack" it with logic.

Read the above mentioned article and apply what you have learned.

I also invite you to share your fears below and I will help you deal with those fears with logical and realistic thinking. Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions too by using the comments option.



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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