By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2010, all rights reserved

Hard-fought, dragged out tennis matches often become stressful. As the match progresses we become more and more emotionally invested in winning. We all know that winning is very satisfying and losing is very unpleasant, but in the midst of the battle the outcome is uncertain. This situation is tailor-made for high and unpleasant stress, and one means of escaping it is by making excuses.

A common example of this is where a player gets a bad call and rationalizes his decision to tank the match on the basis that, “If the cheater wants it that badly let him have it!” Then the thinking goes, “I didn’t really lose the match. I was cheated out of it!” This fits into the general category of rationalization generally known as excuse-making. After anger, excuse-making is probably the most wide-spread method of escape from the stress and uncertainty of competition. It’s a particularly fertile field and comes in a thousand disguises. Here the “problem,” whatever it is, becomes magnified out of proportion and fills the rationalizing player’s mind so as to mask the real issue of winning. Of course there are a host of counterproductive consequences, but the most obvious is that it makes us lose matches.

We have all had plenty of experience with opponents making excuses for losing, and while we may be too polite to say so, we tolerate it as a character weakness, maybe even a small moral deficiency. In any case, we don’t like it.

Fortunately, we rarely make excuses ourselves except under unusual circumstances. Or do we? It is an obvious “excuse” when our opponents see fit to share their on-court “problems” with us, and we suspect they are ungraciously fabricating them to devalue our victories. On the other hand it is simply a real problem and not an excuse when we share our on-court problems with them. We feel that they need to know these things to truly understand the situation. We think they will be missing the reality of the situation if we don’t help them understand we were playing with an extraordinary handicap. (We hate the thought that in their ignorance they may overestimate their own contribution to their victory and think they beat us heads-up.)

What confuses most of us with the excuse issue is that when we make them, the problems we tell people about are real. For example, if you have a pulled leg muscle and can’t run normally, would it be an excuse if you mentioned this fact to other people? The answer is yes! That it’s real is beside the point. Almost all the excuses people make are real. I?’s just that nobody wants to hear them.

Your motivation in telling people your excuse is to convince them that you are a better tennis player than today’s result might indicate. You hope to improve their opinions of you or at least get some sympathy. Unfortunately, you will get neither and will, in fact, accomplish exactly the opposite. In the best case they might believe your excuse is real, but they still see you as weak for having to tell them about it. In the worst case, they won’t believe you and think you are fabricating in addition to being weak. In either case, they lose some respect for you. Finally, nobody except your mother is interested in your tennis problems, real or not.

If you feel an excuse coming on, bite your lip, and resist talking about it. And by all means resist thinking about it during play or feeling sorry for yourself. Put it out of your mind or work around it. If you want to win the match you will need all your mental faculties focused on playing better. Lamenting your problems will simply distract and weaken you.

You should be interested in problems only in so far as they make you alter your game plan to play around them. For example, if your leg hurts and you can’t move normally you can still win. You just have to hit more severely so that your opponent can’t get to your legs and be determined to execute better when you do get to the ball. Worrying about your leg and thinking about telling people about it only detracts from your execution, where you need to be better focused than ever.

Sigmond Freud pointed out that defense mechanisms like rationalization (in this case, excuses) are normal and often serve useful and protective purposes. Unfortunately, competitive tennis is not a normal situation, and the useful purposes they provide do not include winning matches or engendering respect from opponents or bystanders. Successful players resist making excuses by consciously recognizing the real issues on court and using the rational parts of their brains to keep themselves on track.

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