Allen-Fox-Winning-Mental-MatchBook excerpt from “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match”
By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2012, all rights reserved

Most of us lack the self-belief of champions. As competitors we are all told, “It is crucially important to believe in yourself.” We hear that the great players believe in themselves, and this is what carries them to victory against players that don’t. We are admonished that unless we believe in ourselves victory will remain elusive. Worst of all, we fear if we don?t believe in ourselves we have the dreaded “loser’s mentality.”

Convinced, we search the recesses of our hearts for vital conviction. As we walk on court to face a highly-ranked and fearsome opponent we search for self-belief and are diminished when we come up empty! Despite our efforts, we simply can’t bring ourselves to presume, with ample certainty, that we are going to win. We have been indoctrinated to think that “winners” always believe they will win. Since we don’t, we suspect that we lack some crucial mental element and that our match is half-way lost before we even start.

You can still win without it. Are those of us not blessed with the champion’s certainty doomed to defeat? Not by a long-shot! Consider the words of Marat Safin after he won the 2005 Australian Open: “This is a huge relief for me, because I didn’t believe I could win. I’ve already lost two finals here before and I started to doubt myself. I thought it was going to happen again.” Since he won the tournament anyway, it is obviously possible to win without a great deal of self-belief. It is easier, of course, if you have it, but if you don’t, there are positive of steps you can take to improve your chances.

Self-belief is another way of saying confidence. First, let’s take a deeper look at what we really mean when we talk about “believing in yourself.” We are really just talking about confidence. (Hereafter, I will use the terms “confidence” and “self belief” interchangeably.) We all know what confidence feels like – it’s that warm, relaxed, sense of certainty that we are going to win the match. And since it is such a great help in winning, it is useful to look at what causes confidence, and more importantly, to try to figure out how to get more of it.

Unfortunately there is no intellectual way I know of to create confidence out of uncertainty. As they used to say at Smith Barney, it must be obtained the old-fashioned way, you must earn it. And this is by winning. Only winning begets true confidence because confidence is a subconscious and emotional “expectation of success,” and we develop these expectations largely from past experience.

Like any expectation, past history plays a powerful role in producing it. Since the sun has, without fail, come up in the morning for the past billion years we expect it to do so tomorrow and are completely confident it will. If, on the other hand, it had come up only nine mornings out of ten we would still be pretty confident of its rising tomorrow, but not absolutely so, and if its history had been to come up only one morning in ten we would be downright dubious. In the latter case one could line up psychologists from coast to coast telling you to have confidence in tomorrow’s sunrise or prescribing visualization exercises where you picture the sun coming up, and you still wouldn’t be confident. Reality and history will out.

It is the same with tennis. The more you win the more you subconsciously expect to win, meaning you become more “confident” or have more “self-belief.” With this increased self-belief in hand, you become stimulated rather than frightened in the clutch and are, therefore, more likely to produce your best tennis. In contrast, if you have been losing, your confidence diminishes. You develop the lurking fear, especially in crucial situations, that something bad is about to happen. This makes you shaky and more likely to perform poorly and lose. Winning breeds confidence and confidence breeds wins, just as losing breeds losses. This has an unfortunate circular ring to it, but without victories, real confidence is an unlikely occurrence.

Increases in confidence with victory are cumulative – the more you win, the higher your confidence gets. Moreover, recency of victory is another factor. Winning a match yesterday has more impact on your present level of confidence than winning one last week or last month. This is another way of saying that the increase in confidence caused by a victory gradually decays with the passage of time.

Some people are probably born more confident than others. Underlying the confidence of victory is your basic confidence level – the confidence level that you were either born with or that was formed during early childhood. Nobody knows for sure the parts played by genetics and early experience in developing our basic levels of confidence, but for whatever reasons, it is clear that we are not all equally endowed. Some fortunate individuals just seem to be more confident than others, although we all become more confident with victory. Moreover, these same confident individuals seem to experience a greater increase in confidence with each victory and a lesser decrease with each loss than the rest of us.

How do we handle issues of confidence and self-belief? Surrounding yourself with positive people is always a benefit, whether it is in tennis or elsewhere. Thus it is certainly advantageous to have a coach who builds you up rather than one who breaks you down. But the coach’s words should be realistic and credible. It is most useful to have a coach that appreciates your strengths while not ignoring your weaknesses and has faith in your basic competence as competitor. A coach can build your confidence by telling you that you are doing well when you actually are and by identifying your weaknesses as opportunities for improvement. If this is handled well, it can improve your confidence to some extent, but not nearly to the extent provided by winning.

Second, coaches should refrain from admonishing their pupils to have more self-belief. No one can tell you to have it. You are born with some, may obtain a little from positive mentors, but get the bulk of it by winning. You get none of it from someone telling you to get more of it. Third, realize there is nothing wrong with you if you are not confident of winning when you step on court to play someone better than you. Self-belief implies certainty, and reasonable people simply don’t feel certain of beating people who are better than they are.

The biggest danger is thinking you have a character weakness if you lack self-belief against better players. This is debilitating. And as Safin proved, you can still win without it. Since there is nothing special you can do to conjure it up, your best option is to put the issue entirely aside. All anyone really has to believe in is that victory is possible. (Let the other players worry about whether they are endowed with sufficient self belief.) All you need to walk on court with is a hopeful attitude, emotional control, fortitude, and a well-practiced set of strokes, and you will win your fair share of matches.

Confidence and slumps: Confidence in tennis comes in cycles. When players are winning they get confident and win more. Eventually, however, they take some losses, and their confidence goes down. This causes more losses, further reduction of confidence and the cycle continues until they finally get some wins and it reverses. Slumps and hot streaks are simply examples of confidence and lack of confidence feeding on themselves.

Vince Spadea’s professional career provides one of the best examples. After reaching a career high ATP world ranking of #19 in 1999, Spadea’s confidence and ranking dropped in the following year to a low of #233, a fall highlighted by a record-breaking 21 straight first-round tournament losses! But Spadea picked himself up, played minor-league Challenger tournaments to get a few wins, gradually built up his confidence, and ultimately clawed his way to a career-high ATP world ranking of #18 in 2005.

Getting out of a slump: When your confidence is down there are steps you can take to reverse the cycle sooner. The first is to recognize the cyclical nature of confidence in order to reduce the associated stress. Like a roller-coaster it has ups and downs. Maintain the perspective that it is only a matter of time before it turns upward. This helps counter the ever-present tendency to become discouraged and emotionally negative and prolong the agony. No matter how poorly you may be playing at the moment, recognize that you will eventually come out of it, although it feels like you never will. And it will do so sooner if you don’t get negative and overly concerned. Above all, remain hopeful because you don’t know when it will end, just that it will, and assume that the next match will be the beginning of your upswing.

Playing weaker opponents in order to get some wins is a second helpful step. Spadea provided an example at the pro level by building confidence at Challenger-level tournaments before returning to the major ATP tour events. You can do it regardless of your level by carefully selecting players you can beat. I believe it is a myth that you can best improve your game by always playing players who are better than you. I think the opposite is true, although it is, of course, helpful to play some better players. When you get beaten too often your confidence suffers, and you are liable to develop a defensive, fearful, negative mentality. Leaving aside the confidence issue, it is also questionable as to whether your game will develop properly. You learn strategically what works and what doesn?t from experience against other players. Reward and punishment on court teaches you proper shot selection. If your experience is against players substantially better than you, nothing may work, and proper shot selection may be punished (by the loss of the point) equally with improper selection such that you don’t learn the difference.

Emotional discipline can take the place of lagging confidence. A third positive response to losing confidence is to replace it with emotional discipline. There is a natural tendency, when one is unconfident, to become excessively emotional in competition. Fears and uncertainties run rampant and players are particularly susceptible to choking, anger, discouragement, or excuse-making. These must be consciously dampened down with above-normal discipline. This allows players, though unconfident and performing below par, to remain competitive and avoid utterly destroying themselves. Getting the first few wins may depend upon your opponent’s making a few extra mistakes, but concentrating intensely and keeping a tight rein on your emotions forces your opponent to stay out on court longer where something good may happen for you. It simply increases the odds of you getting the win or two you need to reverse the losing cycle.

Time can be therapeutic when one is in a slump. Time itself can sometimes aid one in breaking out of a slump. As mentioned above, the decrease in confidence caused by a loss dissipates over time. So it can be helpful, if one is slumping badly, to take a short break from competition. You can, for a week or so, lay off tennis entirely or just hit and work on your strokes. When you return to competition, try to start out against weaker opponents so you can gradually rebuild your confidence as a prelude to facing the tougher ones.

You must believe in your strokes. You have heard pros say this, but they mean it differently than it may appear. They don’t mean you must have absolute belief that a particular stroke is going to work properly every time. They know this is not possible. They mean that once you get into a match your strokes are as good as they are going to get – as good as your talent and diligence in practice have made them. So you must now be content with your game as it is, rely on it, lean on it, and assume that your strokes it will function well enough for you to win the match. When you miss, keep your emotions under tight control and focus on relaxing and hitting the ball in the way you have practiced. You can make small adjustments, of course, but don’t discard your normal strokes or your reasonable game plan. Then remain motivated, positive and hopeful.

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