by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist
Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis
Losing points, particularly on unforced errors, is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game. It can bring up feelings of disappointment, anger, despair, and self-doubt. You want to win the point and are acutely aware of the score. Within seconds, your mind gets caught in the vicious cycle of “what could have been” if only you had won the last point.
Perhaps it would have given you a break point or an opportunity to serve out the first set. Or worse, it was match point, and you now wonder whether you can actually close this match out. Whatever the score, it is irrelevant; you need to let it go and move on to the next one. Yes, I know, easier said than done. But, armed with the right strategies, you can learn to get the upper hand on this universal mind trap.
In my CD audio program Fearless Tennis, I shared one of my most dramatic and revealing conversations that I had with a young player about the cause of his disintegration after a match he played. In this particular match, after just the first game—of which he wasn’t even serving—he became angry at himself and threw in the towel and lost 6–3, 6–2. Losing points was simply unacceptable and scary.
Let me share with you what this player said to me after the match.
After he cooled down, I asked, “What were you thinking after the first game?”
“I was worried I wouldn’t play well,” he responded.
Challenging him, I probed further. “And what if you didn’t play well?”
“Well,” he said, “then I’d probably lose.”
“And what if you would lose?” I continued.
“I might not get into a good college or get a good job,” he said.
Finally, he acknowledged that he might even be living on the street one day!
With this kind of pressure, no technique will be very effective in wiping away the last point. So first you need to know that no match will determine the direction of your life. Even when college scholarships are on the line, college coaches are more concerned with your ability, work ethic, discipline, personality, and mental toughness.
The result is not as important as you are probably making it out to be. Stay rational about it and keep it in perspective.
You also need to recognize that you will lose points, even “important” points, and you need to accept this before you walk onto the court. Even the greatest players in the game lose games, sets, and matches. They’re human. So are you. If you want to increase your chances of winning, wipe away the last point. To do this, tell yourself, It’s only one point. This won’t determine the match. Next point. Or, if you doubt that you can win because you lost the last point, tell yourself, I’m still in this. I can do it.
It may sound simple, but these words can be extremely uplifting at crunch time. The key is to be quick and ready to go with these positive statements before your self-doubt and frustration set in.
When I was playing the ITF 35 World Championships in 2001, even though I got my mind under control before the match for the most part, I still bumped up against negative thoughts after some key points. I remember serving at 6–4, 1–0, and missing an easy forehand. Instantly the thought hit me, What if I lose this? I’m so close. In that moment—I still don’t know how this image came to me—but I pictured a windshield wiper in my mind, wiping away the last error. Just like that, it was erased, behind me. The decks were cleared. I was free to move onto the next point and stopped stewing over the last error and assessing what it might mean. This visual has worked for many players who need a reminder to let go of the last point.
Don’t let errors take you away from the match. With the right perspective, a few uplifting words, and a windshield-wiper image, you are equipped to redirect your mind when it gets pulled into the whirlpool of negativity.