Fearless Tennis: Separate Productive Worry from Unproductive Worry


by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

Worry gets the best of us all at one time or another. It destroys performance and causes us to play tentatively and doubt ourselves. It makes competition stressful and frustrating, affecting our enjoyment of the game. To end this experience, we need to understand the difference between productive worry and unproductive worry.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that some worry can actually be productive, propelling you to string your racquets ahead of time, pack your bag with the essentials before the match, decide on your game plan, and make sure you have a court and partner to warm up with—all of which is time well spent. Similarly, if you find yourself worrying about your technique in the weeks leading up to your tournament because a stroke feels a bit off, this may propel you to spend more time honing your game. The reason these are all considered productive worries is because you can do something about them; in other words, they are within your control.

However, if you are worrying about things that are outside your control, this would be considered unproductive worry. For example, worrying about whether you will win or lose, what other people might think of you if you lose, and how your ranking might drop would all fall into the unproductive bucket. In fact, these types of thoughts generate feelings of anxiety, which will generally make you play worse. Without taking control of your worry, you will certainly lose confidence and be distracted from the thoughts and actions that help you play better. Edward Hallowell, author of the best-selling book Driven to Distraction, describes it this way:

The human imagination, at times the great tool of creation, is at other times our bane, as it snoops into the crevices of life to find, or even to create, phantoms of devils of every species and style, ready to tease and torment us as we attempt to pass the day in peace.

My test came in September 2001, the night before I was to play the finals of the Men’s 35 ITF World Championships in Portschau, Austria. I was in my hotel room and found myself worrying about the upcoming match. I knew that if I won the next day, I would earn the year-end ranking of number one in the world and number one in the United States that year in my age group. As my thoughts raced about the impact of this match, I became nervous about the prospect of losing, wondering, Will I play well? What if I don’t win?  After stewing about the meaning of the match, I finally grabbed ahold of myself and said, Jeff, you have no control over whether you win or lose tomorrow. Just focus on getting prepared—hydrate, stretch, and visualize playing well.  It worked. I changed the channel in my head. I switched my focus and stopped worrying about what I couldn’t control and made a choice to focus on my game plan and preparing myself. I ended up winning the ITF World Championships the next day.

Even when your mind starts to get away from you, you have the choice to shift your mind-set once you become aware of your thoughts. Next time you find yourself worrying about an upcoming tournament, your game, or what might happen to your ranking, ask yourself: Can I do anything about this right now?  If the answer is no, detach yourself from the thought and drop the worry. If the answer is yes, find time to make a list of things you can do, step-by-step, to productively work toward your goals. The key is to learn to let go of the unproductive worry (out of your control) and get back to actions that will help you achieve your goals. I trust that you, too, can fend off the worry that comes knocking on your door once you recognize which type of worry you are engaging in.