Fearless Tennis: Be patient against pushers

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

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

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At one time or another, we all find ourselves losing to a “pusher—someone who just hits the ball back and doesn’t play aggressively but rather waits for you to make a mistake. You know your strokes are better; you beat players they lose to. Not to worry, you’re in good company. Most of us have struggled defeating this kind of player. If this happens to you, there is still hope, but more than likely you’ll need to exercise more patience if you want to finally prevail over the slow-hitting, human backboard while you get out of your own way.

When playing pushers, be mindful of your tendency to become overly impatient or conservative. Given that they can’t hurt you with any weapons, you don’t need to rush your shots. Also, if you have lost to this type of player in the past, it is easy to get overly emotional. Make sure you aren’t going for too much at inappropriate times or protecting against errors. Even with a pre-match game plan, it is too easy to get frustrated at the slightest sign that the match is headed in the wrong direction—again. Naturally, since your ultimate goal is to get the upper hand on this particular player and win the match, your mind will be very susceptible to the scoreboard.

Avoid the tendency to give up too soon or think too black and white just because of past results. One player said to me, “I always lose to pushers. I can’t beat these kinds of players.”

Slow things down and decide that you are there to go the distance, regardless of how long it takes. As Roger Federer told the reporter on the way out to his second-round match at the 2006 U.S. Open against Tim Henman (an old nemesis who had beaten Roger a total of six times in past meetings), when asked if he would like to have the match be done in three sets, “I have my extra shirts packed, so if it goes all five sets, that will be great, too.” Beating players we have lost to but whom we feel we can beat takes patience and a willingness to work the point and not force opportunities prematurely.

Of course, this mentality becomes even more challenging against players who don’t give you much pace, because you have more time to think and hesitate. Remember, these types of players want to suck you into playing their game or have you explode and go for too much since they don’t have the weapons to hurt you.

Before the match, commit to your game plan. Have the mind-set that you will work the point and capitalize on opportunities when they present themselves. Avoid forcing your shots. This approach will translate into more composure and less muscle tension, allowing you to execute the shots you need. Pretty soon, you will view pushers as just another challenge you can overcome.

Excerpted from Jeff’s book The Best Tennis of Your Life: 50 Mental Strategies for Fearless Performance