Fearless Tennis: Leave Your Expectations Off the Court


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

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

There is a big difference between striving for excellence in your game and carrying those expectations onto the court. All successful players have a very high standard for themselves; many are even perfectionists. This drive is what propels them to put in the time and endure the pain and monotony of extreme self-improvement. However, the best competitors have learned to leave their expectations off the court so they can play freely and manage the stress that comes with the unpredictability of competition.

It may seem like the pursuit of excellence and expectations go hand in hand. But they needn’t. You need to accept that you won’t hit every return perfectly or play flawlessly. You will make errors. You will occasionally start out slowly until you find your groove. You may lose to players ranked below you. The trajectory of your improvement rarely follows a path that goes straight up. Keep striving for personal excellence but try to suspend your expectations of how you “should” be playing when you’re on the court.

You hear it all the time from players: “How could I miss that shot? I never miss that. This is a joke.” It is certainly an understandable reaction. You know how you can play. And you know when you are executing your shots or not. Beware of your tendency to judge. To move beyond the self-imposed expectations, you need to recognize that comparing and judging your shots will only keep you stuck.

Tennis is a unique sport, given that it has no time limit. Amazingly, you can be down 6–0, 5–0, 4–0 and still win. You do have time to find your rhythm. You don’t have to get frantic when your forehand isn’t landing deep in your opponent’s court like it did the day before. How well you performed and whether you fulfilled your expectations are best assessed when the match is over.

The tendency is to get down on yourself and feel disappointed that you aren’t playing the way you know you can. You start thinking more about what isn’t working and wonder what to do now. Your brain goes into overdrive, and you get caught in your head. Avoid this track. Stop analyzing. Refocus on the task at hand. Recall what your best strokes look like. Just accept what is and see if you can relax your body. More than likely, it is the tension in your body and your busy mind that are causing you to miss your shots in the first place—that is, unless your opponent is forcing you into new and uncomfortable situations.

For years, my own expectations caused me to obsess over lost matches for weeks. I would get unnecessarily flustered if I didn’t execute a shot as I had expected. I wanted things to flow just right. Well, I know now that my expectations on the court only handcuffed me. Once I learned to withhold my judgment until I had a chance to find my groove, my best tennis did emerge.

You want to play well and win. But to do so, you need to leave your expectations off the court while you immerse yourself in the match.