Fearless Tennis: Stop mind reading

Fearless Tennis

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

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

The reason players worry about the opinions of others is because they are seeking validation. And tennis can be a brutal place to look for it. But whether you like it or not, it’s important to realize that people don’t spend half as much time thinking about your losses as you do.


I believe many players overemphasize both the status they achieve when they win and their fall from grace when they lose. Even if some elevated status is gained by winning, there is always a loss around the corner to put your ego in check. The truth is, win or lose, people are less caught up in your results than you think—unless you are in the top five in the world and extremely likeable. In this case, you are probably a role model and occupy a bit more bandwidth. However, outside of this select group, you might be surprised about how little time people spend wallowing in your losses or celebrating your wins.

What people want to see is good tennis. They want to see good rallies, heart, emotion, and clutch play. They want to lose themselves in the drama, and if they are involved in your development, they want to see signs of improvement. Those people who don’t know you simply want to be inspired. They appreciate when you play superbly and win because it makes them feel that excellence is possible—or, of course, because it racks up a win for the team! Most people want to achieve a higher level themselves, and they appreciate you modeling that for them. People connect to the quality of a match, shots they observe, and the poise and confidence with which they are done. The result of a particular match or the status they may attribute to it, whether you won it or lost it, is usually transitory and, in the end, doesn’t count nearly as much as how you do it.

Think about your experience when you watch a tennis match. Other than perhaps one of your favorite players in a big tournament, how upset do you get when someone you watch loses? How long do you spend thinking about the rise in that particular player’s ranking? How long do you spend thinking about their amazing win or disappointing loss? My guess is that you get back to doing your own thing pretty quickly. This is simply human. We are involved in our own lives, yet we can also take joy in the drama of competition. They are not mutually exclusive. The point is to find a more balanced view of the meaning you may be attaching to your wins and losses and not beat yourself up so much.

A few years ago, I remember walking past a top player on the ATP Tour whom I knew on the practice court. He noticed that I was deep in thought after a session with a junior player and commented on my mood. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Well, to be honest with you, I was just thinking about the pressure so many of these young players are putting on themselves. They worry so much about what other people are thinking of them.”

Curious, he asked, “Well, what did you tell him?”

“I told him that after the match, the people he thought cared so much about his ranking and recent results were probably just thinking about what they were going to eat for lunch.”

He responded, “Yeah. I know, it’s probably true, but it’s a tough habit to give up.”

It is a hard concept for players to wrap their minds around—not worrying about letting other people down or blowing it in front of peers. So much of players’ motivation can be based around other people’s expectations and a desire to be validated. Letting go of this, or at least balancing it with a more rational view, can be disappointing because many players want to believe their results matter that much to others. Th e problem with this perspective is that it is this very need that gets in the way of players performing freely. Finding an inner drive that has more to do with your passion for the game and personal goals than other people’s judgments is a far more peaceful and productive path to follow.

Next time your mind wanders off the court to the parents, fans, friends, and teammates, and you start thinking about other people’s opinions of you, remind yourself that what everyone—including you—really wants is good competition and the excitement that is found in the game itself. And then get back to the joy of hitting through your shots and pouring your heart out as you run down the next ball.