by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist
Sitting slumped in her chair across from me, a young, nationally ranked junior tennis player told me about a recent match. “I can’t believe what happened. I was serving for it, and I just froze up.”
“What were you thinking?” I asked, as if I didn’t know what was coming.
“I don’t know. All of a sudden I thought, ‘Wow, I’m up 5–3. What if I lose this? It would be awful.’”
She lost that match.
Fast-forward three months. This same player is playing in front of a dozen college coaches and goes up 5–3 in the third set. She approaches the line, as the possible win and importance of the match close in on her. She wipes it away and refocuses on executing her shots with authority.
She closes out her lead.
In the first example, as soon this player realized she was in a winning position, her mind skipped ahead to the finish line. She wanted to win and got caught up in the score and the meaning of the match. What she had been doing up until this moment— focusing on moving the ball around, attacking her returns and staying consistent—was out the window as her mind darted into the future and her body became overly aroused. Once she realized she still had a few games to win and she could actually lose, she became anxious that perhaps, after all this, she wouldn’t be able to make it happen. At this point in her development as a young tennis player, she had no awareness of how to get her mind back on track, let alone realize that she even had a choice!
Many players in my sport psychology practice talk about their difficulty in closing out leads. Usually, the conversations focus on the anxiety and negative thoughts that creep in. More often than not, the prospect of winning or losing becomes the most disruptive internal distraction. And it’s understandable. Most of us are achievement oriented. We like progress. We like winning. Winning is a great feeling, but when we’re trying to close out a match and our minds jump to the finish line, to our triumphant handshake at the net, we get out of the moment. We deviate from executing our strategy and get overly attached to the score. This attachment makes us play a little tighter.
The reality is that our opponents, now facing the possibility of defeat, recognize that they must pick up their game. The errors we may have been appreciating from them just a few games before gradually diminish as their own anxiety morphs into a new mindset (“I better step it up or it’s over”). But we’re so close to being done and off the court, with a set in the bag, and only a couple more games to go, and we lose our focus just slightly, as our opponent wins a game or two. And then, of course, many of us think the momentum has shifted, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The best thing you can do is to immediately minimize the importance of the score when you are in this situation. The fact that you are up a set and “almost there” is irrelevant as you prepare to serve at 5–3. Remember that your opponent will rarely just hand the match to you. There is no time to rest on your laurels or spend time thinking about the score. You need to get back to the next point and realize you have a long way to go. You must become a taskmaster and refocus on your strategy and play your game. Stay focused on the combination of shots that are working for you. Be careful not to get lulled into the downward spiral of negativity if your opponent’s game picks up and you lose a few games. Do not panic. Stick to your guns and don’t back down. The momentum is with you if you believe it is.
This approach will improve the odds of you turning those leads into victories. I know that shifting your focus like this, given the heat of the moment, is easier said than done, but it’s a mind-set that will make a big difference. Remember, you are the one who controls where you put your attention at any moment. Nobody can take this away from you! Following this plan will likely turn your lead into a victory.