by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology

It is no surprise that players want to win when they play tournaments, but an obsessive focus on winning often severely hinders the development of their game and ability to improve. Tennis requires the development of finely tuned skills in many areas: forehand, backhand, serve, and volley technique, footwork patterns and movement, concentration, confidence, emotional control, shot-selection, strategy, and tactics. These areas are supposed to be continually improved in practice and then, hopefully, implemented during matches. Unfortunately, this proves challenging for many players. Over the years I’ve frequently seen coaches and parents frustrated when their player (or child) doesn’t seem able or willing to implement during tournaments what is being worked on in practice. I want to give some advice on how to help a player make this necessary change.

When training to be an elite tennis player and maximize your potential, it’s important to realize the difference between being in a competition state versus a building stage. During a competition state, the focus is on trying your best to win the match—using any tools at your disposal to get the job done and come away with the victory. But sometimes its important to have a time period for just building and improving. When you’re in these building moments, the right mindset is crucial. These matches need to be used purely as opportunities to get better—improving strengths, eliminating weaknesses, altering technique, and focusing on “playing the right way”—the way that is aligned with the player’s and coach’s long-term vision for their game. The focus cannot always be on winning—because if so, it will be impossible to make the necessary improvements to maximize potential and reach the top. Professor Cheng Man-Ching (1902-1975), considered one of the greatest Tai Chi masters in history, refers to this willing to sacrifice winning for improvement and focusing on a long-term vision “investing in loss.”

Unfortunately, too few junior players, and even professionals, appear willing to invest in loss—they continually make the same mistakes repeatedly during matches by reverting back to old, ineffective habits. Top coaches rarely make the mistake of not understanding the importance of utilizing building stages during tournaments (although it does happen), but many parents are unaware. If parents do not help send the message to the player that winning is not important during a building stage, the coach will be fighting even more of an uphill battle. Needless to say, step one is for coaches AND parents to understand the difference between competition states and building stages, and why building stages are necessary for maximum improvement and results.

Why are some players often unwilling or unable to implement in matches what they have been working on in practice?

Before fixing the issue, its necessary to first understand why its so hard for players to submit to the learning process and invest in loss. If this is not crystal clear in your mind, it will be challenging to deliver an effective message to the player. Players often attach part of their self-esteem and self-worth to their tennis results. If they win, they feel good about themselves as a person, and feel bad when they lose.

Players feel external pressure from their fellow tennis peers, who will often make comments such as, “How could you lose to him?”, “Don’t worry, you’ll beat her easily?”, or “What is your ranking?” These comments are just the tip of the iceberg of the pressure players put on one another. External pressure frequently comes from parents as well (even when parents don’t believe they are a source of pressure) and internal pressure from the player’s own insecurities. Many players are so heavily focused on the judgment of others that their primary objective, usually unconscious, is to look good in the eyes of their peers, parents, and coaches. When players get into a match, they stop focusing on implementing what they have been working on in practice and become consumed with winning. They are afraid to stop old habits because those habits are comforting. If a player is concerned with winning during a building stage, the body tightens up and reverts back to the old way of playing. They don’t learn from their mistakes—practicing and playing matches is motivated mainly because they just want to win. They have a short-term versus long-term vision. Refer to point # 6 in Improving Our Coaching To Help Players Reach Their Potential for more information on having a long-term versus short-term vision.

How can you get players to invest in loss?

The goal is to help the player understand the purpose of investing in loss, how well it will work, and to understand and overcome the fears getting in the way. How can you do this effectively? First, it’s important to explain to them the difference between a competition state and a building stage. Make the distinction clear. Let them know that you, as their coach or parent, are not concerned with winning during a building stage. The player needs to truly believe that you don’t care if they win—that the sole purpose of the match is to work on their game. If the players is especially resistant, do not hesitate to tell them that they will probably lose while implementing what is necessary to get better. Explain to them the importance of having a long-term versus short-term vision. Consider asking them if they had the ability to look into the future and trade months and months worth of first-round losses for winning the sweetest and biggest tournament they could imagine (perhaps even a grand slam), would they take the deal? The answer will invariably be a resounding, “YES.”

After being clear with the player, and making sure the parents are on the same page, use your relationship with him or her to ease the fears preventing them from “playing the right way” during matches. Let them know that you are aware of what they might be thinking or fearing. Tell them you understand that they are feeling scared to look dumb, lose, and be judged by others, but that it’s the best and fastest way to get exponentially better and reach their goals. Talk to them about giving into the learning process and doing the right thing without reverting back to old habits. Help them realize that most people do not realize what it takes to be the best—and that you and the player are a team, working together to reach greatness. State confidently and frequently that it does not matter what others think and promise them it will be worth it in the long run. And again, make it clear with your entire heart that you are not concerned with the result of the match—you just want them to work on the right things. Let them know that it will be tough at first, but you will support them endlessly and that it will get easier each match. Tell them to not worry about looking bad on the path to greatness, as the results will come soon enough. As said by one of my favorite masters on effective learning, Josh Waitzkin, “Great ones are willing to get burned time and time again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.”

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