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Winning Tennis Matches. What Does It take?

Winning Tennis Matches
By: Simon Grieve

Winning Tennis Matches. What Does it Take?
By Ray Brown, Anske Venter, and Jana van der Walt

Tennis players can be conveniently classified into three groups:

(1) those who love the battle of match play

(2) those who see the match as a life-or-death situation. The second class, life-or-deathers, refers to those who see the outcome of a match as so important that they begin to fear playing. Various reasons apply. One reason is that they fear what others will think of them if they lose. Another is a misplaced belief that they should always win. Still another is that they feel that they must win in a special way, such as not being a pusher. And still another is that the do not believe that they should defeat a particular person.

(3) A third category is possible but not interesting: A mismatch in skills. We will not consider this category. Confining our attention to the first two categories, we note that we recognize that most people are a combination of these two types of players. But the classification is convenient for analyzing the scientific basis of winning and even for designing training programs.

Winning requires three things: Skills, Fitness, and a point-of-view. Of these three, the point-of-view is the most important. In this article, we will only deal with point-of-view, or the neuropsychological factors of winning.

So what are the neuropsychological factors of winning?

The first one that must be addressed is whether a player sees themselves as a winner, or one who is entitled to win. Clearly, unless you believe that you are entitled to win, it will be difficult to win. This point-of-view has gradations. A player may feel entitled to win against certain players, but not against every player. To be a champion, one must feet entitled to win against every other player.

One cannot just will themselves to feel entitled to win. Some psychological barriers to wining may develop early in childhood and persist throughout one's life. How these perspectives develop is not the subject of this article. We only bring attention to them to be thorough. Significant damage to a child's self image may result in their always struggling with winning. At some point, the struggle may become so burdensome that they just move on. Such problems are deep rooted and must be address individually. From this point onward, we only discuss situations in which such sever psychological barriers do not exist, i.e., the individual's confidence is in tact and in no need of repair.

The Neuropsychological factors in winning

The primitive brain, or limbic system, is called upon when we feel unexplainable fears, are nervous, or feel uncertain. The primitive brain has the ability to modify our behaviour and restrict our range of possible behaviours when these feeling arise. In particular, it has the ability to restrict our performance in tennis matches when we are nervous. When these restrictions occur, we are unable to execute shots that are routine when on the practice court where there is no fear. The dynamics of this process is that when we feel fear, our primitive brain restricts access to the cortex and makes accessible to us only the most limited actions. This restriction can eliminate our ability to hit our shots or to perform at the level we do in practice. Counteracting this fear through distractions such as watching the ball more closely has often been offered as a strategy. This may work one or two times, but is not likely to work in the long run. Also, strategies such as fist pumping and leg slapping are equally impotent when dealing with the primitive response to fear. Rather than resort to mind tricks and superficial rote actions, it is necessary to confront the dynamics of fear head on if it is to be overcome.

Military training, whereby one learns to survive and prevail in war, provides the best avenue to gain insights. No fear can be greater that facing death in combat. As noted earlier, some players see losing a match just as threatening as dying, or as a matter of life-and-death.

There are three components to surviving a life-or-death situation: Training, habituating to the life-or-death environment, and being able and willing to adapt to surviving in any manner possible. Each of these has an analog in tennis training. The training aspect is easily explained: One must be willing to seek perfection in their skills. This means devoting hours to perfecting each situation and stroke combination. For example, to perfect the consistency strategy, one must first be able to sustain long, uniform rallies in the short court. How well you perfect this rally will determine how well you rally in general in a diverse range of situations. It is roughly four times harder to rally from the mid court than from the short court, and still much harder to rally from the baseline than the mid court. if your short court rally is not excellent, there are flaws in your technique, movement, conditioning, and footwork that must be fixed. A lack of willingness to perfect each rally in each court range is a common personality trait, and one that can be the source of losing. It further reflects a point-of-view that does not appreciate to power of discipline in pursuit of one's goals. It is common for soldiers who have recovered from behind enemy lines, to say that what saved them was their discipline.

Habituation (the process of getting used to an environment) to the life-or-death environment is roughly equivalent to habituating to match play. We have a specific process to achieve habituation. We begin by recognizing that mot of the problem in getting use to an environment is knowing what to expect, and having an orderly view of how to function within that environment. When a child goes back to school at the end of the summer, they are faced with a new environment (the next grade) and have little idea as to what is expected of them, and what they must do to succeed. The first day of school of each new-year is a day of tension (we set aside the joy of the reunion with old friends as the tension issue is our subject). One habituates to the new environment by obtaining data from direct experience. Supporting the acquisition of data is the knowledge of how to use it. Hence habituation is a two-part process in tennis. Playing matches in order to discover what the environment is like, and having the knowledge to cope with the environment. There is no substitute for playing matches to gather data about the environment. However, based on the long history of tennis, one can have a good knowledge of strategy and tactics to aid them in approaching the environment.

Since match play is a complex process we divide the habituation process into several stages. The first stage is sparing. This is where two players put a ball in play without serving and play out the point without keeping track of the point totals. This allows the player to get accustom to the most basic aspect of play, wining the point in the rally. It is important to not initiate sparing until basic skills are in place or the player’s confidence and skills will quickly breakdown. The second stage may include the serve in the sparing session. Following successful habituation in sparing, we add score keeping. Playing eleven or 21 points is common. Dividing this activity into playing without serving and playing with serving is to be recommended. This aids in identifying the problems that occur as a direct result of serving since habituating to serving is an important element in its own right.

The next stage is to play a single set. Many problems can be identified that need to be addressed in isolation of the match in the single set competition. Following this, is match play within the training environment, and after this, tournament play. Tournament play adds the element of playing in an unfamiliar environment and, usually, against a stranger.

The third component has the most psychological baggage associated with it, being willing to adapt in order to win in any manner possible. The lowest end strategy of this component is captured in the metaphor "being willing to win ugly". Being willing to win ugly, or by any means possible, will provide a foundation for winning in general. When faced with a new environment, it is not uncommon for a player to "forget" key elements of their skill set. For example, their flat forehand may simply vanish. IN this case, the player must have the ability to find a way to win without one of their basic tools. This speaks to adaptability and the willingness to do what it takes to win. Rigid or stubborn personalities usually fail at this point and become stuck in a rut of losing. Even the best players have days in which something does not work. There are deep-seated neuropsychological reasons for this that you cannot change by simply trying to see the seam on the ball. The player must be able to adapt, or lose. In the military environment this means adapt or die. A personality that cannot adapt to using the tools that are working on a specific day is a dead end player.

Learning to win with fear, self-doubt, and insecurities

You will never be free from fear, self-doubt, and insecurity. It is simply a matter of degree. I remember when I wan first learning to sky dive in the 70's that I asked a veteran skydiver if there was a point at which the fear just vanished never to return. His answer was that there will always be days on which you have a difficult jump. In short, fear never leaves permanently. You will always have a match in which you feel fear, self doubt or insecure no matter how many matches you have played. With experience, these days will become fewer, but will not vanish altogether. You must learn to live with this. The question is "how?” Knowing yourself (i.e., who you are) is the first line of defence against fear. This is a complex topic that will require a separate article but in short, you must know what are your greatest fears in life (because the match can be a metaphor for those fears) and you must have respect for every player, no matter what you may be tempted to think of them on or off the court. Being able to face your greatest fears in life is essential, and having respect for everyone is essential. Failure to have either of these personality traits can inhibit your ability to win, regardless of your talent level. In short, you will never achieve all that you are capable of without these two traits.

Self doubt usually stems from facts. You will certainly doubt your ability to win if you have not developed sufficient skills to win. There are also deep-seated psychological sources of self-doubt that are the subject of another article. Insecurity is also often rooted in early childhood experience or other traumatic experiences. For some, this can be as simple as the loss of a love relationship. A tennis match, by its nature, can become a metaphor for anything in your life. When this happens, being able to understand it and understand and accept yourself will be important in winning.

Winning is both a joy and a burden.

As mentioned above, one thing that must be settled in your mind is whether you are willing to win regardless of how it looks to others. If you require yourself to win in a particular way, you may never win. I have known players who were just not willing to win by pushing or persistence. This point-of-view is a dead-end and must be avoided. You must be willing to find a way to win, no matter what your friends think or what you imagine others are saying about you. This is a personality trait. In short, you must be unaffected by the opinions of others.
Willing to win has another facet. Can you accept the responsibility of being a winner? Your self-image, health, and sense of responsibility may all play a role in being a winner. If you are overly concerned with the feelings of your opponent if you beat them, you may find yourself losing. You must understand that their feelings are not your responsibility. On the other hand, being a winner carries the responsibility of being a role model. Many players are so callous that they ignore this responsibility. There are many examples in all sports. However, you may be sure that athletes who do not acknowledge and embrace this responsibility will never achieve their full potential. Ignoring this responsibility goes against the grain of natural selection in its most primitive form as well as against the moral principles by which most humans are raised. To be a winner, in short, it is best to avoid being a spoiled brat and it is best to accept the responsibility of being a leader and role model.

We have very active Imaginations.

Every new player provides us with an opportunity to use our imagination to fear them. The most common activity is to imagine that our opponents are superior without having any knowledge about them. Another common fallacy is to assume that if they hit one good shot, they can do it again. Assuming your opponent is superior when you have no facts to support this is in some respect an egotistical point-of-view. Where did you get your knowledge? What is your basis for thinking such thoughts? How is it that your are qualified to make craw such conclusions. Keeping an open mind in the presence of unknowns is essential for winning play.

Just as a match can be a metaphor for any aspect of life, so can your opponent. In a recent tournament when my player, Anske Venter, went to  check in I was watching her opponent who was sitting near the tournament desk. I could see fear in her eyes as she watched Anske sign in. I knew at that moment that Anske had won the match. Of course I did not share this insight with her. What unfolded in the match was instructive. Anske won easily even though her opponent was had very good skills and it should have been a closer match. The match was, most likely, lopsided in Anske's favour simply because her opponent saw Anske as a metaphor in her life.

Now to the matter of your opponent hitting one good shot. There is a curious phenomena in humans that goes like this. If they hit one good shot, the history of that shot affects how they perform the next time the opportunity to hit the same shot again arises. This can be sufficient to disrupt the motor program required t o hit the shot and result in a miss hit the second time around. The moral of the story is never assume that your opponent can hit the same great shot twice.

Our perceptions of the opinions of others and the expectations we have of ourselves can make us fearful.

By placing inconsistent demands on ourselves, we may create pressures that we cannot bear. If you go into a match assuming that your parents expect you to win, you may lose quickly. Our expectations of ourselves must be balanced and in line with the natural principles of the human development and learning process. Assuming you should win a particular match requires a vast knowledge of many complex facts that no human possesses. You simply cannot assume anything. Match play is an empirical event. The facts will be known at the end of the match, not at the beginning. If you find yourself believing that you should win, it is time for a little reflection on your point-of-view. Having unreasonable expectations  can make being on the court very unpleasant, so much so that you just won't want to be there.

The reality of match play.

Tennis is an eye-to-eye combative sport. In general, you must be ready to battle your opponent to the bitter end if you want to win. Also, it is well known that match play is very different from practice. This is because the personality traits needed to enjoy practicing are far different from those needed to win. As we stated above, knowing yourself plays a significant role is winning. Facts, not our imagination, are needed to understand the environment of match play, and lastly, match play can become, at any time, a metaphor for a past or present life experience.

Who you are, your commitment to discipline, your belief in yourself, your respect for others, your willingness to accept the responsibility that comes with winning will all play a part in achieving the status of a winner.

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