No really, do you? Because most of us instinctively think “well of course I like winning,” without taking the time to really internalize everything that entails. Many assume that they enjoy the winning itself, but instead actually enjoy distinctly different outcomes that only appear similar to winning, outcomes which are different enough to non-trivially alter your psychological orientation towards the match. Three of the most common non-winning values are playing up to your own standards, hitting good shots, and engaging in a good competition, which are all similar to winning in many respects, but still different enough from it to cause systemic issues in your mental game.
Test yourself to see where your true motivations lie with these thought experiments:
- 6-0 6-0: You’re playing someone significantly worse than you are. You hit a winner almost every other shot and win 6-0 6-0 without much trouble. How much did you enjoy it?
- Beating The Off Day: You are playing someone who you know is better than you, but today they are having a significant off day. You beat them 6-3 6-4 in a competitive but one sided match. Are you happy you won?
- Let Court Guilt: The score is 5-7, 7-6, 6-6 and it’s 5-5 in the tiebreaker. You hit a return which clips the tape and dribbles over for a winner. You are now serving at 6-5 on match point. Will your “guilt” of lucking out the last point in any way effect your performance on this one?
Each of these examples showcases a situation in which the distinction between winning and another similar but distinct value (e.g. playing well) has identifiable consequences in your thought patterns. I’ll go through each and explain what your orientation towards it should be if your real goal is to win, as well as common psychological pitfalls I expect to see in players who think they want to win, but actually have other goals masquerading as winning itself.
1. 6-0 6-0
Winning players allow themselves to enjoy a 6-0 6-0 blowout, rather than feel guilty, feel uncomfortable, or “go easy” in any way because the match isn’t competitive. They understand they’ve earned this result with their hours and hours training on the practice court, and their thorough study of technique, strategy, psychology, etc, off the court. It’s easy to feel guilty – to feel like you want to let up and give your opponent a fighting chance, but that’s a poor habit build.
If there are exceptional circumstances at play: maybe your little brother insisted on playing a match even though you warned him it wouldn’t be competitive, then it’s totally fine to go easy and even tank a few points if you think it’ll improve his experience, but in any competitive setting (early tournament rounds, one sided league matches), that attitude is unacceptable. If anything, it’s insulting to deny your opponent the experience. They’re stuck with a roughly 0% win probability anyway, at least grant them the experience of playing against an elite player.
Accept and Maximize the Situation
Accept that there’s nothing you can do to improve the competitive landscape of the event. Don’t go for stupid shots. Don’t hit harder/softer than you normally would. Don’t intentionally avoid the player’s weakness to keep the rallies more competitive. Not only are these bad habits to build, but they’ll degrade the quality of the already subpar match further, rather than enhance it.
There is still a vitally important skill you can practice in this match, and it’s winning every point you should win. If you start fiddling around and losing points you should win it’ll cost you later. In an easy match like this, it won’t change the outcome, but sacrifice 5% of your easy points in a match where only 15% of them come easy, and all of the sudden you’ve got a huge problem.
2. Beating The Off Day
Accepting that it’s okay to beat someone better than you is partially about remembering that you yourself will have off days, too. Discounting your win on your opponent’s off day is just as unhealthy as discounting your loss on your own off day (which I think we all know is unhelpful). A win is a win. If someone is good enough to beat you 9/10 times, don’t let them beat you 10/10 times. It’s really that simple. Don’t think about a match as a single entity win/loss binary, but rather as one instantiation of an overall win rate that would occur if you and your opponent played many times.
Think of it this way: they’re better than you, and you can’t change that. You have a 10% chance to win. Well, fight tooth and nail for your 10%. Scrape out every last one of those 10% wins that you possibly can, and feel good about the fact that it was 10%, and not 0%. It’s very easy to conceptualize 10% as “really small” and, say, 1% as “really small” and see them as the same thing. They are not. Ten percent is literally ten times better.
Further, it’s easy to feel that when you do, in fact, win after having a 10% chance going in, that you “just got lucky” and you “didn’t really win.” That isn’t true. You are fully earning that 1 win out of 10 by competing hard each and every time, and waiting for the slip up. Keep doing that.
3. Let Court Guilt
The easiest way to avoid “let court guilt” is to understand that luck happens to everyone. It’s part of the game. Whether you consider it a feature or a flaw is irrelevant. You have to play the game as it lies.
Further, there’s a lot more luck in tennis than you realize. It is incorrect to conceptualize shots as existing in isolation – that winner that hit the line might have hit the line this time, but often it simply flies out and is a lost point, rather than a won point. Every individual shot is drawn from a distribution of shots at execution time, effectively randomly.
If it were possible to never miss, pros would never miss. But they do miss, because, even for a professional player, striking a tennis ball comes with a little bit of variance; it can’t be perfect every time. Sometimes the shot will go in. Sometimes it’ll veer off course and go out. Sometimes, it’ll veer off just a little bit, and hit the line for a winner. That’s not as uncommon as a net dribbler, so it’s not nearly as “lucky,” but it’s still a little lucky, since you can’t profitably aim for the line in the long run.
Forget About Luck and Win Anyway
In the end, a let court winner is simply a point you won due to an uncommon upswing in variance. But there’s lots of variance in tennis, so there’s no reason to zoom-in on this particularly vivid instance and somehow use it to discount your win.
Are you really only going to “count” your win if you “didn’t get lucky”? Are you going to go back through the entire match and look at every mishit, every shot that was close to the line, every slightly mistimed stroke and determine whether it helped or hurt the player who struck it, and try to average it all out to discover that you were +3.27 points over expectation on rallies with small mistakes or flukes, and subsequently conclude you don’t really deserve your win and “just got lucky”? No? You’re not going to do that because it’s ridiculous? Good.
Just play the game, and occasionally put your racket up in a (fake) apology if you have to.
The Winning Attitude
Whatever your goals are, your mind will subconsciously work to achieve them. If your goal is something similar to winning, but distinct from winning itself, then you’ll be leaving wins on the table. Align yourself. If you really, deep down, would rather do something like "hit good shots" than win, then that’s fine, but understand that it’s going to cost you matches. Most players really do want to win, but unknowingly carry the psychological baggage of non-winning goals masquerading as winning itself. We need to train out of those metal habits.
The winning attitude, like everything else in tennis, is something you have to practice. Be tenacious, be a problem solver, and value your wins however they come, and you’ll slowly develop a level of mental toughness you hadn’t though possible before.