We’ve already discussed the common trap of incorrectly believing that winning is your goal, when, in reality, it’s something else. Typically, these winning imposters look similar to winning at first glance (ex: hitting good shots), but are different enough from winning to frequently result in a suboptimal psychological orientation. In order to maximize our potential on the court, we need to cultivate a true winning attitude.
Here are three more examples of cases in which the goal of winning significantly outperforms the other common goals.
- Not Getting Crushed: You’re playing someone significantly better than you. They make a few mistakes, combined with a few good shots from you, and you’re able to lose 6-1, 6-3. How much do those 4 games mean to you?
- Abusing Weakness: Your opponent can’t get it together and is missing every other backhand out of neutral and even out of offensive positions when playing a weak shot from you. How often do you hit it to his backhand side?
- The Broken String: Your strings break in the middle of the point. What do you do?
Like last time, we’ll go through and analyze the best mental attitude to foster in these situations, as well as some common pitfalls which can prevent us from getting there.
1. Not Getting Crushed
If your opponent’s game is better than yours in every way, you’re going to lose, and probably badly. That’s not within your control. What is within your control is whether or not the match is productive competitive experience. This means practicing the skill of competing in the face of impossible odds.
Even against a player much better than you, there are some patterns which will favor you, at least compared to other patterns. Maybe you only win 1/5 backhand to backhand exchanges, but the two of you actually have pretty similar forehands. Maybe his net game isn’t what it should be, and you don’t get punished as hard as you could for poor defensive shots. Whatever it is, keep pressing. Spend the entire match maximizing your win rate, however hopelessly small it is, because it’s that exact same skill that’s needed to win close matches. And remember, tennis is random, so you might just get lucky, if you can keep yourself in the fight.
Never abandon the process of observing your performance in various patterns and adjusting your strategy accordingly. This problem solving mindset, the determination to try to win until the end, is an essential part of the winning attitude, even in cases when winning really is impossible. If you have to, just pick a new goal. Win as many games, or even as many points as you possibly can. Just keep yourself competing. Because here’s the thing – humans beings can do the impossible much more often than the ill-fitted word "impossible" would suggest, so we need to cultivate an attitude that will push us to the limit, even when our rational brain is telling us there’s no point.
2. Abusing Weakness
Is it just as fun to hit your opponent 10 backhands, 8 of which they miss outright, as it is to strike 6 winners and 4 errors? That depends on your goals. If your goal is to win, then winning 8/10 points is more fun than winning 6/10. But feeling an empathetic twinge in your elbow as you watch your opponent awkwardly shank late backhand after late backhand with very little hope of ever succeeding isn’t as glamorous as using your flowing strokes and dynamic footwork to take those balls to the sides of the court and send them elegantly speeding past your opponent. To combat this thinking, convince yourself that winning is glamorous and losing is not. That way, you won’t be tempted into “better looking” patterns that lower your win rate.
This particular issue is a little more nuanced than the others, because the aggressive pattern really is a more useful skill than the “always hit it to the backhand” pattern. However, the winning attitude is more important than even aggressive tennis, and therefore, in a match context, if you are given a pattern with as high equity as the one described above (opponent missing 8/10 easy backhands), then you should be entering it close to 100% of the time, even when that particular pattern isn’t very useful in general (because most players you play will have backhands).
Matches are for winning. Practice is for practice. And practice matches are for practicing winning. Practice matches are the tool by which we improve the parts of our game that aren’t optimal for helping us win yet. The key to effective practice matches is to maintain the winning attitude even when practicing a pattern that you wouldn’t ordinarily use. This is accomplished by pre-committing to the patterns you want to practice and setting rules for yourself before you start, so that during the practice match you can just focus on winning.
Here’s an example: I’m going to serve and volley on half of my service points. This will probably lower your win probability in the practice match (that’s why you’re practicing it, right?), but because you pre-committed to it, you can still 100% try to win within the rules you’ve set for yourself. The entire reason for playing a practice match instead of a real match is precisely to develop skills which currently lower your win percentage, but will raise it once mastered. By pre-committing to practicing certain skills, you can do this effectively without having to sacrifice your winning attitude in the process.
3. The Broken String
If you’ve been reading this long, you know the answer isn’t “jog to the net, get passed, then go change rackets.” Your response to a mid-point broken string is a good barometer of your winning attitude; if your first reaction is to give up on the point, you’re not thinking like a winner yet.
So for fun, let’s analyze the situation with the winning attitude and win the point.
You have two issues right now. First, you won’t be able to generate nearly as much topspin as you’re used to because your string tension has just plummeted. Second, not only is your new string bed extremely sub optimal, but you’re also not used to it. This means that your degree of inaccuracy has skyrocketed.
To combat this, immediately move your targets in. Primarily use flat shots, occasionally some high-margin backspin shots, and only use topspin as a last resort, since your topspin habits will be the most effected by the broken string bed. Again, on ALL shots, including the flat and backspin shots, use far more conservative targets than usual, since the ball will leave your strings in an unfamiliar way, leading to distributions of outcomes far larger than you’re accustomed to.
Break out of neutral at the earliest reasonable time and go to net. Volleys are some of the least effected shots by a broken string bed. Now, as I mentioned at the start, many players read this as “hit some awful shot, jog to net, and get passed.” That’s incorrect. What I said was: break out of neutral at the earliest reasonable time. Against almost every player, you can play a lot of neutral balls (and keep the point neutral) without using any spin.
You don’t have to tank the entire point just because topspin has been taken from you, but you should lower your expected winrate. This means that many plays that are normally too low percentage to use, suddenly become viable options when your strings are broken. Any reasonable chip and charge, just take it and go. Any ball high enough to hit mostly flat, just aim at a big target, smack it, and go in. Is your opponent particularly bad at a certain kind of offensive shot (backhand approach shot, perhaps)? If things get a little rough, maybe just gift him one of those and see if he can execute it.
It’s not ideal, but our attitude hasn’t changed just because our circumstances have. We are still trying to win in the highest (though it won’t be high) percentage way possible, given the shots we have left: conservative target flat shots, backspin shots, and volleys.
The Mamba Mentality
I intentionally ended this article by talking about what, to an uninitiated observer, seems like the least important part of it – what to do when your strings break in the middle of a point. That’s because situations like broken strings determine who really wants to win, and who’s operating in another context. This goes for all strange situations, too, not just broken strings. What do you do if your hat falls off mid point? What if you slip and fall? Bad bounce? Sun spots in your eyes after serving? Do you hate playing in the wind? What is your true focus, and is it “how do I win this point”? I could explain the answers to all these questions individually, but that misses the point. The point is the winning mindset. It unifies the answers to all of these things in a way that individual analysis never could.
I’ll leave you with this. Kobe Bryant once missed a game winner because a flash from a camera in the crowd distracted him. The flashes probably weren’t allowed in the stadium. Instead of complaining about it, or excusing himself for missing, all off-season he had his assistants stand behind the net and flash lights at him while he practiced shooting, so that he’d never miss in the same situation again.