Why are mental issues the toughest?

I just lost a tennis match.  A USTA match.  One I should have won.

It started out well enough: my partner and I won the toss, served and won the first game.  Next we lost our opponents’ serve, no big deal.  Then they broke our serve  — this was kind of a problem, since their better server served next, and we couldn’t break back.  Now the score was 1-3 against us.  Our opponents made a couple of questionable line calls, which we let go rather than argue, but I resented the behavior nonetheless.  They also had an annoying habit of whacking the ball back to the server any time a first serve was out, disrupting the server’s rhythm and focus.  Before we knew it, the first set was over, 6-2.

My partner and I tried to regroup.  Our opponents weren’t better players than we were, we knew that.  So we resolved to sharpen our focus, watch the ball, etc.  We won the first two games easily.

They called my partner’s shot out on an important point, when I clearly saw the ball land in the alley.  I questioned the call, but not surprisingly, our opponents were “absolutely positive” they had seen the ball land wide.  I was so irritated with them at that point that I double-faulted the first point of my serve, and proceeded to lose the entire game.  I told myself to get a grip, breath, calm down.  We went up 40-15 in the next game with a volley I hit at the feet of the gal who had been calling our balls “out.”  She popped the ball up and over the fence, into some bushes nearby.  She immediately directed her husband, who was sitting on the sidelines with a beer, to go and find it.  He started rustling in the bushes beside us, and we lost the next point, 40-30.

The husband handed over an ancient, dirt-caked ball.  “No, that’s not it,” she said.  My partner asked if we could please just finish this game and then deal with the ball situation.  “Sure, no problem,” our opponent said.  But her husband returned to the shrubbery.  As he continued to shake the bushes, the other side won three points in a row to take the game.

No question about it, I was letting my emotions get the best of me.  I was also sure my partner was thinking it was my fault we were losing this match, that she’d never want to play with me again.  My internal voice of judgment was drowning out the simple “bounce-hit,” “watch the ball” mantra I would repeat to stay calm.  I just wanted to get out of here.  That happened soon enough: we lost 6-2, 6-3.

As you may have guessed, the foregoing was not an actual match, but an amalgam of USTA matches I have lost.  While higher-level tennis may not be disrupted by balls in the bushes or arguments over line calls, nearly every player loses to a “lesser” opponent at least occasionally.  We saw two such matches last week, as Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki, world-ranked #2 and #1, both lost early-round matches to players ranked below them during the French Open.

Jitters, nerves, collapse of confidence, lack of focus.  I’m not talking about being out-played by a better player, nor am I highlighting those times when technique may have failed me.  What we’re looking at is, pure and simple, letting psychological issues rule the day.  I would venture to say that my serves, groundstrokes and volleys were just as good as those of the women I lost to, but I couldn’t summon the mental toughness I needed, for as long as I needed it to win. 

As usual, while tennis may be the subject at hand, it could just as well be another sport, or any competitive or performance-based activity: giving a piano recital, presenting one’s research to colleagues or the board of directors, negotiating a merger or licensing agreement, closing a sale, securing a donation, arguing a legal case.  The mental issues are toughest to resolve – they’re hard-wired into our gifts and temperaments, learned from our upbringings and experiences, always in the background.  What can we do about them?

Sports psychologists and other experts have written at length about the phenomenon of “choking,” meaning losing in an athletic endeavor due to psychological factors, often when one is about to win (not a problem that requires the Heimlich maneuver).  There are tons of internet articles on the subject — this one, for example.  Although not specifically on choking, Jeff Greenwald’s book, The Best Tennis of Your Life, offers psychological tips with short positive messages.  He has chapters such as “Find Pleasure in Pressure,” “Separate Your Self-Worth from Your Performance,” and “Let Go of the Last Point.”

But I thought this would be a good time to hear from you – what do you do to stay “on your game?”


  1. Linda Griffin says

    Dear Anne,

    Great to read your blog as I have always enjoyed your recaps of our USTA matches. When I start to play badly I take a moment to slow the game down and imagine I am Rafa Nadal or Roger Federer and I am just going to throw down 3 aces to get myself out of a serving hole. Or I imagine that the racket is just a little stick with which I can make anything happen. It usually helps and my partner also senses my renewed focus and raises their game as well.

    Best wishes,


  2. Great article Anne!
    i agree with you that the mental side of tennis is a tough one to deal with. And for some reason this sport attracts the nasty ladies 🙂
    what i do is start the match being myself but trying not to engage the opponent on any personal level – less to think about during the match. i try and think about where i am going to hit to ball while it is in play – not bounce hit, so much as, “i am going to hit it deep to her forehand” for example. If she is someone who is throwing out a lot of “mental mess” as i call it, i try and disengage even more – leave the balls on the baseline instead of handing to her…keep us as seperate as possible.
    the situation you were in with the husband in the bushes is a tough one. what i probably would do – if i was being driven mad by it-is suggest we wait until we got the third ball, or go fine it myself – taking the husband out of the picture. for all you know, though, this could be one of their tactics to get you off of your game.
    Ray has also given me the advice of moving my strings around and focusing on them in between points in order to not focus on the annoying behavior of an opponent.
    i wish tennis was not like this! the good thing is there are always those super kind opponents who make you like the competition again:)
    xo amy

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