By Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT.
“We had it. It was mine. I can’t believe it. What happened? I blew it. I choked. Aaargh.”
Matches at all levels are lost every day because players are unable to “close it out.” Pros, juniors, college players, and competitive league players confront this challenge universally. Interestingly, in many ways, this phenomenon is a microcosm of the dynamics that play out in athletic competition in general – trusting your skills and playing to win, focusing on the process versus the results, maintaining concentration and intensity, and neutralizing momentum shifts.
We’ve all been there – leading 5-2 in a set then somehow letting it slip away. And how these losses hurt! After the match we shake our heads and replay the key shots in our minds wondering what would have happened if we had only attacked that second serve or come to the net for a volley at match point. Deep down we are disappointed in ourselves because the loss could have been avoided. We fell short not because we didn’t have the strokes, but because we lost our mental and emotional edge. This realization irritates us for days. We can live with the other player out hitting us, picking up his game at key moments but giving it away is unforgivable, and we are very hard on ourselves. But it is this very challenge and those frustrations that intrigue us and bring us back the next time to test ourselves again.
So what typically happens when a player is leading in a match and then loses? Well, it depends on the player, but here are several reasons:
Protecting the Lead
The most typical response in this situation is to tighten up and become tentative. Players begin to protect their lead and hope their opponent will hand them the match. These players, as Tim Gallwey long ago discussed, begin playing “not to lose.” In other words, they abandon their more aggressive style of play and rely on the opponent to make errors. This is a recipe for disaster. Even if these players win they feel horrible about how they played. It hurts their confidence, and, unfortunately, reinforces the possibility that they will play in a similar way the next time.
Attached to Results (High Arousal)
Invariably, players become overly attached to results, particularly in competition that counts. Getting absorbed in the process of competition — being in the moment and focused on the task at hand, enjoying the experience separate from the outcome of the match — that is the ultimate challenge for tennis players and athletes alike. As players begin savoring the possibility of winning, they become distracted by the attractiveness of this outcome. They lose focus, are unable to stick with their game plan, and instead of enjoying the game, they shift their attention to the results. They become too attached to winning and it makes them tight. As they try to protect their lead, they get nervous and over analyze, which negatively affects stroke production.
Relax and Lose Momentum (Low Arousal)
Other players, though less frequently, actually relax too much. They feel they are in the “drivers seat”, and have the room to pull out from the match for a moment and briefly celebrate their success. This is often fatal. Losing a game or two at this point can be very costly. The players with the lead frantically attempt to bring their attention back to the match – they get tight, over think, and perceive the momentum has shifted. And, often, it has shifted. Relaxing when leading, though on the surface seems to be the opposite of getting tight, is simply a different manifestation of the same problem—attachment to results. Attention shifts to the score and we feel we have some “breathing room.” Although relaxing feels better than getting nervous, it can be just as costly. As soon as a game or two is lost, we are back to the anxiety anyway. In many cases, we have created a momentum shift both in our own minds and in our opponent’s as well.
The Critical Voice Kicks In
We all have a critical voice with which we must contend. We grew up with that voice—the doubter, the critic—and he/she comes out in full force when we need him the least. As soon as we are on the verge of something good, enter Mr. Doubt. “You better not lose this now. You’ve choked before. Here we go again.” He knocks on our door and we let him in. It’s all down hill from there. And once again, we’ve lost the “mental edge.” Instead, answer the intruding critic with “I’m tougher than this player. I’m not going away until it’s over. He’s going to have to beat me”
How Do We Keep the Mental Edge?
- Stay with your game plan. Don’t change it because you are leading. Finish him/her off with the strokes and strategy that got you there.
- Use positive phrases to maintain concentration and appropriate arousal. When you need it, repeat any of the following affirmations as much as possible: “I am winning this match.” “This is mine.” “I deserve this one.” “I love this challenge.”
- Smile when the critic comes knocking. Don’t fight him. Laugh at him. You are in control and busy enjoying the competition.
- Keep your eyes focused on specific targets–Strings, ground, where you want to hit the ball. Avoid looking around.
- Breathe deeply and rhythmically to maintain physical relaxation. Make this a routine. Players tend to constrict their breathing under stress.
In the final analysis, closing out a match is no different than any other aspect of competition. Like every point in the match, it requires total focus, intensity, and appropriate arousal level. Stay loose, stick to your game, focus on each point, and enjoy the challenge. Diffuse the inner critic with a smile and you are on your way to having and keeping the mental edge.