The Golden Rule of tennis is a simple rule. (Illustration by Giulio Bonasera)

The Golden Rule of tennis is a simple rule that, if followed, will keep you out of trouble more than anything else: Never do anything on court that doesn’t help you win.

Granted, the rule sounds absurdly obvious, but few people consistently follow it. To do so, ask yourself this question before you make any move on the court: “Will this help me win?”

If the answer is not yes, don’t do it.From time to time we all slip, as irrational as this may seem. Why? Because tennis is an inherently emotional game. We become emotional during play and our feelings overpower our logic systems. We proceed to do things that we shouldn’t. 

Although the pros do it less frequently than most of us, even they forget the Golden Rule. A recent example was provided by the often emotional Nick Kyrgios last year in Shanghai. He had just won a tournament the previous week, so he should have been on a roll, pumped up and confident. Instead, he was mentally fatigued. When he played Mischa Zverev—ranked 110th at the time—in the second round, Kyrgios decided, for reasons best known to himself, not to try.

Kyrgios wasn’t the first player to tank in a tour event, but most players put forth a modicum of effort when they do it. Not Nick. He made no effort at all, lazily hitting shots between his legs and letting balls go that were within easy reach. He even patted his serve into the court and then walked toward his chair without waiting for Zverev to return it.

Understandably, fans were incensed and booed Kyrgios roundly. He got into it with the spectators. The ATP tour proceeded to fine Kyrgios $16,500 for various on-court infractions and an additional $25,000 for “conduct contrary to the integrity of the game.”

Accumulated stress made Kyrgios overly emotional, and he blew up in order to escape. The strength of his emotions simply overpowered his logic system. When rationality returned, he was apologetic, but it was too late. The damage was done, and he would have to suffer the consequences. Kyrgios would have been far better off had he tested his actions beforehand with the Golden Rule.

Although this is a rather dramatic example of what can happen when one ignores the Golden Rule, under sufficient stress most of us are quite capable of foolish actions on court. I know I was, in spite of the fact that I was a graduate student in psychology during my days on tour and should have known better.

In contrast, great champions are capable of keeping their emotions in check. You will very rarely see the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Venus Williams lose focus on court, and with the legendary and extraordinarily disciplined Chris Evert, none of us ever saw it.

The rest of us, however, need tools to help us get a better grip on our emotions during play. We need a mental rallying point, and the Golden Rule gives us one.

For example, ask yourself this: Does it serve your purposes to get angry or tank? Will you play better if your opponent’s mannerisms irritate you? Will becoming disgusted with your doubles partner’s
errors help you win the match? Will arguing about a call make your weekend tennis match more pleasant?

These and countless other issues that you’ll encounter on the court call for extracting the Golden Rule from your mental tennis bag.