In matches, winning is paramount, while in practice there's no fear of missing. (Illustration by Bernd Schifferdecker)

A problem I often hear from players is, “I hit the ball so well in drills. Why can’t I hit this way in matches?” You can—if you play your match like a practice.

In drills, players swing away because they do not fear making errors—there is no fear that missing will make you lose. But in matches, the issue of winning is paramount. Players want to win, and they all know that in this case, errors matter a great deal. When players become fearful of missing, they tighten up and are unable to play their normal game.

Intolerance for risk causes this to happen. So it’s useful to re-conceptualize risk. Players should pause for a moment before they play and deliberately work to adjust their thinking about the game. This involves taking focus away from winning and accepting that errors are an inescapable part of the game. Rather than fearing and worrying about errors, players must accept them as a necessary part of play and brush them off without emotional reaction. The objective is to get players to loosen up and swing normally.

During this pre-match pause, it is more useful to embrace risk as one of the exciting and positive parts of the game. Risk is one of the factors that gives players a rush when they win. Risk puts some of the fun into the game.

To see this more clearly, imagine a situation where you are guaranteed to never make errors or lose. Though it may seem like a wonderful deal, you would lose all the excitement of winning. On top of this, you would lose incentive to practice hard or work on conditioning. Part of the satisfaction from a long practice or workout is the knowledge that it will make you play better and win more. Improving your odds of winning provides much of the satisfaction you get from seeing long-term improvement.

Another helpful approach is to mentally reconfigure the match. Reduce the importance of winning so that your matches become more like practices. You can do this by recognizing that a match is really a practice situation that you are using to improve. You will play plenty more matches, and even if you lose this particular match, you will learn a few things you can rely on later.

You should also realize that, no matter what happens in this match, your life will go on unchanged. In the long run, winning or losing this specific match will make no great difference to you. And if you think other people care about your results, your ranking or your record, forget it. They don’t.

A third approach is to deliberately relax, loosen up and swing away early on. Don’t concern yourself with the score, but rather use the first few games to get rid of excessive caution. Direct your attention to feeling relaxed and swinging smooth. Smack a few balls, even if they hit the fence. If you are trying to squeeze out the first few games by poking the ball, you may well be able to, but you will likely remain tight and end up losing.

Finally, remember that you are not a pro. Focus on having a bit of fun rather than the win or loss. This is relaxing, and it will help you hit better shots.

Winning feels important, so players have a tendency to put their heads down, dig in and grimly engross themselves in the process of prevailing. But it helps to pull your head up from time to time and remember that, when all is said and done, you are actually playing tennis for fun.

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