Resist the urge to pump yourself up, or get yourself down, for the most consistent path to success. (Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas)

The most useful advice I can give for winning the mental struggle of competition is: Have no feeling at the end of points. This is true whether you have just made a horrible error or a great shot. And it doesn’t mean that you simply don’t show disappointment or exuberance. It means that you don’t have any emotional reaction, good or bad, to the outcome of points. You simply let the result of the last point pass you by.

This isn’t as difficult as it seems. Once you make up your mind to not react to the outcome of points, you’ll find that you will keep your emotions in check. The decision to do it and the motivation to stick with it are the hard parts. You have to remain consciously determined to forego emotional reactions point by point. Tennis is a emotional game, and the urge to react after points is natural. If you don’t suppress it, nature will take its course, and you will fluctuate emotionally throughout the match.

One reason to not react to the outcome of points is that, against an opponent who is near your level, odds are you will lose every other point. Since tennis matches require prolonged concentration and intensity, you need to conserve your mental energy. If you let your emotions take over, you will repeatedly swing from elation to despair, which is mentally exhausting. As your brain tires, you will become increasingly prone to lose control and overreact to bad calls, errors or the many diabolical incidents the tennis gods will throw in your path. If you remain on an even keel, come what may, you will avoid these fluctuations.

Second, you will always make errors, some of them egregious and some on big points. If you react, you are likely to have thoughts like, “If I can miss easy shots like that, I can miss anything!” Such thoughts will cause you to lose faith in your strokes. You do not want to remember these errors; you want to erase them from memory as best you can. Assume they are random incidents and immediately forget about them. The response should be, “Nothing happened.” Then play on without any acknowledgment.

Third, reacting emotionally after points throws you off balance. You have only a few seconds to gather yourself before the start of the next point. In essence, by reacting you are putting yourself in an emotional hole and then have to quickly dig yourself out, which is difficult to do over and over.

Though it is clear why you shouldn’t react to losing points, it isn’t as clear why you shouldn’t react to winning them. After all, isn’t it helpful to pump yourself up with good emotions after winning a point? The problem is that you will invariably lose future points, and it’s counterproductive to be
going up and down the emotional ladder.

Most great professional tennis players work to keep themselves calm and emotionally level throughout their matches. Of course there are exceptions, but even Serena Williams doesn’t react after every point she wins, just after some points in specific situations. And even though non-reactive champions pump themselves up after winning points on occasion, they do so judiciously. Roger Federer, for example, tends to do it infrequently and with purpose.

Don’t over-emphasize the importance of individual points. Some points are more important than others, of course, but matches are more mental marathons than sprints, and to win you will have to withstand a long sequence of successes and failures. Emotional stability will help you do this.