To Lose or Not To Lose…

There are two basic responses when losing a tennis match. One is to continue your game plan and style of play hoping your execution will improve and momentum will change. The second basic response is to make changes in your game and game plan hoping these changes will disrupt the rhythm of your opponent and lead to a reversal of the score. Regardless, the important thing, win or lose, is to learn from your experience and to be better prepared as a result, the next time you get on the court to compete. Included below are ten thoughts on how to cope with losing, how to learn from the experience of a loss and how to possibly reverse the score and escape with a win.

  1. Change the Tempo. Generally it is best to slow things down if you are losing. Judiciously take more time between points (up to 25 seconds between points) and during changeovers (up to 90 seconds). A towel break is a good way to buy time between points. Be conscientious of how you are managing the time and tempo of the match. If the points are ending too soon, get more balls in play and try to lengthen the time of each point. If the rallies are too extended and the points are taking too long to develop, try to take time away from your opponent and shorten the length of each point.
  2. Disrupt Things. There are two options when you’re losing. One option is to stick with your game plan hoping your execution will improve and/or your opponent will drop in level. The other option is to make changes in your game and game plan with the goal of disrupting the rhythm of your opponent or opponents. In regard to option two, the goal is to essentially change momentum by getting your opponent out of his/her comfort zone. I like to vary spin to disrupt rhythm. Spin can be used to increase pace or take pace off the ball, raise and lower the bounce (and strike zone of your opponent), increase your margin of net clearance to extend the rally or lower your margin of net clearance to shorten the rally. Other related ways to disrupt rhythm include varying pace to change the tempo of the rally (timing between shots), depth (to draw your opponent up and back), down-the-line and cross court direction, trajectory and your court positioning and how and at what height you take the ball after the bounce.
  3. Shot Tolerance. If nothing is working and it appears you’re headed for a loss, one reply is to go into full defense mode. Increase your shot tolerance and do everything you can to stay in the point. Make your opponent beat you. Not surprisingly, it’s not easy to close out a match against someone who always looks to make you hit one more shot.
  4. Focus on the Process. When you’re losing and things are not going right, one of the most effective ways to regroup is to focus on the basics and the process of constructing and executing a point (one point at a time). Stay in the present. Don’t dwell on your past mistakes, missed opportunities or bad turn of events. Deal with the bad bounces, unlucky breaks, etc. by “moving forward and putting things behind you”.
  5. Go Silent. There are a number of ways to shut out external stimuli, doubt and thoughts of losing. One thing that works for me is to go silent. Without being impolite, refrain from talking whenever possible. Use hand signals to call the ball in or out. At the same time, show no emotion, positive or negative. Not only can going silent help your focus and determination but it also can serve to fluster and rattle your opponent.
  6. Don’t Panic. Never give up or believe things are too overwhelming or too difficult no matter the odds, deficit or how things seem to be stacked against you. Just like life, each tennis match is a journey with its ups and downs. It could be you’re experiencing the downs first and the ups will come or maybe not but in any case, enjoy the process and “hang in there” until the bitter end.
  7. Pain Threshold. If you play enough, you will undoubtedly experience a loss due to an injury or some kind of physical setback. The best way to deal with pain or a major limitation with your ability to function on the court due to an injury, cramping, illness, fatigue, etc. is to address it head on. Do not wish it away or try to ignore it. This leads to passive play and resignation. Most importantly do not use it as an excuse to quit or not try. Acknowledge and even embrace the pain or problem. Use the situation as an opportunity to improve your pain threshold, coping skills and ability to “fight through it”. Incorporate any limitation resulting from the pain you’re experiencing into your internal make-up and then start making the necessary changes in your game to deal with your “new reality”.
  8. Game of Vendetta. As a junior, when I would get beat up on the court by a better and older player or a player with a difficult style of play (and match up), I would use the opportunity (during and after the match) to identify things I could improve and change in my game and areas of weakness in my opponent’s game I could possibly exploit to reverse the outcome the next time I played this opponent. I then would collect and file the data and build a case study of the steps necessary I would need to take to defeat this player. Then for competitive fun, I made a game of it. I created a personal vendetta scenario. I told myself never to forget (which is good because when you tell yourself never to forget you generally never do forget). I visualized a bull’s eye or some transcendent target symbol on the back of my now new nemesis. I made it my life mission to beat this player and all the time not telling a soul. And then using the game as motivation, I would go to work. I took the necessary incremental steps identified in my personal case study and then looked for opportunities to get back on the court with this same player whenever I could to see how I was progressing and to achieve my ultimate goal of “revenge”. It can be a fun motivational tool.
  9. 15-Minute Rule. It’s okay to feel somewhat despondent after losing a match but no matter the circumstance (e.g. double fault at match point in a third set tiebreaker), you want to “get over it” in 15 minutes (or less). Friends may empathize because they’re friends and indulge a more extended grievance period but friend or no friend, no one has sympathy for anyone who cannot “let it go” and get on with life, the next match or whatever is in store right around the corner.
  10. Take Nothing Personally. Losing on the tennis court “stinks” but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad player or bad person. It doesn’t mean you let your partner or teammates down. It doesn’t mean you lack character or resolve or are not smart enough to figure things out. If you do lose, all you can do is get back on the court, put in the necessary days in training and hope to improve your performance next time.

Steve Gallagher

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