Updated: Jan 6, 2022
"Why can't I make that? I do that all the time during practice!!" We have all said this to ourselves at one point or another during a match. After we go for a huge forehand or backhand up the line and miss by a few inches, we all wonder "why can't I make that when it matters?" The reality in this is that for most tennis players the confidence and playing level is very different between practice and real matches. In this post, I want to talk about the way we tennis players unintentionally play differently during practice than we do during real matches.
To get started, we must first look at the way we practice. When tennis players go out to train (not just mess around for fun) the whole goal is to learn, improve, and become a better player. During these training sessions, many people put in the effort but know that if they miss there is no consequence. Missing is just a way of learning. For most players, while practicing, you are naturally more calm and relaxed making your shots more consistent and effective. This confidence and comfortability make us play with a clear mind, explaining all the "good" shots we hit during practice. When you go to practice and hit 1000 balls, you expect to miss some. Having this expectation is normal, we will miss balls! Now, why don't we go into tennis matches with the same expectation?
When we go into matches, whether they are USTA, UTR, or high school matches, they always apply added pressure. Many go into the match with the fear of losing in their minds. This fear prohibits us from playing at the same level we do during practice. Getting over this fear is the big difference between players at a recreational level and players at a college/pro level. To hit good tennis strokes, you need to be in control of your body, and if it scares you to mess up or overthink, it becomes easy to make basic mistakes.
To overcome this match fear, we need to go into matches with a different mindset. I personally have been working on competing in my matches with the mindset of "what can I learn?". Playing a match and thinking critically, treating the points as though I am playing practice points with my coach. I constantly ask myself, "How can I solve this problem? What can I learn from the shot I just missed?". This seems easy, but it takes loads of practice. It will take me many tournaments and matches to make that mindset by default.
So I want to challenge you, other tennis players, to go out on the court during your next match and treat it like a private lesson. Pay close attention to why you may have made the wrong shot selection and think of how to fix it. Do not dwell on the missed shot, but dwell on the solution to the missed shot. This requires a large amount of focus, but when you don't treat the match like a match, it can clear your head and help you make clear decisions.