Have faith in the basic competence of your strokes and tactics.
Category: Mental Game
We’re told that champions feel they are going to win every match (which is largely true) and that if we don’t, we are all but beaten before the match starts. There are elements of truth in this, but match outcome is a potentially dangerous place to focus attention and mental energy. While it is an advantage to think that you are going to win, not much can be done about it. You either feel this way or you don’t, so it is best to put the issue aside entirely and focus your self-belief on your strokes and tactical responses. Compared to match outcome, belief in the competence of your shot execution is more achievable and productive.
Self-belief is crucial to shot execution. You don’t have to believe every shot you hit will go in or that every judgment you make on shot selection is a correct one, but in match play you’d better believe that your normal strokes and shot selections are good enough and commit to relying on them. This gives you your best probability of victory. The alternative is to doubt them, worry that they will miss, and maybe try to change them in mid-match—a recipe for disaster. Of course, some of them will miss. Accept this as the nature of the game. Get over errors immediately, and assume your game will generally function just fine.
Of course, there are other factors affecting your ability to properly execute your shots, namely habit strength, concentration and emotional state, some of which you can’t do anything about once the match starts. Habit strength is developed through repetitions in practice. In fact, your main objective in practice is to reinforce (strengthen) proper habits, and this is done by hitting a lot of balls. Spending extra time on the practice court increases both habit strength and your belief in your strokes. Knowing you have put in the “hard yards” will make you feel you can rely on them under the stress of match play. Insufficient practice nourishes the seeds of self-doubt.
But what happens if you are in the midst of changing a weak stroke and working with your pro to develop a stronger one? How can you have self-belief in the new stroke? Well, you can’t. And you won’t until you have turned it into a firm habit and incorporated it into your game. On the practice court, you must drive the change process with your conscious mind. You must be thinking of the new technique every time you hit the stroke until it becomes a habit. In a match there isn’t time to think your way through a stroke, so your strongest habit will come out. Your practice objective is to make the new habit stronger than the old, and the old is usually pretty strong. So if you aren’t prepared for the a lot of work, it’s better not to make the change at all.
Bill Tilden gave us a good example of this in 1919. He lost in the finals of the U.S. Championship to “Little Bill” Johnson, who was able to take advantage of his weak slice backhand. Tilden then spent the entire winter at a Rhode Island indoor court working on a topspin backhand, and he didn’t play a tournament until he had perfected it. The next year he beat Johnson in the U.S. Championship final and became the dominant player in the world for the next decade.
Narrow focus and short range belief in your own ability to execute, shot by shot and point by point, are the keys to performance. You needn’t concern yourself with whether you believe you’ll win. And it does not mean you believe all your strokes are equally good. Some will miss more than others. So what? You simply accept misses as part of a game that is more about percentages than certainties or perfection. In match play you must be content to rely on your stroke and tactical reaction habits and do all you can to facilitate their proper functioning. The outcome will then take care of itself.
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