If You are the Better Player, Why Do You Lose?
Have you ever left a match and felt like you had just been cheated? Not by the opposing player but by some higher tennis authority who controls the destiny of all matches. I think this is a common syndrome based upon how many players tell me that although they lost, they were actually the better player. In fact, I can confess to feeling the same thing in my own tennis career. I can remember coming off a loss, both smarting and defiant, feeling that the loss was only some perverse proof of the unfairness of life. What makes us act so irrationally as to defy the obvious evidence that is posted on the scorecard announcing the winner and loser?
The answer is just as obvious as the fact ("we lost the match") that we have so adroitly managed to evade – and that is ego. Now I believe in ego, it is a good and necessary thing. Without ego we would probably be less interesting, less motivated people. But ego can run amok and hurt us in many ways. It can undermine our chances for success and it can derail our chances for improving. It takes a seasoned veteran to understand how to deal with ego and winning and losing and competition. Learning this skill is part of developing a proper match psychology. Let's look at some of the critical do's and don'ts of proper match psychology.
Sizing Up the Opposition
The first thing to realize in match psychology is that it can be very difficult to evaluate an opponent until you are on the court with them. When we look at players we tend to see what their strokes look like, how hard they hit the ball, and get an overall view of their skill level.
What we don’t see so clearly is how well they move with the ball, their touch on the ball, their ability to maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses, their focus, judgment, and nerve. There are so many intangibles that go into making someone a good player that it is almost impossible to tell every thing about an opponent until you're on court.
In Northern California there was an outstanding and beloved player by the name
of Whitney Reed who was ranked #1 in the US in “61 with wins over Laver, Sedgeman, Olmedo and the rest. To watch Whitney you would have sworn he was barely capable of finishing a match let alone winning. He would wobble around the court, mumble and look confused and you would almost pity this poor guy. He didn’t hit the ball hard. In fact it was difficult to describe exactly what he was doing with the ball but he was brilliant in his touch and creativity and was incredibly tough for anyone to beat. After frustrating his opponent into submission, Whitney would sheepishly, almost apologetically accept the win as his victim would leave the court muttering a familiar refrain, “yeah, but I’m the better player.” Then Whitney would go out and do it to the next guy, a little twinkle always in his somewhat bloodshot eyes.
Pros realize you never underestimate an opponent, yet still it happens.
Don’t let yourself fall into that same mistake. Realize that on the court, anything can happen.
Before the Match
Part of any good game plan is sizing up the competition. Sometimes we call this "scouting your opponents." When you scout your opponents you should be looking at their style of play, their tendencies, and what they do under pressure. The things you should notice are whether they are stronger on the forehand or backhand, do they come in or stay back, how they hit their passing shots, do they lob and do they cover overheads. Notice where they tend to serve on big points, how strong their second serve is, and whether they move up well on short balls. Watch for how they handle different speeds, spins, and heights of balls and whether they like a slow or fast paced game (i.e. amount of time in between points).
But what inexperienced players will note above all else, is what their chances
of winning are. They will look at an opponent and the only thought they come
away with is, “I should win this match” or “I should lose this match.” Whichever conclusion you arrive at can be fatal. If you think you should win, you may underestimate your opponent and be shocked if you fall behind in the match and are unable to recover your balance. You may go into the match feeling the pressure of being the “better player.” If you expect to win, most likely everyone else expects you to win as well and if you don’t, well, that can be much worse than losing to someone you should lose to.
If you think winning is improbable, you will tend to find a way to make that
become a reality. The points you win will be chalked up on the side of “lucky” and the points you lose will be the norm, that is, what you expected.
After the First Set
Many players use the first set as another barometer in determining who the
better player is. If they win the first set, they feel as though they have staked
a claim on winning. Many players win a first set and feel they have established a
trend that “should” continue. I have seen so many first sets that have been won by a score of 6-1 or 6-2 and still felt the match was totally up for grabs.
At the beginning of the second, I was trained to imagine that
I had lost the first set. When you play from behind you tend to push yourself
a little more. When you feel you are better, you tend to relax and feel that
winning will come naturally and you don't have to go out and fight for it.
The first set means something but to let the first set sway you into thinking
that you should win or that you are the better player can be a costly mistake.
Let the final game be the judge of that
Post Match Analysis
The conclusion of a match is a time to develop proper
match psychology. After a
match, it's easy to get swept up in emotional responses. We brood when we lose and we become giddy when we win. It is human nature to
feel good after a win and to dislike losing but when this clouds the ability to
analyze performance, we also lose an opportunity to plan for improvements in
When we go into a match thinking we are the better player, we tend to come
off of the court with the same opinion, irregardless of the score. Instead of
acknowledging our shortcomings, areas of our game that need attention, we
defensively dismiss the loss as an aberration. Whether you win or lose, try to
look at what things you did well and what things you could improve on.
The Final Analysis
The bottom line is that there is always a good reason for someone winning or losing a tennis match. You may be suffering from a cold or a lack of sleep. You may have gotten tired, or cramped up, or perhaps the other player was younger or in better physical shape. You may not have been able to practice for the last 4 months because you were recovering from knee surgery. It may even be that the other guy is just better. But when you lose, it is never because the other player is not as good as you.
Ultimately what we need to eliminate is comparing ourselves to our opponents. We
are individuals, with individual strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is
guaranteed a win or a loss. There is no pre-scripted destiny to matches. There
is no overriding value on winning or losing. The ball doesn’t know who the better person is, who is a sinner and who is a saint. The ball doesn’t know who has worked harder, who wants it more, or who deserves to win based on anyone’s criteria. It all comes down to execution and learning to enjoy the process. If you keep playing and develop a good match psychology, you will keep improving and this becomes the most exciting inspiration, even exceeding winning and losing.
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