By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2010, all rights reserved
When I played on the tour (in the pre-Open Era, before money augmented glory), I loved almost every aspect of the game. Tournaments were exciting because each held the initial promise of victory, and practicing was a joy because I saw it as a pathway to winning. Besides that, I just liked hitting the ball, competing, and the camaraderie of the players. There was only one terribly unpleasant feature of the game – losing! After a loss, especially if it was a close match and I had blown chances to win, I was in agony. I didn?t want to talk to anybody and usually hid out alone in my room – brooding. There I relived every crucial error in excruciating detail. The misery lasted for hours, sometimes days. Even now, though I play only for exercise and enjoyment, I still hate losing.
Was this helpful? Yes, in some ways. It highlighted weaknesses in my game so I was always clear about what areas needed work. The pain motivated me to practice harder and longer. It also kept me going in long, hot, difficult matches, because I knew what awaited me if I gave up. At the same time, however, it was quite destructive in other ways. It increased the pressure to win, and this made me more likely to choke. It amped up the overall stress and turned what should have been a „game” played for fun into a mixture of great pleasure and excessive pain. With 20-20 hindsight, I see that my reactions were, on balance, counter-productive. The costs far outweighed the benefits. I would have been sufficiently motivated in any case, and I believe that my brooding and emotional self-flagellation were simply punishments for having disappointed myself. I subconsciously felt I had a good butt-kicking coming, and I was determined to administer it. This was extremely unhelpful in the greater scheme of enjoying the game and winning future matches.
The best way to handle a loss is basically to get over it quickly. All losses hurt your confidence as a matter of course, but you want to reduce this to a minimum. The more time you spend thinking about a loss, the more emotion you associate with it, and the more you highlight it in your mind, the more it will damage your confidence. You must make a conscious effort to push the loss out of your mind as soon as you can by replacing it with thoughts that are pleasant and productive.
This is often difficult because tennis matches „feel” more important than they actually are. We all know logically that tennis is just a game and that most of us are playing only for exercise and fun. But its nature is combative and personal, and this makes it more subject to strong emotion than most other sports. Losses tend to mentally linger, so it sometimes requires conscious determination to put them behind you. It might even help to take action, such as going back on court to practice or just going out for a few beers and laughs with your pals like the great Aussies of my day (Emerson, Stolle, Newcombe, and Roche) usually did.
It helps to recognize that when you make errors (and lose matches as a consequence) you do so because you can’t help it. Your errors are reactions to the immediate situation on court and are reflexive, not products of thought. They involve malfunctioning habits and are simply part of the human condition. You are not a machine, and this is not a math problem where you come up with the wrong answer because you logic is off. You are not erroneously aiming for the net or the area outside the lines. You shots go there, at times, because of uncontrollable human variability. And In such cases there is little benefit in mentally replaying your errors and brooding over them – in worrying about what can’t be helped or is impossible to control. The best response is to immediately accept reality and move on.
This does not mean you learn nothing from your losses. Even losing has its small benefits, and one of them is to flush out stroke weaknesses. You may hit all your shots just fine in drills, but it takes the pressure of competition to properly test them. Then the weaknesses break down, and then you know what to focus on in practice. But even if you have no intention of working to repair a weak stroke you can still spend a few moments considering strategic changes you might make to compensate for it. (For example, if your backhand let you down you can plan to run around it more to hit forehands or come to net more often.)
Finally, the next time you play a match be prepared to exert a little extra emotional discipline to offset any drop in confidence. And don’t forget to give yourself credit for taking your loss, keeping you head up, and coming back swinging.