This question came from a tennis parent -
QUESTION: “Hi!! I m a mother of a 13 year old boy and a 10 year old girl. Both my kids play tennis. My son is really struggling to win matches and losing to players he used to beat a few months back. In the fear of losing a match he doesn’t even give his best on the court. He is lacking courage to play big. He really loves the game and is willing to do anything to get better. But how do I make him more stronger mentally. Is it important to make him play
more matches to get over his fear??”
ANSWER: Hello, I am sorry to hear your son has been struggling a bit with his confidence recently. Here are a few recommendations based on my experiences as a player and coach:
1. “Losing to players he used to beat a few months back”
Understand that players develop in different ways, and at different stages throughout their early teenage years. These stages can be influenced by physical or hormonal adaptations within the body. He may be going through some of these changes that are holding him back, while other players have gone through them, or are yet to experience them.
Another issue may be he was possibly too focused on winning at a younger age, and not enough on his all-round tennis development. Some of the other players that may be passing him by now have likely emphasized their tennis development over winning. These other players may have been willing to lose matches while they worked through some grip changes or some other technical aspect that would help their games be better in a year or two.
Your son needs to understand that the results he wants are more likely to come if he focuses on improving all aspects of his game, ensuring his technique is sound and he is learning how to take care of his health and his mind. Learning to win is an important skill but should not be overly emphasized at an early age as players can get stuck in a fixed mindset that limit the ability to make significant improvements.
Your son should be thinking about how he can be a top junior player at age 17 or 18, not what he needs to do to win today. Results at age 13 mean very little in the grand scheme of things.
I can tell you that college coaches are not interested in players results until at least their sophomore year of high school if not later. Get him to envision the type of player he wants to be when he is more physically and mentally developed several years from now, and figure out what steps he needs to take to get there.
2. “In fear of losing a match, he doesn’t give his best on the court”
This is likely a symptom of his current mindset. He appears to be fixated on winning and is losing sight of what he needs to do in order to improve. He is doing everything he can to please his ego, which will allow him to convince himself and others that he could win if he tried, but that he just did not want to give his best today.
Deep down he knows that he was outmatched, and that it would be much easier and safer for his ego to walk away from the fight. This is very common and something I may have been guilty of myself at times when I was his age. He is trying to protect himself, but ultimately it serves no purpose. He is far too tied to the outcome, and is not spending enough time focusing on the process.
Rather than approaching every match like WINNING is the only thing that matters, he should be approaching his matches as learning opportunities. These matches/tournaments are purely providing feedback as to what he is doing well, how his weaknesses are being exposed and what he should be working on after the tournament on his own, and with his coach. If he is not trying his best in matches when he starts losing, then he is not really learning anything from these matches.
He also won’t be able to honestly evaluate himself because he will be so wrapped up in his own ego. He is wasting golden opportunities to learn and be better. He also needs to start learning that at a certain level, everyone has a solid technique and hits a very good ball. What separates players is their attitude, effort and competitive output. If he doesn’t learn to give his best effort regardless of the situation he will not come close to reaching whatever potential he possesses.
The focus right now for your son should be on learning, development, effort, attitude, fun, and definitely not “winning at all costs”. The wins will come in time if he learns to focus on the elements that matter for his long term tennis development and personal growth.
3. “He is lacking the courage to play big”
I refer back to point number two regarding his mindset. It is hard to play big at the crucial stages of the match when you are so fixated on the outcome. In reality, the best players don’t play big on the big points, they simply maintain their level and composure at the same level they have throughout the match.
The lesser players let their levels and composure drop in the big moments, and the better players take advantage of this. If all he is thinking about are the consequences of losing, then he will not be able to maintain a reliable level, will tighten up, and will most likely lose. He needs to learn to have the courage to try his very best at all times throughout a tennis match, not just on big points.
When he has the courage and understanding that everything will be alright regardless of the outcome then he can be free to play at a level he knows he is capable of playing at. Having courage is experiencing fear and acting anyway. He needs to learn the tools necessary to recognize when he is feeling fearful and what steps he should take in order to overcome or manage this fear.
4. “He really loves the game and is willing to do anything to get better”
That is great, but have you asked him what aspects of the game he truly loves? Does he only love winning, or does he love the process of getting better? Does he love the challenge of problem solving when things are not going his way?
Does he love closing out a hard fought match? Does he love winning points that he should not have won and beating players he was not expected to beat? If he only loves winning, then tennis is going to be a tough road for him?
There can only be one winner each week and he needs to find something to tap into beyond winning in order to do the hard work it will take to be very good one day. If he is willing to do anything to get better, then he should start by promising to give his best at all times despite what it says on the scoreboard or how he is feeling that day.
If he wants to be better then he needs to come off the court after a match and be able to honestly critique his performance, use it as valuable feedback and apply those lessons to the practice court or his next match.
5. “But how do I make him mentally tough?”
There is no easy answer to this. He needs to start by changing his mindset from fixed to growth (Google Carol Dweck – Mindset). He needs to focus on his long term development and not the number of wins he picks up these next few years.
He needs to put the process ahead of the outcome and learn to love the process. He needs to develop routines and mental practices that work for him that enable him to stay present and to problem solve when his opponent is getting the upper-hand.
Personally, I am a huge proponent of mindfulness techniques that allow the player to become more self-aware while understanding how to bring your mind back to the present moment. A good book to start with would be “The Inner Game of Tennis” by to Timothy Gallwey.
6. “Is it important to make him play more matches to get over his fear?”
Firstly it is important that you don’t make him do anything when it comes to his tennis. You can provide suggestions, feedback, best practices but if he is forced into doing anything then it is unlikely to be very impactful.
Playing competitive tennis matches are vitally important to his development, but there probably is not much point in going to the expense and time of taking him to tournaments if he is not going to give his best effort.
If he is willing to work on these issues then he needs to be provided the repetitions in competitive situation to go out there and practice these skills. However, he needs to go out there with a set of tools or a fresh mindset (less outcome based) that will allow him to work through the current issues he is dealing with.
It is important to note how those around him are speaking to him about wins and losses. Maybe, he feels a lot of pressure to win from his parents, coaches or peers because of the wins or successes he has had to date. His expectations of himself or the expectations of those trying to help him may not match with his age, ability and his current stage of development.
It is important that those closest to him do not focus on wins and losses and keep reminding him to come back to the process of getting better. If witnesses others reacting positively and negatively during or after a match then it will likely have a negative impact on his mindset. It is important to downplay winning right now, and focus on long term development if his goal is to be a top tennis player.