In the summer of 2001, I played my first European Tennis Association tournament in Germany. I didn’t know any of the players, and so I did not feel the pressure I would typically get playing tournaments in the U.S. I competed without expecting to win or lose and thus reached the finals without dropping a set. My game was so steady that, in the finals, I took the first set 6-0. During an early changeover in the second set, however, I began thinking about what I would say for my post-match interview (there was a local news crew filming the match). At that moment, unbeknownst to my opponent, I handed him the tournament title. I cashed in before finishing the job. I signaled my mind that I had won after only reaching the halfway point and thus lost sight of my game.
Many players do not know how or what to think before a match and consequently resort to imagining themselves losing or winning. Sometimes, players don’t feel in control of their thoughts and emotions before a match, making it seem like those thoughts are prescient to what’s about to happen. So, here I introduce rules to help guide your mental preparation before a match.
Rule 1: Do not be for or against winning or losing. Being neutral towards outcomes gives you the space to focus on strategy and what you need to do to perform.
Rule 2: Do not judge your opponent. Thinking your opponent within good, bad, and like terms takes the mind away from thinking about the specifics. Two common mistakes are to presume the opponent is great if their ranking is high or to believe they're not great by observing how they hit in the warm-up. That kind of thinking takes away from objective analysis of your opponent’s actual strengths and weaknesses.
Rule 3: Do not assume you will win or lose. Thinking you’re probably going to lose will lower your morale. On the flip side, thinking you’re going to win might prevent you from working as hard if the opponent turns out to be tough. Either way, you have no control over the outcome. You can only control your actions, so it’s best to always focus on what you need to do. Then the result is more likely to play in your favor.
Rule 4: Visualize actual point scenarios. Instead of thinking about the outcome of the match, you should think about what kind of points will be played out during the match. Mentally go over the things you need to take care of. And, if you’ve seen your opponent play, then visualize points where you get yourself out of trouble and where you exploit their weaknesses.
The goal of rules 1 and 2 is to help you remove bias and thus get close to reality. Rules 3 and 4 are designed to clear you from daydreaming about the outcome and to redirect your mind to prepare for what you’ll do during the match. Write these rules down and use them for every practice and match.