What Comes First in Tennis, Confidence or Winning?

What if I told you that you will win more when you focus less on winning? It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. What else is true is that if you build your tennis confidence through constant improvement, you will win more often.

In our society, we tend to define winning in terms of the scoreboard. The winner is the one who scores more points by the end of the match. While we know that this traditional definition is not going away, there is another more important definition for “winner‟ – it’s one who strives for personal excellence (what I call mastery). I’d like you to shift your focus away from the “scoreboard” definition of winning and, instead, focus on a “mastery” definition.

Top tennis players at every level make themselves better through a disciplined pursuit of mastery, a passionate quest to get better and better. Success on the court is a by-product of their focus on improving — not winning. The scoreboard alone is a much too limited measure of mastery because, while you may beat the opposition, that doesn’t mean you’ll improve your game.

Let’s compare and contrast a scoreboard vs. mastery definition of winning.

  • Where the scoreboard definition is concerned with results, the mastery definition focuses on effort and how hard am I trying?
  • The scoreboard focuses on comparisons with others (am I better than her? Is she better than me?). The Mastery focus is on learning and improvement of one’s self.
  • In a scoreboard environment, mistakes are not OK. In a mastery environment, mistakes are OK, even welcome, because they can help us learn if we look at them the right way.

The path to mastery is illustrated by a concept the Positive Coaching Alliance calls the ELM Tree of Mastery, which is based on more than 20 years of sport psychology research on how to reach one’s potential.

ELM stands for:

  • E for Effort: Give your best every time. Leave it all out on the court.
  • L for Learning and improvement: No matter what happens on the scoreboard, focus on what you can take away to get better.
  • M for bouncing back from Mistakes: Setbacks and mistakes are inevitable on the road to mastery. What’s crucial is how you respond to them.

Research shows that the best route to top performance is to focus on what you can control and ignore what you can’t.

➤Bad weather? Can’t control it, so don’t focus on it.

➤Not feeling great on the day of an important match? Can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you respond to your ailments.

➤Bad call against you? Ignore it and focus on getting yourself ready for the next point.

Focusing only on winning simply does not work. What happens on the scoreboard is rarely in your control. Winning and losing depends on the quality of your opponent’s play, officials’ calls, the way the ball bounces, and many other things outside of your control.

If you focus on winning, you tend to get more anxious and less self- confident, both of which undercut how well you play.

On the other hand, you can control:

➤ Your Effort

➤ How much you Learn, and

➤ How your respond to Mistakes.

Having this control reduces anxiety and increases self-confidence. Athletes who go into competitions with confidence and less anxiety tend to do well. That’s the power of the ELM Tree.

Concentrating too much on the scoreboard will lead you to constantly compare yourself to others and to often lose confidence in your abilities. If you focus on mastery, on the other hand, you compare yourself with your best self, constantly trying to improve. And, the by-product is that you’ll win more when you strive to be your best. So the answer to the question is that confidence comes before winning. Build on your strengths and the winning will come.