Why tennis is such a psychological game

Anyone who has played even one game of tennis will understand the frustrating feeling of losing: compared to other sports, one’s ability in tennis seems to uniquely depend upon the ability to stay focused, deal with pressure and have self- belief. Not holding these coping mechanisms can result in losing points- the pressure of which causes a snowballing effect until you’ve lost the first set, then the second, then the third.

For amateurs, this can be infuriating. But for professional tennis players, mastering the mind during a game is a key part of winning, and the pressure can be so intense (with tennis being such a public sport) that it demands a high level of mental agility.

British sports commentator Richard Evans, who covered Wimbledon since the 1960s, makes the astute point that, “tennis is not a gentle game. Psychologically, it is vicious. That people are only just beginning to come to terms with this fact illustrates just how big a con trick has been perpetrated on the non-playing tennis public – and even a few players, usually losing players – for decades.”

The intrinsic connection he makes between psychological hardiness and winning is one of the essential staples of the game, psychologists say. And, according to an investigation which used intercollegiate tennis teams in the US to study psychological behavior during a competitive game, one of the most important traits to build is a positive reaction to adversity: resilience, in other words.

Andy Murray’s performance during the 2015 Australian Open was a case in point for Richard Cowden, one of the authors of this paper: “What surprised me the most,” he said, “was Murray's inability to capitalise on momentum shifts (being a break down and breaking back to even the score) and maintain leads when he had worked incredibly hard to obtain a break of serve."

So why is tennis such a psychological game?

So why is tennis such a psychological game? Well, firstly- if you’re playing singles you have only yourself to rely upon (unlike team sports) and you can get easily stuck in your own head: the pressure weighs down on you, and you alone.

Psychologists also say that tennis demands such mental toughness from its players because they are unable to communicate frequently with their coach- a key source of positivity and self-belief if the going’s tough.

As opposed to slower games like cricket, there are also pivotal moments in a tennis game in which one wrong step can hurtle you down into a losing spiral: break points, trailing or serving to win the match or set require strong concentration and the ability to deal with pressure.

Most players, coaches and psychologists agree that confidence is key in building psychological hardiness (and mental liberation) in tennis. Here’s a few quotes from top players on the importance of self-belief:

Venus Williams: “Some people say I have attitude — maybe I do — but I think you have to. You have to believe in yourself when no one else does – that makes you a winner right there.”
Arthur Ashe: “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Roger Federer: “I told myself to play free. You play the ball. You don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head. Be free in your shots.”
Novak Djokovic: “I think luck falls on not just the brave but also the ones who believe they belong there.”

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