I have a running joke with one of my tennis partners where we make up all these statements about what winners do. It started when we played our first match of the season and we were on the verge of elimination. I told her that winners hold their serve and break serve when it counts. Which we did. And we won. But then we just started making up stuff that wasn’t particularly profound because it was funny and it helped us relax on the court. Winners win! Winners wear tennis shoes instead of sandals when they play!
I actually think a lot about what winners do. Often people think that they need to improve their skills to win–develop a topspin forehand, for example. The problem with this strategy is that it takes a long time to improve a skill, and working on a weakness will still not make it one of your strengths. I’ve been working on a topspin forehand for 15 years now, but it’s still not my go-to shot when the game is on the line.
It’s actually much better to focus on your mental game, and it doesn’t take years to get better at it. I don’t consider myself to be naturally gifted as an athlete, but I am a psychologist, so I make sure I capitalize on whatever mental strategy that allows me to have the advantage in a match. I am aware of when people are using head games and don’t let them get to me. I compliment my opponents to make them feel guilty about using head games. I frame my goals in terms of what I want to do instead of what I don’t want to do (e.g., reach up and follow through rather than don’t double fault). I give my partner positive feedback, pump them up by reminding them what winners do.
I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of what winners do involves practicing mindfulness. Federer and Nadal, arguably the two greatest tennis players in the men’s game, illustrate this perfectly. Federer is known for how long he can keep his eye on the ball. How easily he shrugs off losses, puts things in perspective. He savors his victories because he is in his twilight years. Nadal often says that he knows that any win could be his last, so he doesn’t take playing for granted. He attributes his success to what he can control–his effort, his practice. All players talk about how they try to focus on this match rather than looking too far ahead. They give themselves time to enjoy their victory. They express gratitude for the people who put on the tournament, their team, their fans when they make their speech in the finals.
Sure, some of this stuff is probably scripted–things they know they should say, whether they mean it or not. But I believe that winners do mean it. They are focused. They take things one game at a time. They don’t fixate on mistakes. They are grateful. They savor the moment.
I know practicing mindfulness has made me a better player, if for no other reason than it helps me to watch the ball–which is often my only strategy when I’m playing. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes every aspect of the game, on and off the court, more enjoyable. Which counts as a win in my book.