Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Aug 1, 1998 – Dr. John F. Murray – By reading this column, you’re already showing clear thinking and a desire to improve. You want to be your best, whether on the red powder of Paris, slick sod at Wimbledon, or just the cracked concrete courts downtown. But let’s ignore surface conditions for a moment and direct your focus to a deeper level. More specifically, let’s challenge and reverse irrational thoughts that often impair progress.

Do you know anyone who is completely rational? Few of us exist in a totally rational state. Did you recently purchase a powerball ticket? If you have serious hopes of winning powerball, those tickets might qualify you for irrationality, or just reveal your math aptitude. Lotteries may be fun, but buying a solid gold shovel to discover lost treasure chests in your backyard is a much wiser investment. At least you’ll have a new shovel to show for it! We’re all irrational at times, and this includes performance situations.

One of the fundamental challenges in sport psychology is to help athletes evaluate situations more accurately. With a clearer perspective, it’s possible to entertain lofty dreams and set challenging goals to realize them. On the other hand, athletes lacking clarity in their thoughts are constantly enslaved by misperceptions, and often sell themselves short.

Let’s examine 7 common irrational thoughts in tennis (and life), and offer suggestions to reverse the madness and improve performance:

“I should win every match I play or I’m a loser”

Players who take this stance are setting themselves up for repeated pain and sorrow. Not even Pete The Great wins every time he steps onto the court. Accept the fact that your actual chances of winning are 50% if you’re finding perfect competition. Set goals to perform your best and always expect success, but believing you should always win is a trap.

“I should never make mistakes”

Mistakes are your roadmaps to improvement. If you go around believing that you should never make errors, you’ll never learn. You may develop the consistency of a brick wall, but what about challenge and growth? Push the limits of your current knowledge and skills by accepting mistakes as normal and healthy steps toward improvement. Aim to reduce errors and correct mistakes, but remember that you are still human. Mistakes offer a rich learning opportunity.

“I always lose to higher ranked players”

Ignore your opponent’s ranking. That is only a reflection of the past. The player with the higher ranking only has one way to go and it’s not up. It’s often daunting to face the number one player, but ranking itself is a meaningless number that’s constantly in flux. Your opponent still has to make good contact, move well, and outwit you. Add an extra 0 after your opponents ranking if you need a confidence boost. If that doesn’t work, embrace the underdog role with a passion, and have fun going after Goliath.

“Only great athletes are truly confident”

Your world is the sum total of your thoughts. Confidence is available to everyone who expects the best, regardless of ability. Yes, winning increases confidence, but so does confident thinking!

“I cannot play well when I’m nervous”

Feeling nervous is normal and expected. If you did not have these feelings before and during the match, I’d wonder if you were alive. You can play brilliant tennis and a wonderful saxophone when you’re nervous. The real enemy is negative thinking combined with nervousness. Increased arousal just documents your sincerity and provides natural energy for performance.

“Once I’ve lost focus, I’ll never get it back”

You’ve lost your concentration and gotten upset. This leads to further problems such as increased anxiety or lost confidence. It’s really impossible to remain perfectly focused on anything for long. The key is to regain your focus once it’s lost. Don’t allow mental mistakes to lead to negative thinking. Like correcting a bad serve, just re-adjust your focus as much as needed.

“I can’t win the 3rd set against a younger and fitter player”

This is a true statement (just kidding, though it often seems true!). If your energy is depleted, there’s a good chance your opponent is experiencing fatigue too. Rather than throw in the towel, make a pact with yourself to play smarter tennis. Find ways to win the points quicker and more decisively. Hang in there until you get your second wind and your opponent begs for stalemate!

“Visualization is only for dreamers”

If you haven’t reaped benefits from imagery yet, you’re not doing your homework! There is no question that simulating performance in your mind helps prepare you for actual play. To use imagery properly, first eliminate the irrational thought that it won’t work. Once you’re convinced of the real benefits of imagery, you’ll exert greater effort and your sessions will be of higher quality.

The quality of your thinking directly affects your effort, motivation and activities. It’s fun to let loose and fantasize for pleasure, but if you’re howling at the moon during your matches, you’ll never reach your potential. Once you’ve rid yourself of irrational notions of doom and gloom, you’re free to express your true inner strength. I don’t think I’d want to play you after that!