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Why Can’t I Play Tennis Matches Like The Way I Practice?

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

I have a student, he loves playing tennis matches. Let’s call him J. He is a good tennis player with good ground strokes and service technique. His footwork is not as efficient as I’d like it to be, but he is trying.

Whenever J plays tennis matches with his teammates or against opponents that he has not played before, he shows a common trend. His performance in matches is hardly comparable to the way he plays in training. He will lose to players whose standards are on par with his and even to some whose standards are slightly lower than his. But against better players, he will get thrashed.

During training, J hits the ball smoothly and often with good pace. His serves are fast with good spin. Usually after the first bounce, the ball kicks to the back fence. That’s how fast his serves are.

The frustrating part comes when he plays matches. His errors mount up like crazy due to over-hitting, poor positioning and double-faulting. As I said before, he is a good player but always loses the match.

What is happening here?

Why he can’t play tennis matches like the way he trains?

I talked to him and tried to glean as much information from him as possible.

As usual, being a typical student, his answers were vague.

He said things like, “I was deciding to play defensively/offensively during the match.”

I was not confident.”

“After I lost the first set, I was demoralized.

“I was not on form today. It’s not my day.”

He was more consistent than me today.”

When I was playing volleyball during my school days, I remember my coach said, “some players “can train but they cannot play matches.”

Whenever the player steps onto the court for a competition, he just can’t perform.

Are you one of those players?

What are the possible reasons and what can you do about it?

Scared to Lose

When you are in a tennis match, there are two outcomes: win or lose.

Some players tend to treat winning as the ultimate goal; they see winning as everything.

I guess if you have that kind of perception, you are going to be very tense during the competition.

Every shot that you play will be cautious because you are scared to lose. And you are praying that your opponent makes the mistakes first.

You don’t have the freedom to play the shot. Moreover, you are tight, and your movement slows down.

The end result is that you are always playing the chasing game, rather than dominating the game.

Not a great way to play tennis!

Unwilling to take responsibility for the results

“I was not on form today. It’s not my day.”

Form is a great word to use as an excuse for yourself. When you lose a match and blame it on your form, it just shows that you are not taking responsibility for the results.

When you are not on form, it also means that you are not prepared for the game. Could it be your fitness, game plan, or simply lack of sleep?

Examine yourself after the match and decide which is the most critical factor that caused the results of the match, rather than blaming the results on your form.

Lack of confidence

“My backhand sucks!”

“My serve cannot make it.”

“He is ranked higher than me.”

When you have these invisible scripts running in your head, you are not going to have great confidence in the match.


Let’s say you perceive your serve as a weak link and you make the first double fault. The self-fulfilling prophecy is going to come true.

Instead of focusing on the positive cue words to remind yourself on the next serve, you keep thinking, “Oh shxx, here come the double faults again!”

This negative mindset drags down the other components of your game, like forehands and backhands, as well. You end up playing a poor match.

What can you do about it?

Put Winning in Perspectiv

What do tennis matches results mean to you?

I know for some tennis players, the results of the match have consequences. For example, winning this match could get you a place in an institution that you dream of. Your coach may be selecting his players for a particular competition, based on the results of everyone’s performance on the ladder. Not forgetting the pros, for whom winning equals more prize money and higher ranking.

What about the rest of tennis players? Does winning really matter? Is there any ‘severe’ consequence if you lose the match?

Perhaps we should be looking at the takeaways after a match. If you won the match, what did you learn? If you lost the match, what can be done better in the next match?

I always treat my tennis matches as a learning opportunity and my protected time for self- development. I love to win but I see it as a result of preparation. If I train well and stay in shape, I will have good results. I will analyze what went well. For example, my first serve is working very well, my movement is smooth and my forehand is consistent. If I lost the match, I will do the same thing. Analyze what went wrong and come back again. There is always a next match.

So put winning in perspective and play more freely. If winning is everything, you are going to feel very stressed and you won’t enjoy the game.

Take Responsibility for Your Results

Before you step onto the court next time, take notice of your internal scripts. Are these statements running in your head? “How will I perform today?” “Is he going to beat me today?”

These statements tend to be self doubting, and before you step onto the court, you are giving yourself some leeway to lose.

Stop those statements. Instead, think of the hard work that you put in. The miles that you ran, the numerous balls that you hit, and the great shots you have played. On the day before the match, have an early night so that you wake up fresh for the game.

Be responsible for your own results. The old saying, “You reap what you sow” is very true.

If you win the match, acknowledge yourself for the great effort. If you lose, that’s fine. Analyze the match and come back again strongly next time.

Build on Your Strengths

Work on your weaknesses versus build on your strengths. Which one do you think is more important? You will be surprised that most top coaches will tell you to build on the strengths.

Serena Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said if you want to have more confidence, build on your strengths. It is your strengths that give you the edge.

Craig Boynton, one of John Isner’s former coaches, mentioned in an interview that when John Isner serves, he will be looking for his forehand as the next shot because that’s his strength. You want to dominate right from the start.

Therefore, in your next training session, plan to build up your weapon. Is it your serve, your crazy topspin forehand, or your excellent feel for drop shots? Build your game around the weapon.

For example, if you have a good wide serve, use it during big points. If you have a reliable inside-out forehand, use it to attack the opponent’s backhand and open up the court.

Furthermore, I also suggest that during training, create different scenarios as if you are playing a real match. So, you can play points starting with 30-40. Because when you are facing break points, then you can play modified games starting with 5-4, where you need to close the set or the match. When you face the actual situations during match time, you will realize that you have done it before. And you won’t feel that nervous.

Final words

I hope J can break the barriers and play freely in his tennis matches. I will continue to mentor him so that he can unleash his tennis potential. If you are like J, what are the reasons that are preventing you from playing your best during tennis matches?

Share your answers with me in the comment box below.

I read every comment.

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