The fear of winning is a real thing in tennis

Arak

Hall of Fame
It is a well documented phobia in psychology but it’s no where as evident as in tennis, even the world‘s top players suffer from it. On this site, we call it choking. I admit to be a choker. Anyone else likes to give away matches from winning positions? :)
 

Rosstour

Legend
It is a well documented phobia in psychology but it’s no where as evident as in tennis, even the world‘s top players suffer from it. On this site, we call it choking. I admit to be a choker. Anyone else likes to give away matches from winning positions? :)
Just did it two weeks ago to a 12-year-old girl lol. 2 MPs squandered in the TB after being up 8-3. Tightness is a *****.
 

LOBALOT

Hall of Fame
Tennis is a great sport for developing ones strengths and learning from ones weaknesses. It is the best player that learns from both and gets stronger.

I have seen my son steal victory from the hands of defeat. I have seen him beat kids far superior than him when focused and at his best.

I have also seen him completely fold when up in a match he had in the bag as he was up big.

I think you just have to learn from each match and all those learnings accumulate to advancing in the sport.
 

socallefty

Legend
If you are the lower seeded player or underdog in a match, it is common to get tight on the threshold of winning and make easy errors. If your mind doesn’t have the belief that you deserve to win the match, it will not let the body execute properly when you are ahead - your opponent can sense this when you start making unforced errors suddenly, they start playing better and the negative effect on the scoreboard gets compounded. Win some of your early matches against new opponents as once they develop a long winning streak against you, it is hard to break it even if you often play them close.

The way to get over choking or getting tight late in a match when you are ahead especially if you didn’t expect to win before the start of a match is to somehow find a way to trick your brain to believe that you deserve to win on that particular day - you got to ‘fake it till you make it‘ mentally. Somehow, find a way to get that self-belief that you will ‘take‘ the victory away from your opponent and don’t wait for them to give it to you - if your opponent believes he is the better player late in a match, he will not ‘give away’ the victory easily and will fight hard. This is why the top seeded players win a lot of close sets and matches and lower seeded players fold.

It is hard to get confidence without winning a lot. It is hard to win a lot without confidence. That’s the Catch-22 paradox of life on and off the court. Successful people including tennis champions somehow stay self-confident even before they start winning a lot and then they win more even in new situations.
 
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Rosstour

Legend
If you are the lower seeded player or underdog in a match, it is common to get tight on the threshold of winning and make easy errors. If your mind doesn’t have the belief that you deserve to win the match, it will not let the body execute properly when you are ahead - the other opponent can sense this when you start making unforced errors suddenly, they start playing better and the negative effect on the scoreboard gets compounded. Win some of your early matches against new opponents as once they develop a long winning streak against you, it is hard to break it even if you often play them close.

The way to get over choking or getting tight late in a match when you are ahead especially if you didn’t expect to win before the start of a match is to somehow find a way to trick your brain to believe that you deserve to win on that particular day - you got to ‘fake it till you make it‘ mentally. Somehow, find a way to get that self-belief that you will ‘take‘ the victory away from your opponent and don’t wait for them to give it to you - if your opponent believes he is the better player late in a match, he will not ‘give away’ the victory easily and will fight hard. This is why the top seeded players win a lot of close sets and matches and lower seeded players fold.

It is hard to get confidence without winning a lot. It is hard to win a lot without confidence. That’s the Catch-22 paradox of life on and off the court. Successful people including tennis champions somehow stay self-confident even before they start winning a lot and then they win more.
Yup. I got up on my 5.0/5.5 buddy the other day, 5-4.

Got distracted by one of my nuts not staying in place. After every point I had to push it back down into place again. Lost the next three games without winning a point. Hilarious.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
I like socallefty explanation. It’s the most analytical and true to my own experience.

To be a bit more philosophical, I think that choking is closely related to the instinct of self destruction. Everyone is familiar with the instinct of self preservation but not many know the instinct of self destruction. When you are standing on the edge of a cliff, it’s the little voice in your head that suggests to you to let yourself fall. Many stories tell about people being drawn into the abyss. It’s the same instinct that pushes humans to use alcohol, drugs and tobacco. Luckily the instinct of self preservation is stronger with the majority of humans.

In a tennis match, when you’re ahead 5-2 or 5-3, there comes the little voice in your head that tells you to lose. Everyone knows it’s difficult to close a match on your serve. Most players get tight and start making unforced errors. As socallefty said, you can trick your mind and I’m sure there are many methods to get out of this state. That’s why many tennis players hire a psychologist and it clearly works.
 

socallefty

Legend
In a tennis match, when you’re ahead 5-2 or 5-3, there comes the little voice in your head that tells you to lose.
I don’t think the little voice says anything like that if you play someone who you think is a worser player or someone you have a winning streak against. It happens only when you play someone who your mind thinks you are not as good as. Hence the necessity to trick your brain into believing that you deserve to win on that day in that match.
 
I don’t think the little voice says anything like that if you play someone who you think is a worser player or someone you have a winning streak against. It happens only when you play someone who your mind thinks you are not as good as. Hence the necessity to trick your brain into believing that you deserve to win on that day in that match.
@socallefty Going by what you have written, I think you must be really really experienced. Because looking back at most matches I have lost from a winning position, it was this case-
I'm playing a tournament, unseeded, and I come up against a 4th or 5th seed or better. The match starts, and somehow I manage to break serve, or even twice sometimes. Now let's say the score in 5-3 or 5-1 and I've just held serve. Next game, the opponent holds easily, and then comes the changeover, the worst part mentally. At this point, all I have to do is serve well and close out the set 6-4 or 6-2. But I start wondering how I managed to break his serve. Then I think, if I can break his, why isn't it possible that he breaks mine? (All this despite holding serve comfortably till now.) And then it is just a matter of time before I lose 5-7.

This doesn't necessarily every time you play a top seed. Sometimes you'll break him to win the match, or close it out on serve in the next. Or sometimes, it happens so that you are playing so well, not making errors, and--you just know it's your day-- and you feel that you have earned the victory, that you deserve to win. Such are the times when you pull off upsets.

Completely agree with your observation.
 

HuusHould

Hall of Fame
This is why the top seeded players win a lot of close sets and matches and lower seeded players fold.
My best wins have generally been straight sets (eg 6-4 6-4, 6-4 6-4, 7-5 6-3 and 6-4 7-5) and a couple that I feel I should've won in straight sets (that would've been very good wins), I got toweled up in the 3rd set/match tiebreaker. One of them I was getting tight muscles toward the end of the second set and started cramping early in the 3rd set, so it has an asterix next to it. But you can't give the better player an inch or they'll take a mile as you suggest. You have to somehow subdue there inherent confidence for as long as possible on the day. My best win, I remember 2 phases in my psychology, actually there were 3. I started by losing like 4 of the first 5 points and I just thought "hang in there, try to make it respectable", then as it became obvious I was playing well above myself in the match, I thought "I can win this" (I'd say when I was up a set and a break), then when I was a set and two breaks up (I subsrquently relinquished one of them), I thought "holy cow I should win this" then when he broke back I thought "you really can't let this go to three, you have to finish it now!" I did have one good win that was like 1/6 6/3 6/4, where I just started to flatten out and take the ball early and get to the net, in order to avoid the breadstick and bagel (actually it was 1-6 1-3 when I changed gameplan). But generally I find the most likely mode of upset is to catch then a bit complacent early and then keep them under the pump.

But players used to do it against Federer all the time, get in a position to win the match and then falter closing it out. I remember Berdych being up I think 2 sets to love and a break or something like that at the AO. Falla had a similar lead at Wimby, among quite a few others.
 
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HuusHould

Hall of Fame
Why would I fear winning?
Overexcitement maybe or better yet fear of losing while in a winning position
Yeah it's generally a fear of some sort of loss eventually as a result of your success/winning. So as you mention, fear of losing from a winning position. Fear of losing the next match. Fear of messing up your trophy acceptance speech etc
 
It all depends if u view yourself as a winner or a loser--if u want to win u have to focus unwaveringly on the finish line not letting doubtful thoughts interfere with the goal--the ride home is much sweeter after having won--success breeds success.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
Yeah it's generally a fear of some sort of loss eventually as a result of your success/winning. So as you mention, fear of losing from a winning position. Fear of losing the next match. Fear of messing up your trophy acceptance speech etc
Fear in this context is not to be taken literally of course. It’s more of a doubt, or unpleasant thoughts. Many top players play their best tennis when they’re down a break. They hit freely and uninhibited. Then when they’re winning you can feel that they’re starting to think more and have certain doubts. They start to hold back and hit less aggressively. And then we start calling them chokers on this forum. It could be that when you’re ahead in the score, it’s a bigger responsibility, because now you have to win, and failing to win is somehow shameful. Fear of losing from a winning position is a great description.
 

socallefty

Legend
Or sometimes, it happens so that you are playing so well, not making errors, and--you just know it's your day-- and you feel that you have earned the victory, that you deserve to win. Such are the times when you pull off upsets.

Completely agree with your observation.
One of the things you can do as a lower ranked player or underdog on the threshold of winning is to really think about what point patterns and tactics are working for you on that day. If you can get your brain to focus on the concrete things you are doing to get the lead on that day, that goes a long way to convince yourself that you deserve to win and then you can execute your shots fluidly to keep doing those tactics and point patterns. When you don’t know why you are winning, think you are playing above your level temporarily or your opponent is playing bad and might snap out of it at any moment, those are the recipes for getting tight and choking. Guard against this by focusing on tangible things that are working well for you on that day. I also advise against getting passive late in a match as you won’t get tight as easily when you are trying to execute aggressive tactics and actively trying to win the point rather than waiting for the opponent to hand the match over to you.

I am constantly thinking about what is happening on court when I am playing between points and during game breaks. As long as I feel like I know what I am doing to my opponent and what he is trying to do to me tactically, I feel in control and usually win. When I feel like whatever I try is not working or I can’t stop what my opponent is trying to do, those are the toughest days mentally as I feel like I know why I’m losing and I can’t stop it - the only way to win on those days is if I make some tactical adjustments or playing style adjustments and see if that works. My 1st adjustment is usually to try and serve bigger or to smaller targets and return more aggressively to hopefully control the point pattern from the start more effectively.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
One of the things you can do as a lower ranked player or underdog on the threshold of winning is to really think about what point patterns and tactics are working for you on that day. If you can get your brain to focus on the concrete things you are doing to get the lead on that day, that goes a long way to convince yourself that you deserve to win and then you can execute your shots fluidly to keep doing those tactics and point patterns. When you don’t know why you are winning, think you are playing above your level temporarily or your opponent is playing bad and might snap out of it at any moment, those are the recipes for getting tight and choking. Guard against this by focusing on tangible things that are working well for you on that day. I also advise against getting passive late in a match as you won’t get tight as easily when you are trying to execute aggressive tactics and actively trying to win the point rather than waiting for the opponent to hand the match over to you.

I am constantly thinking about what is happening on court when I am playing between points and during game breaks. As long as I feel like I know what I am doing to my opponent and what he is trying to do to me tactically, I feel in control and usually win. When I feel like whatever I try is not working or I can’t stop what my opponent is trying to do, those are the toughest days mentally as I feel like I know why I’m losing and I can’t stop it - the only way to win on those days is if I make some tactical adjustments or playing style adjustments and see if that works. My 1st adjustment is usually to try and serve bigger or to smaller targets and return more aggressively to hopefully control the point pattern from the start more effectively.
Very insightful. Thank you!
 
I, also, would not call this a "fear" of winning.
Rather, I think of it as a change of mindset.
Up to a certain point, you are focused on the mechanics of tennis, of setting up for the ball,
hitting through the ball, placing the ball, and so on.
Suddenly, winning is a distinct possibility, and there is a mind-shift, toward winning as opposed to
just playing the ball. The "bigger" the occasion, the more one becomes infected by the shift. We see this sometimes even with the pros. It becomes a distraction- but, I think, not really a fear.

If there is some aspect of fear involved near the conclusion of a match, it is more likely a fear of failure.
With the prospect of winning, comes the real possibility of blowing it- then you start playing not to lose.

When we play our best, we are "in the zone" thinking not so much of winning- or losing. We lose our "egos" in the moment to moment, zen-like, oneness with the ball, the court, the game- like a kitten intent on a floating speck of dust.
 

fuzz nation

G.O.A.T.
Several years ago I had heard some mention of this fear here and there among talking heads, but then I saw a match at the US Open where Jelena Jankovic was up a set and a break against (I think) Justine Henin in either the quarter or semi finals. She had Justine beat and just needed to keep rolling to record a career-best win. But when she made it to the brink of that breakthrough - and all the recognition and higher expectations that would come with it - her game completely abandoned her and she lost in three sets. That match is still the stand-out for me as an example of somebody in the big leagues who just wasn't ready step into that level that early in her career.

Vic Braden wrote about this phenomenon along with some other even more relevant issues in his book, Mental Tennis. I recommend it to tennis pals all the time and still consider this to be the single most helpful book related to our sport that I've ever read. I look at the curve of my tennis life both as a player and coach/teacher more or less in two phases; before Braden and after.

My competitive career wasn't remarkable when I was a kid - I don't think I had a clue about managing my match play in high school. But I'm sure that I blew a couple matches more because of cruise control and not a fear of winning. As soon as that first set was in my pocket, it was so easy to assume that "I got this" and then check out too soon. Now that I coach high school kids, I can see it like a billboard when it's happening with one of them. We sometimes practice mentally focusing on nothing but playing the upcoming point and staying in the moment. When this works, it can unlock a big chunk of potential for those kids on match day.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
I, also, would not call this a "fear" of winning.
Rather, I think of it as a change of mindset.
Up to a certain point, you are focused on the mechanics of tennis, of setting up for the ball,
hitting through the ball, placing the ball, and so on.
Suddenly, winning is a distinct possibility, and there is a mind-shift, toward winning as opposed to
just playing the ball. The "bigger" the occasion, the more one becomes infected by the shift. We see this sometimes even with the pros. It becomes a distraction- but, I think, not really a fear.

If there is some aspect of fear involved near the conclusion of a match, it is more likely a fear of failure.
With the prospect of winning, comes the real possibility of blowing it- then you start playing not to lose.

When we play our best, we are "in the zone" thinking not so much of winning- or losing. We lose our "egos" in the moment to moment, zen-like, oneness with the ball, the court, the game- like a kitten intent on a floating speck of dust.
Yes I agree about the terminology but that is how the psychologists call it. It’s a technical term and does not literally mean fear as we use it in everyday language. Nice and interesting analysis.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
Another thought on the topic. Has anyone experienced a feeling of guilt about winning? In our modern society we have been programmed since young age to look at competitive people as being vain and superficial. In teen movies and stories winning athletes are often shown under a bad light. Everyone hates on Djokovic when he roars in the face of his opponent. Do you think that subconsciously some people do not really desire to win even if consciously they are participating in a competitive sport where the target is to win.
 

Dartagnan64

G.O.A.T.
All this sports psychology stuff is just a way to explain the random chance effects in sports. You lose fromm ahead, you choked and got tight. You win from behind, you had nerves of steel. In reality, all that happened was the normal ebbs and flows of athletic performance occurring at different times. In the former scenario you peaked early and in the latter scenario, you peaked late.

If someone has figured out a way to prevent these variations in performance and chance, then he's onto something. Most sports psychology these days is focused on trying to do that but it still seems to me that athletes still vary in performance just as much these days as they did in the old days before sports psychologists.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
All this sports psychology stuff is just a way to explain the random chance effects in sports. You lose fromm ahead, you choked and got tight. You win from behind, you had nerves of steel. In reality, all that happened was the normal ebbs and flows of athletic performance occurring at different times. In the former scenario you peaked early and in the latter scenario, you peaked late.

If someone has figured out a way to prevent these variations in performance and chance, then he's onto something. Most sports psychology these days is focused on trying to do that but it still seems to me that athletes still vary in performance just as much these days as they did in the old days before sports psychologists.
Have you never felt tight and nervous when serving for a match? Have you never felt angry about a wrong call that affected your performance in the next points? All this is real it’s not just some psychological mumbojumbo.
 

socallefty

Legend
Has anyone experienced a feeling of guilt about winning?
This concept is completely alien to me. I have about 1,175 singles wins and 650 doubles wins since 2011 (when I started keeping track of all my match scores) including 38 double bagel singles wins (1 triple bagel). The concept of compassion on a tennis court or in any sporting contest was drilled out of me when I was a kid by my cricket and tennis coaches. My opponent‘s job is to try his best and mine is to try my best.

I try to think of my opponents as ‘victims’ when I am playing singles and visualize my foot on their throat applying increasing pressure. I also try to find reasons to mildly hate them during the match - sounds horrible, but it works!
 

esgee48

G.O.A.T.
Always concentrate on playing and winning the current point. You can't change the past without a time machine. Focusing on the NOW means you don't worry about the PAST or the FUTURE. 3¢.
 

Arak

Hall of Fame
This concept is completely alien to me. I have about 1,175 singles wins and 650 doubles wins since 2011 (when I started keeping track of all my match scores) including 38 double bagel singles wins (1 triple bagel). The concept of compassion on a tennis court or in any sporting contest was drilled out of me when I was a kid by my cricket and tennis coaches. My opponent‘s job is to try his bet and mine is to try my best.

I try to think of my opponents as ‘victims’ when I am playing singles and visualize my foot on their throat applying increasing pressure - sounds horrible, but it works!
You’re clearly very competitive! Lol
 

socallefty

Legend
You’re clearly very competitive! Lol
Some of it is innate, but a lot of it is good coaching on mental toughness and visualization when I was a kid. I also was influenced by martial art philosophy growing up where the intent is to disable your opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible with minimal harm to yourself.
 

FiddlerDog

Professional
I played a very even match last weekend. At 5-5, I accepted that I was going to lose, and its ok. I was happy with how I hit. Set went to 6-6. I ended up winning the TB. Hmm.

One thing I do well is play each point and not give a crap about the match.
I learned this by playing above my level in USTA from day 1, and always fighting for one more game, even if I was losing badly, just to protect my rating.
 

AlexSV

Rookie
The fear of winning isn't really about winning a single match (getting tight). A better example might be self-sabotaging on your way to 3.0/4.0/5.0, because having to step up to the next level means training more, playing better people, needing to perform better, losing more often, etc.

Winning means more challenges, more expectations, and more attention. It's a fear or anxiety about what could happen after you win. Relevant to professionals since a significant victory brings a lot of focus and pressure to continue and exceed your recent result.
 

Rosstour

Legend
All this sports psychology stuff is just a way to explain the random chance effects in sports. You lose fromm ahead, you choked and got tight. You win from behind, you had nerves of steel. In reality, all that happened was the normal ebbs and flows of athletic performance occurring at different times. In the former scenario you peaked early and in the latter scenario, you peaked late.

If someone has figured out a way to prevent these variations in performance and chance, then he's onto something. Most sports psychology these days is focused on trying to do that but it still seems to me that athletes still vary in performance just as much these days as they did in the old days before sports psychologists.
My counterpoint to your argument can be summed up in one word:

Dimitrov
 
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