Can I let you in on a little secret? Tennis players are a bunch of “losers.”
It might sound harsh, but it’s true; most tennis players suffer a loss nearly every competitive week of their career. In every tennis competition there is only one victor. Just one man will hold up the trophy at the end of each tournament, while the rest of the field will suffer a defeat.
I was discussing this exact phenomenon a few years ago with tennis legend Wayne Ferreira at the Australian Open, when he told me something poignant that really resonated with me.
He said, “Look, I’ve had what most would consider a very long and successful tennis career. And guess what, the total number of weeks in my career where I didn’t lose a single match? Only 15.”
I will never forget how clearly Wayne’s comment put things into perspective for me. Dealing constructively with defeat is a critical skill in tennis where losses are prevalent and tournament wins are few.
I was thinking a lot about this topic this week after Kevin suffered a disappointing loss during his first match at the Citi Open. Over and above our typical job descriptions, the whole support team plays a crucial role in helping Kevin cope with losses. I actually think it is one of my biggest jobs as Kevin’s wife to help him through trying results.
I decided to write a blog about this topic because it seems people have a genuine interest in how players handle defeat. I am often asked how Kevin behaves after a loss. People are curious whether players become mad, despondent, or irritable. Quite honestly, the answer is not very cut and dry, it really depends.
You see, not all losses are created equal, and some seem to hurt more than others. I think you can evaluate a loss using the following three questions: What were the stakes? What were the expectations? And what were your chances?
This refers to what was at stake in the match, in other words: what was on the line for the player? Were you perhaps competing for a title? Maybe you were going for a career-best result?
In some ways, these are the hardest losses to swallow. The player perceives it as a missed opportunity, or a career-defining moment. In other ways, these losses are not as difficult to handle because these situations often also present many positive elements that can be used to console the player.
After this type of loss, it is important to draw on these “positives” as a means to move forward. For example, this year at Queens when Kevin lost the final to Andy Murray, we reminded him of the fact that he was in his first grass court final and that he defeated three current or former top 10 players on the way there. Similarly, when he lost at Wimbledon a few weeks later, vying again for his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, we pointed out that he lost to the eventual champion, he came close to a victory, and proved to himself and the world that he has the ability to compete at the top of the game.
Trying to keep the positive components of the result in the forefront is critical, and encouraging the player to focus on these elements, rather than the undesirable outcome, helps redirect the energy in a productive manner.
Dealing with the loss of a match you expected to win can be incredibly tough. These are often the matches that incite the most anger within players. From my own competitive experience as a golfer, this is the type of defeat I have the most personal experience with. I know for a fact that no one is harder on themselves than the athlete after failing to compete at the level to which they believe they can perform.
These losses are also dangerous because they can shatter confidence and therefore have a direct impact on future success. For this reason I think it is really important to have an analytical analysis as to why the match was lost, and to define a clear path forwards. Determining tactical things to work on to prevent this type of result in the future helps to shift the player’s mind from critical to constructive.
As an example, after a difficult loss for Kevin earlier this year, we sat down as a team and created a working list of things that will be addressed week in and week out during practice to ensure a fine tuning of Kevin’s game. We now affectionately refer to this item as “the list” and it has been an effective tool for Kevin to utilize. We have been able to draw on “the list” when Kevin feels parts of his game have let him down, and use it to craft his total approach to improvement. By taking proactive steps towards a better skill set tomorrow, it is much easier to leave an unexpected loss in the past.
Probably the most emotional losses to cope with are those where the player felt they had “a chance” to win. Perhaps they squandered a match point or maybe they created break point opportunities but were unable to convert. These type of losses can leave a player crushed, gutted, and feeling somewhat hopeless.
It sounds cliché, but I have found the best way to get through this type of defeat is to adopt a “you’ll get ’em next time” mentality. It is the job of the support team to keep the atmosphere positive and help promote good energy around the player, but more so than ever after an emotional loss, we must also keep things moving forward. We remind them there is always another match, another opponent, and another tournament right around the corner.
Sometimes taking a day or two off from tennis after this type of result can be refreshing. Doing something fun is an excellent way to forget the loss and press the reset button. I will never forget how much I appreciated my college coach Paula Smith doing things to help cheer us up after a disappointing day on the golf course; sometimes my mood was uplifted by something as simple as going to get ice cream, or a corny joke.
On our team, we are lucky to have Kevin’s coach Neville Godwin, who is simply brilliant at lightening the mood. It is an incredible skill that brings immeasurable value to our team in those instances when we must get Kevin mentally “on to the next one” as quickly as possible.
Any athlete has to deal with trying times in their career, but I firmly believe that positive and proactive approach to defeat can really make the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
Most tennis players are familiar with part of the famous Rudyard Kipling poem “If…”, thanks to its inscription above the entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon. It reads: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same…” However, the lesser known completion of the poem is what our players must really take to heart: “…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Let me know what you thought of this topic in the comments section below. Also, please share your insight with me on how to help athletes cope with defeat.
Onwards and upwards!