Brain Power

by: Allen Fox, Ph.D. | July 17, 2011

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When strokes won’t win a match, the mind should take charge.

You’re on the court against one of your rivals. He’s the sort of player who beats you as often as you beat him. On this day, Plan A isn’t getting the job done. What do you do? If you want to win more matches like this, you should worry a little less about winning and a little more about making your opponent lose.

I look at Plan B as the mental option. If you can’t win a match with serves, forehands and backhands, you have no choice but to win with your mind. If your opponent is too good on this day, wear him down and make him worse. We all have limited reserves of willpower, and we can only withstand stress and concentrate for so long. The aim of Plan B is to take your opponent to the point of mental exhaustion. Even if you see no signs of weakness in your adversary at first, two hours later, when your opponent’s mind has tired and his will has dissipated, his game may look a little worse.

Everyone, even champions, eventually breaks mentally. When this happens, player loses intensity and his errors increase. Small setbacks make him lose emotional control and speed his disintegration. Average players run out of mental energy relatively quickly. The trick is to get your opponent to run out before you do.

Recognize the times when your opponent is under the most stress and slow the match down so he stays that way as long as possible. One of these times is when he’s ahead. In close matches, most players feel more pressure when they’re ahead than behind. Let him stew. Your opponent is hungry to get on with it and suspects, correctly, that the longer he stays on court the more likely that something will go wrong.

I’m not suggesting that you be a bad sport and stall by repeatedly tying your shoelaces or going to the towel. Just take a few extra seconds between points to gather yourself and give your opponent a little more time to think. The extra time will feel like an eternity to him and keep him from developing momentum.

Plan B is especially important whenever you’re down game point or break point. Here your opponent is under pressure to win the game. Keep him there. If he’s serving, avoid risky returns. Think of how happy  and relieved you are on your game point when your opponent overplays and misses right away. Don’t give him that satisfaction; force him to play out the point. If you’re serving, take extra care to get your first serve in. Under pressure, your opponent wants a nice, easy second serve to return. Don’t give it to him.

Another essential part of Plan B is never to give your opponent an easy point or game, no matter how far behind you are. When you’re down 0-40 in a game or 1-5 in a set, you may feel despondent and try careless, low-percentage shots. Instead, force your opponent to concentrate and struggle to finish the game or set. It’s mentally tiring, which is part of your plan, and every once in a while you’ll come back and win the game or set as a bonus. You’ll also tempt him to relax a little at the beginning of the next game or set, as he may want a break from the stress.

We all want to overwhelm our opponents with aces, winners and flashy volleys, but in tennis, as in life, the ideal is not the norm. Next time you’re in trouble on the court, try Plan B rather than panicking or going for broke. You might like it so much that it becomes your Plan A.

Author and coach Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist. Visit him at



Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of TENNIS.

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