The Mental Edge: Keeping Score

Monday, November 25, 2013 /by
Illustration by Jon Krause
Illustration by Jon Krause

The tennis scoring system uniquely increases the stress of competition because, throughout a match, some points are substantially more important than others. This makes it a “pressure” scoring system and provides more opportunities to choke than other sports. If you are smart, however, these “big points” with their concomitant pressures can provide you with opportunities as well as challenges.

The score is cumulative throughout the contest in most other sports, and whoever has the most points at the end wins. Of course, there is a great deal of pressure in all sports if the scores are close toward the end of the contest, but none are as continuously stressful as tennis. If you are playing a close set—say you are up 5-4 or 6-5—and you reach set point, there is a huge swing in the match if you win that one point. Lose it, and it takes very little for your opponent to turn the tables on you. He or she could win the game with two points and take the set with eight more. Instead of being up half a match, it would be you going back to zero and your opponent up half a match. This puts extraordinary pressure on the outcome of a single point.

There is even more pressure on the players if the score reaches 6-all, and they play a tiebreaker. In a moment, you could be one point away from winning the set but only three points away from losing it. The same thing happens on a lesser scale in each game. If you reach game point and win it, you get the entire game while your opponent gets nothing—all of the points he or she won in the game are eliminated. This happens for the entire match, not just at the end.

These features of the tennis scoring system make the game fraught with emotion, pressure and choking, but also opportunity. It is mentally tougher than most of the other sports. And perversely, the player who is ahead usually feels the most pressure.

So what do you do about it? If you are confident, facing a big point, whether you are ahead or behind, is not usually a problem. In fact, it’s often stimulating. If you are ahead and not confident (most people aren’t), try to resist thinking about the score. Getting heavily involved with the score and winning the big points will just make you nervous.

Of course, you will rarely be able to totally forget about the score, but it is a problem you can make better or worse, even though you can’t completely solve it. Thus, keep working to push the score to the back of your mind, rather than focusing on it. Resist highlighting big points with thoughts like, “OK, it’s set point; I’ve got to win this one.” This will just make you nervous. Instead, concentrate narrowly on playing the next point as well as you can. Do your best to mentally lose yourself in watching the ball, staying relaxed, creating good emotions and executing your game plan. Try to treat each point the same, even though they aren’t (assume they are all important but none too important). Plug along, one point at a time. Try to ride over the big points by keeping your head into what you will be doing in the next few seconds. Then, assume something good will happen.

There is a positive aspect of big-point pressure: Your opponents are also likely to feel it when they get ahead, so take advantage of this. If they are up game point, 30-15 or set point, make them play to win the next point. They are likely to make mistakes. Don’t go for immediate winners (unless you have an especially easy opportunity). Make sure to get your serve return in the court; get your first serve in; and hit an extra few balls crosscourt in a rally rather than going for the quick down-the-line winner. Remembering a few of these tips on big points can make them your allies instead of your enemies.


Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.

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