The Mindset Crisis in Tennis


The Mindset Crisis in Tennis

by Chad Stoloff

Mental Conditioning Coach-A Disciplined Mind

Why do some tennis players keep improving while others plateau and digress? How do the Bryan Brothers and Serena Williams keep improving? Is it because they are more talented than the rest of the pack? If that is the case, does the need to expend more effort mean the tennis player is less talented? Or is there more to the story that needs to be examined and understood? How does the club player who started playing tennis two years ago at a 2.5 level now compete at a 4.0 level, while their friends are still competing at the 2.5 level? How does a junior player go from never being in the top 50 in the U.S. to becoming one of the top collegiate tennis players in Division one? It must be because they are more talented than their peers right?

In 2007 Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford published a book entitled,  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  In this book she discussed her two decades of research in psychology on people with a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset.  The growth mindset is based on an idea that you can improve your capabilities through learning, experimentation, and training.  By focusing on learning and effort, this mindset has the belief that a human can continually improve their mental and physical capabilities.  They believe that they can be anything i.e. a professional tennis player, doctor, scientist and can accomplish anything they set their mind to with persistent hard work.  On the other side of the coin is the fixed mindset.  This person believes that their capabilities and abilities are predetermined.  A person with a fixed mindset believes that they have a limited amount of intelligence, athletic talent, and so on.  They believe that their capabilities are predetermined through genetics.  For example, if someone is considered gifted and talented at an early age, they are automatically destined to be a top player in their age group. The fixed mindset believes that intelligence and athletic ability are static. A person either has the innate ability to hit the tennis ball with topspin and move correctly and efficiently on the tennis court or they don’t.

Let’s examine these mindsets in more depth. The fixed mindset believes that ability is predetermined. A person with a fixed mindset avoids challenges, gives up easily when faced with obstacles, views effort as a waste of time, ignores feedback, blames others for their failures, and sees failure as permanent and defining. On the flip side is the growth mindset in which a person believes that ability can be developed. A person with a growth mindset embraces challenges, persists in the face of setbacks, views effort as the road to mastery, learns and accepts feedback, takes responsibility for their actions, and sees failure as temporary and part of the learning process to improve.

Tennis players, parents, and coaches with a growth mindset look forward to the process of mastery. A tennis player who takes ownership of their game realizes that their ability to improve their mental toughness, physical fitness, technical prowess, and tactical awareness rests on their shoulders. They are in charge of their destiny! Of course they will need assistance and guidance along this path to mastery. No one does it alone. It is only assistance and guidance, not someone else’s problem to solve however. For example, when a parent blames their child’s lack of improvement on the tennis group they are in or the coach that they have, what lessons are they teaching their child? First, improvement is outside of their child’s control. Second, it is correct to blame others for one’s mistakes. Third, their child is a victim, helpless, and powerless. Parents often times act this way because they are trying to protect their children from failure, pain, embarrassment and lower self-esteem. However, the negative effects of this behavior far outweigh the positive benefits. So how does one improve then? The growth mindset is mastery oriented and the fixed mindset is ego oriented. What does this really mean? A tennis player whether beginner or professional and child or adult will dramatically improve over time if they are focused on mastering skills. This requires letting go of the fixed mindset desire/need to look good at all times. They must be invested in loss to achieve gains. For instance, the 2.5 adult tennis player who can make their serve with a semi-western/pancake grip can improve over time if they are willing to change their grip to a continental to hit a variety of serves instead of only flat serves. This requires the risk that they might miss their serves more and look stupid in front of their peers while making this change. Why wouldn’t a tennis player do this? The reason they choose this path is that they are in a fixed mindset focusing on looking good and avoiding looking stupid thus avoiding the challenge of improving their serve. When one’s ego is attached to a result, their self-worth is defined by that result. Thus, in the above example if the person keeps double-faulting and loses the tennis match, they are a failure. In the fixed mindset they view failure as permanent, not temporary. People with a fixed mindset fear failure, which constricts their abilities to learn, experiment, and improve. The way to change this mode of thinking is to have a growth mindset that focuses on learning and mastery instead of defining and validating thoughts that arise from results.  Another great example of a fixed mindset is the  junior tennis player withdrawing from the back draw not due to injury or sickness but instead because of their mindset.  Junior competitors drop out of the consolation or back draw because they think nothing can be gained from competing in it.  They lost their chance to win the tournament when they lost in the main draw, so what’s the point! They have failed and see themselves as a failure, so the point of putting forth effort to compete again in the consolation is seen as fruitless. This mindset creates a culture of stagnation instead of development.

How do we as a nation combat this?  We must focus on the growth mindset approach by emphasizing learning and improvement over winning and losing.  Instead of fixating on the final result, we must ask our children what did they learn today?  How can they improve their skills?  Where do their passions lie and how do they intend to maximize them?  People with a growth mindset in tennis, business, and all aspects of life, live by the tenet that everything is a learning opportunity, especially failure!  They are deliberately focusing on what can I learn today that will help them and others in the future.  Why does an adult choose to play tennis? Why does a parent put their child into tennis? Why does an adolescent choose to pick up the sport? Most often it is for health reasons: exercise, enjoyment, and socialization. It can be easy in this culture to lose sight of the reasons why one plays the game. Tennis and life will always be about learning, enjoyment, and growing.


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