“Making mistakes in tennis is normal. Everyone misses; even the pros do.”
When you read this statement, you probably nod your head and agree with it. But when you play, you most likely react to every mistake you make.
Suddenly, you’re not so convinced that making mistakes is normal.
In fact, you probably react to every mistake you make with something negative – a sigh, negative self-talk, a frown or some other action that shows you’re dissatisfied with yourself, with your shot or with your shot selection.
If I asked you after the match (or simple free hitting lesson) which of your mistakes were normal, you would most likely find an explanation for each and every one you made, and none of these explanations would be “that it’s normal”.
You might say you “should have”:
Every mistake would have an explanation, and you would believe that if you hadn’t made that error, you would have hit the ball in, right?
If you keep correcting yourself and eliminate those errors, you won’t make as many mistakes, right?
If you agree to the above statement, then you also agree that there are still some mistakes left. You probably didn’t say that if you eliminated all the causes of your mistakes, you would have never missed.
So, some mistakes are left there. “We all miss; even the pros do.”
Following this logic, if you’re a 3.0 player and you want to play like a 5.0 player, you believe that as a 5.0 player, you will miss less.
In fact, the better the player, the less they miss, right?
Well, not exactly!
In reality, something else happens…
The following video shows 3 very different tennis players:
1. A total beginner (my nephew 😉 ) who was on a tennis court for his second lesson with me. He had never played with a foam ball before, but he had played a lot of table tennis and badminton, so his hand-eye coordination is good, and he is able to rally well with a foam ball.
2. An older club player who was self-taught and started taking lessons a few years ago.
3. My friend and I – both have been playing tennis for over 25 years, and both are tennis coaches.
As you saw, the average rally in all three cases lasted about 20 seconds!
People think that when they fix their strokes, movement and timing, they will miss less.
That’s NOT really the case!
Because once you know how to hit a better ball, you attempt it – and that’s riskier!
Sure, I don’t have to miss if I rally like that club player. (you can see me in the background – I just gently played the balls back.)
But I don’t want to.
I want to hit higher quality shots.
So, now I miss. And I miss at about the same rate as a less skilled player – but when I hit in the court, my shot is better. (And I am able to play better shots from more challenging situations.)
You’re traveling exactly the same road – the more skilled you are, the higher quality shots you’ll want to play – which means that you’ll play with the SAME risk of missing as someone not as skilled.
The same risk of missing means that you’ll miss roughly the same amount of balls.
So, there is no end to this journey.
You will never end by playing tennis so well that you won’t miss (except at a very low level of tennis which you won’t want to play – it’s not fun, not exciting and not rewarding!).
The idea that more practice helps you make fewer mistakes is WRONG.
It is true only for your current playing level.
As soon as you can make fewer mistakes at that level, you’ll want to play better. So you’ll play better, but you’ll still make a mistake every 20 seconds or so.
The final point is this – each time tennis players make mistakes, there is a reaction, meaning that the players would prefer not to have made those mistake. They believe they did something wrong, and if they fix “that” thing, they won’t miss the next time.
That’s an illusion. You will keep missing.
A certain percentage of mistakes are unfixable. The mind makes a mistake at calculating the ball trajectory, the body is not well-coordinated, the timing is slightly off – you name it.
These causes of errors are not fixable (since human mind and body abilities are not perfect!), meaning you cannot eliminate them. This in turn means you cannot eliminate mistakes completely.
Yet, this logic doesn’t seem to get to tennis players.
Everyone I know reacts to a mistake. They think they did something wrong. No one accepts mistakes as normal.
Still, when I watch recreational basketball players play near our tennis courts, no one reacts negatively to missing the basket.
It’s normal to them.
OBVIOUSLY you cannot hit the basket every time.
However, this simple logical idea is totally strange to tennis players as EVERYONE reacts to almost EVERY mistake they make.
They say something, they frown, or they do something else to show their dissatisfaction – meaning they don’t think it’s normal and obvious that it’s just a matter of time before they miss.
Why are these expectations so different between basketball and tennis players when REALITY keeps telling us for years and years that we keep missing?
(I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.)
The simple reality is this: the longer you play tennis and the more you practice, the higher quality shots you’ll be able to make.
But mistakes will stay forever. In fact, the rate of balls in vs. mistakes will stay roughly the same throughout your life.
This holds true even for pushers – they will push a more quality ball when it goes over, but their rate of missing will stay roughly the same.
Therefore, reacting to mistakes and scolding yourself is totally illogical and useless.
You need to accept mistakes as a part of tennis in the same way that missing a basket in basketball or striking in baseball is something completely normal and simply a matter of statistics.
In fact, as soon as you start a rally, the clock starts ticking.
It is simply a matter of time before you make a mistake.
Can you rally for one hour without mistakes? Do you believe that if you do everything technically correctly you won’t miss?
If that’s true, then why do the top pros miss?
What’s your explanation for that? Should they work on their technique? 😉
So, if you agree that it is impossible to rally for one hour without mistakes and that is impossible to play a match without mistakes, then which of your mistakes do you accept as normal?
If you’re brutally honest with yourself, you’ll see that you don’t accept any. (We’re talking just about unforced errors in this article, not forced ones.)
What you demand of yourself is impossible.
The reality is that you’ll keep missing shots for the rest of your life, and it’s better to accept them as a normal obstacle in your path toward the end goal.
To me, a mistake is the same as a red traffic light when I am driving a car toward where I want to go.
Red traffic lights are normal, and they stop my journey temporarily.
They are unwanted events, but I don’t get upset at every red traffic light. I simply accept them as a reality of driving a car in a city.
That’s exactly how I see mistakes in tennis.
They are unwanted, but I accept them as a reality of tennis and simply move on to the next rally.
I do get feedback from the mistake, but I know that my mind and body are not perfect and that believing that I “wouldn’t have made that mistake if I did something correctly” is completely false.
At that moment with my current sports abilities and current mental abilities, I was not able to do that – and I never will have perfect body/mind abilities.
Therefore, I will keep missing.
Here are some stats that reflect the reality of any sport – and this is from elite athletes in each sport:
3. Second serve statistics of tennis players in Grand Slam finals in 2012:
I chose the second serve statistics in tennis because the players have an extremely safe second serve. In the case of Djokovic and Nadal, neither of those two wants to risk anything on the second serve –yet neither can serve at 100%.
Sure, it may happen in a match here and there, but the point is that the mistakes are unavoidable.
Of course, none of the players had 0 unforced errors in those matches either.
The reason that you need to look at the above stats is to SEE that, no matter which numbers you look at in the long term, none will show 100%.
Even the best, most talented athletes in the world are unable to make 100% of shots in situations where they are not disturbed and simply need to hit a target that they have been practicing on for more than 20 years.
Kobe Bryant cannot make 100% of free throws, Tiger Woods cannot make 100% of putts from only a meter away and Roger Federer cannot make 100% of the second serves in the long term even though his service technique borders on perfection.
What are your expectations then?
Why do you demand of yourself not to make mistakes when it is in fact impossible to do so?
When it comes to tennis, it’s not really that you’re not disturbed. In most cases, you’re trying to hit a small moving ball with your moving racquet while your body is moving – and direct it into a target.
Sure, you may say, the court is so big – but in most cases, you weren’t just trying to hit the court. You were aiming close to the net, close to the sideline, close to the baseline or maybe even all of those.
Additionally, your target was extremely small, and you were trying to hit it in a very difficult situation.
To complete this thought of how difficult tennis is and how imperfect the human mind and body are, here’s a short collection of missed shots by top pros:
If you accept that mistakes are unavoidable, then what are the reasons we make them?
1. You didn’t know what to do exactly.
This is, in my opinion, the #1 reason for missing in tennis.
Most of the information about tennis is technical instruction, yet I believe that tennis technique is the last and the least common cause of mistakes in tennis.
The most common cause is mental.
Before contact, you must have a clear image of the trajectory of the ball you’re about to play.
In addition, this imagined ball flight has to be there early enough that your mind can calculate all the needed data and your body and limbs have enough time to adjust and adapt to send the incoming ball into this desired trajectory.
Simply put – in order to hit the ball in, you need to KNOW exactly how you want the ball to fly, and you need to KNOW that in the first half-second the ball leaves the racquet of your opponent.
Note how Rafael Nadal sends the ball in a trajectory over the net every time. He is clearly aware of the height he wants to play at. Also note that he misses shots in a simple free hitting rally…
For most recreational and junior tennis players, the game goes too fast to be able to decide correctly in each situation what to do and do it early enough in the incoming ball flight so that the body and limbs can adjust to the ball.
Combine that with the lack of high-level coordination needed to hit a tennis ball, the lack of timing and the lack of the ability to track and see a fast-moving ball clearly just before the contact, and you wonder how on earth club and junior tennis players are actually able to hit the ball in court at all.
In my experience, most club players and juniors simply think of the direction of the ball and have very little idea of the depth they want to play and even less idea of the height they want to play at.
Then they wonder why they hit into the net.
When I ask a player who hit into the net whether he knew the height of the ball before he hit it, 95% of the time he will say no. He knew only the direction.
Height seems to be an extremely difficult variable for many people to include in their decision process of how they want to send the ball over.
Therefore, before you start fixing your technique when you miss, ask yourself first if you had a clear imagined trajectory of the ball in your mind before hitting it and whether you knew at what height you wanted to play it.
If you didn’t know that, forget about technique and make sure you’re programming the flight path correctly first!
That will significantly decrease the number of errors you make.
But you’ll still make some because…
2. The sport is too difficult.
Simply put, every sport is designed in a way that is too difficult for a human being to control it or to master it with 100% certainty.
If, for example, in basketball, the hoop were 10 feet around and the free throw line 2 feet from it, then it would be possible to make 100% of free throws.
It is within human ability to do so.
But the game of basketball was designed in a way that it is impossible for a human to hit 100% of attempts; therefore, a chance of missing exists.
Because of this chance for missing, the sport is exciting and unpredictable.
In tennis, if the server could stand 3 feet from the net and aim his serve into the service box, he would be able to make 100% of the second serves. But, the rules of tennis are designed differently, and therefore we cannot control the outcome.
We are all very limited in our skills. Although tennis looks fairly simple if you look at it from the outside, it is one of the most difficult sports overall.
If you take two normal adults with no special sports training and ask them to play table tennis or badminton, they can rally and occasionally make mistakes.
If you put them on a tennis court, they can’t make 4 balls over the net from the baseline for the whole hour – and probably not for the next 5 hours either.
In order to control a tennis ball, you need extremely good ball judgment skills, timing, movement skills, feel and coordination. As soon as the speed of the ball increases, you must play within a certain probability of missing, and it is simply a matter of time before you miss.
It is the same as driving through the city with a car – it is simply a matter of time before you will be stopped by a red light. Wanting to get through the city with only green traffic lights is a ridiculous desire – yet in tennis, almost everyone has a desire that they won’t miss. 😉
I personally know that I’ll very likely miss in the next 20 seconds of the rally unless my opponent does it first.
The way I see my mistakes is that “I” didn’t miss – because it is not “I, Tomaz” who is:
– calculating the timing,
– sending commands to my 650+ muscles in the body,
– coordinating them in the exact right sequence in a very limited time and
– attempting to make contact with the small moving ball that needs to hit almost the center of my small sweet spot on the racquet (which is also moving)
– and attempt to direct the ball with the margin of error of just a few degree and a few kilometers per hour towards the other side
– while at the same time maintaining the dynamic balance of my body.
No, that’s not “me, Tomaz” doing it. I am completely uncapable of performing such a complex operation.
It is my brain doing that. (click here to read more on how complex this process is)
Timothy Gallwey called it Self 2.
But we can now call it in a more scientific way – it’ is the cerebellum.
It is responsible for movement, coordination of muscles and balance. It learns by trial and error – not by conscious thinking.
It learns by feel and by receiving feedback. When a baby learns to walk, it keeps sending signals to the cerebellum. The baby wants to walk and the cerebellum wants to help.
But it doesn’t know yet which signals to send when to which muscles. So it keeps trying and it learns by trial and error.
Every error gives the cerebellum the suggestion on what to try differently. And in time, the baby learns to walk and eventually to run.
The baby didn’t learn to walk – his cerebellum did.
In the same way, “me – Tomaz – my conscious ego”, didn’t learn to hit a tennis ball well.
My cerebellum did – or let’s call it simply “brain”.
My brain actually performs all those complex functions just to keep me upright, let alone coordinate all muscles and time them to almost perfection so that I can hit a tennis ball over the net.
Therefore, when I miss, “I” didn’t miss, my brain did.
And that’s why I don’t take mistakes personally.
I only see myself missing when I realize that I didn’t programme the trajectory and clear target to my brain. Then it was mostly “me” that caused the mistake.
I know that:
To give you an extreme example, if someone held a gun to your head, would you be able to give it more to that current shot you’re making? Probably yes.
Therefore, you’re always holding back slightly and you’re not willing to do what it takes to hit the ball well – so you increase the chances of missing again.
Knowing all that, I see no reason to get upset when I miss.
In fact, it is quite a miracle that I am able to hit that many balls over and hit them so well while my cerebellum is working overtime just so that I can have fun on a tennis court. 😉
Missing in tennis is one of the common things that happens and will continue to happen all the time.
Did you know that if your racquet face changes by only one degree and you hit from the baseline, the ball will land 41 centimeters (1.35 feet) away from where the first ball landed on the opposite baseline?
The “One Degree Error” article, which explains this concept in more detail, is coming soon…
The worst thing that happens to your tennis if you blame yourself for mistakes is that you lose confidence in your strokes.
What you may have never thought about is that you’re not responsible for mistakes since you cannot control the outcome – meaning playing the ball in.
If the outcome could be controlled, then someone would have learned to always play the ball in. No one has and no one will…
Sure, we CAN put the ball in if we loop it over the net. But as soon as you hit a shot lower over the net with some speed, there’s immediately an element of risk and a chance of missing.
It’s just a matter of time and statistics before you miss.
Thefore you do not control the outcome – hitting the court is only a probability.
And so you cannot be responsible for missing the shot if you cannot control the outcome.
And yet so many players blame themselves for missing. It’s very painful to watch and totally illogical.
By blaming yourself for mistakes you’re losing confidence in your strokes and in yourself. You bring down your self-esteem and cause doubt and hesitation when you’re about to hit the ball.
And this now is the cause of the next mistake!
While the first mistake was most likely just a matter of statistics, the consequent ones will be actually caused by your negative mental state.
Do not allow yourself to fall into this vicious spiral of negativity!
Making mistakes is unavoidable and happens all the time to everyone who plays tennis – from total beginners to the finalists of a Grand Slam.
It is as unavoidable as missing the hoop in basketball, missing the ball in baseball or missing a putt in golf.
And it as unavoidable as red traffic lights on your drive through a big city.
Yet, for some reason, this FACT of tennis is something tennis players do not want to accept as a reality of tennis.
They believe that you miss because you did something wrong – and that this thing can be fixed. Additionally, they feel that, if one trains long enough, he will have eliminated all causes of mistakes and will therefore make no more unforced errors and no more double faults.
If this is what you believe, you will suffer through playing tennis for the rest of your time spent on court.
The reality is this – we make mistakes because the game of tennis and its rules are designed in a way that human beings (in other words, our cerebellum) cannot control them.
In the same way that in basketball one cannot always hit the hoop, so a human being cannot always play the ball into a tennis court – even though it seems he could.
The reality stands firm in its fact – everyone misses, and everyone will keep missing. Therefore, why do you get upset when you miss?
Your expectations are obviously not aligned with reality, and reality always wins.
Fighting this battle with reality is futile, and it only causes you emotional pain.
See mistakes as part of tennis, and don’t take them so personally.
It is only a matter of time before you miss again. It is just the statistics of tennis.
Focus on how well you’re hitting the ball when it goes in and give much less attention to mistakes.
I personally am very sad to see almost everyone so negative on a tennis court, while so many people have fun playing basketball or beach volleyball or any other recreational sport.
Why can’t tennis players be the same?
Please take a few minutes to ponder on the logic I tried to present in this post and videos. Then look at your beliefs and expectations and determine whether you can adjust them to better fit the reality of tennis.
If you do, you’ll find the game of tennis to be pure joy. I do.