Do You Believe?

What is the difference between professional players ranked day 5-10 and those ranked 15-20? I would argue (putting aside thebrain top four or five players in the world) that their skill levels are mostly the same; but the difference in results — therefore rankings — lies between their ears.

Rick Flach Disagrees

We had a “lively discussion” one lunch at Goldie’s in Naples after tennis with Spike’s group; and Rick contends, “You can play with more confidence than me… Play ‘smarter’ than me … But if I am better than you, I will beat you every time!”

I couldn’t disagree more — and told him so. I think a lower skilled and lower ranked player can “play over his head,” if on that day, he has extreme belief in his strokes and, therefore swings fluidly and with confidence.

I also think that there is always something you can do on the court to play smarter and …

• Minimize your opponent’s strength
• Take advantage of any weakness he may have
• Or, maximize your strengths against his game

During the TV broadcast of the women’s finals, Chris Evert said, “Li Na needs to play with confidence and belief in her game, in order to have a chance to beat Serena.”

And I had this same discussion with several people at camp, with some interesting and varying opinions… Almost all the ‘campers’ felt that the mental came COULD make a difference in the outcome of a close match; but Marty Reissen agreed with Rick that the better player would prevail.

So, how about you, Do You Believe?

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9 thoughts on “Do You Believe?

  1. HECK YEA, I believe!!!

    I know I’ve beaten better players many a time, because I didn’t let their obvious better strokes/game impress/intimidate me.

    I’ve lost to better players many times because I DID let their beautiful looking strokes, crisp volleys and fancy tennis bag intimitdate me.

    Attitude is EVERYTHING….so pick a good one 🙂

    Just my humble opinion.


  2. I think there is circle of players with similar abilities that attitude will make a difference. But you cannot overcome the best players with it.

    Bill – those are the matches (the ones with guys who are just a little bit better than you) are the ones that i believe can be impacted by belief and smarts! tks, george

  3. This is a fantastic topic, George. Addressing it requires a ton of nuance, starting with a keen look at the various players involved. No player exists as better than another in a vacuum — and it’s also a question of how much better one is than another.

    In one sense, terms like “confidence” and “belief” are mere words. What matters most: skills — and how we build and harness them. I agree completely that there is always a way to alter the flow of a match — that is, to attempt a tactic that could disrupt one player.

    But again, the real key is in skill development. Sure, in a match you might realize it’s best to start the chip-charge, or hit big topspin. But the more you hone that skill prior to the match, the more likely it is to truly work. Yes, I admire fighters who seek to make adjustments mid-match. But I much more admire people who pay the price for weeks and months enhancing skills. It’s clear, for example, that Li Na is looking to add dimensions to her game and that she’s working on that practice and attempting to apply in matches.

    What’s sad at the recreational level is how little energy players put in to enhancing skills — both strengths and weaknesses. As long as that doesn’t happen, one player will indeed often beat another.

    P.S. — With pros this is tricky, as their skills are so well-possessed. Recreational players by dint of being recreational players can pretty much all be had — that is, so long as the underdog is willing to put in the time (which could take years) to improve.

    Joel – (as i do every day) i agree with the value of working hard off the court; but what do you think about the “confidence” aspect? george

  4. Absolutely George! It’s not often but when one is 100%, feeling relaxed upbeat, confident, , etc. Your total body moves with fluidity and ease and you feel you cannot be beat.

  5. Even a better player can experience a bad day; couple that with all the aforementioned and the lesser player can come out a winner.

    Gary – “On any given Sunday…” (eg the Jets beating the Patriots). george

  6. Interesting topic George. My personal belief is that at the club level anything can happen for a better player to lose to a less talented opponent…nerves, luck or just a good day. What also plays a part is if the better player doesn’t play down often and is thrown off by slower or looper shots…it can happen to anyone. At the pro level it is less likely an outcome and I think that’s why most of the pros disagree…all too often we have seen lower ranked players storm out in a match, hitting great shots, making very few errors and still come up short against a higher ranked opponent…there are upsets to be sure, but overall the more talented player usually wins at that level.

    Paul – i agree, the differences are much more exaggerated at the club level. tks, george

  7. Let’s set some boundaries with an extreme hypothetical: I think we all would agree that, all other things being equal, no one could reasonably maintain that a touring pro would ever lose a singles match to a 3.0 level recreational player, no matter how confident the recreational player may be in his or her game. Therefore, no one could reasonably dispute that there IS a limit to how far confidence and self-belief can take a person in the game and it IS true as a fundamental proposition that, at a certain difference in levels of skill between players the better player is ALWAYS going to win.

    So it is not a question of yes or no; it is a question of degree. Stated differently, how close do the two players have to be in levels of skill and talent, and how different do they have to be in their respective confidence and self-belief levels for the weaker player to have a legitimate chance of overcoming the stronger player?

    Marty – i think you are right on… there is probably a .5 difference in skill level where confidence and smarts can make a difference. Beyond that, skill wins. tks, george

    I would submit that there is no easy answer to this. However, from personal experience, I think it is true that, as between two players who are not excessively mismatched in terms of skill level, a certain degree of confidence is important, even essential, to winning matches. If you have that confidence on any given day, then you maximize your chances of winning, even if you are playing a so-called “better” player. Conversely, if you are the “better” player yourself, but for whatever reason you are not feeling confident on a particular day but the “weaker” player does have that self-belief, then there is a reasonable chance the weaker player is going to win.

    In fact, it happens all the time. Take two 4.5 level players who always play each other very close and who swap wins back and forth each time they play. What accounts for this? Probably a lot of things, like who got more sleep that night, who ate a better breakfast or didn’t eat breakfast at all, who went out the night before and woke up with a hangover, who may be coming down with a cold, who has a nagging injury, etc. But certainly, if one of these hypothetically close 4.5 players happens to be feeling particularly confident in his strokes and game that day relative to the other player, I don’t think it can be disputed that the self-belief factor will also give that player an edge over the other player.

    Where the theory tends to break down, I think, is as the differences in skill levels between the players becomes wider. So, will a very self-confident 4.0 player be able to beat a not very confident 4.5 player? I think the answer is sometimes yes, as I have certainly observed this enough times with my own game not to dispute it. But I can also say from personal observation that if both the 4.5 player and the 4.0 player have equal levels of confidence, then the number of times the 4.0 player is going to win drops precipitously.

    How often will a 3.5 player who is supremely confident with his game be able to beat a 4.5 player? I am not going to say it has never happened, but in my experience even if the 4.5 player is feeling absolutely lousy about his strokes and game, it is pretty unlikely the 3.5 player is going to pull off a victory. Probably the best that can be predicted is the confidence level for the 3.5 player is going to win a few games on that basis alone and make the match a bit closer than it would otherwise have been. But if both players are truly rated accurately at their respective levels, then the 4.5 player should be able to pull out the victory 99% of the time based on his greater skill level alone.

    The list of examples could go on an on, but you get my point.

  8. George, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I was just talking with my coach last night about the Li Na match and how maintaining mental toughness in a game is so tough. One can start out with the BELIEF in the first set, but the trick is to maintain that belief throughout the match.

    My favorite book is 1927s “Power of the subconscious mind” and it talks about the process of belief and how we can get stronger mentally.

    Many thanks for this fantastic blog – I really enjoy it.

    Christine – Thanks for the book tip and the kind words. Stay focused! george

  9. Confidence is at once complicated and simple. At one level, confidence is belief based on data. If I’ve beaten someone all three or more times we’ve played, surely, yes, I likely feel that a crucial stage my reasonable execution of a shot will be enough and that they will try for more, make a bad decision, etc. I suppose that’s the kind of confidence that requires minimal homework, but instead is based on past experience.

    But to me the best confidence — whatever the heck that truly is — comes from sound preparation. Practice: appropriate and proper. Quality over quantity, focused on genuine skills required for competition. Additional preparation in the form of proper self-maintenance — diet, sleep, stretch, etc.

    And then, to me, the biggest point of confidence is not the pursuit of outcome. Of late I try to be confident not that I can win — that I can’t control. But I can control how I compete: the attitude, engagement and decision-making I bring. If I prepare properly for that, I’m confident all will go fine win or lose.

    Joel – I agree with both your analysis of confidence and your pursuit of Process over outcome. tks, george

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