Developing the Killer Instinct
Dr. John Murray
Last month we examined the harmful emotion of fear in tennis and
offered suggestions to eliminate choking (See November 1996 Article).
An equally dangerous mental state often arises in the absence of
fear, when the player is in total command of the match and on the
verge of victory.
Many competitors fail to realize that being close to an easy victory
is actually one of the most vulnerable situations in the game. There
is little additional perceived gain by winning (meets expectations),
whereas losing can appear quite traumatic (far below expectations).
Even slight self-satisfaction on the part of the leader combined with
the gritty determination of a wounded opponent can change the match
dramatically. If negative thoughts and fears of choking also intrude,
expect a major turnaround.
Players at all levels have experienced the agony and frustration of
failing to put the match away. Who can forget Todd Martin's
Wimbledon vanishing act after being up 5-1 in the final set against
Mal Washington? Applaud Washington's comeback, but Todd must have
been scratching his head for weeks!
With a big lead, it is important to know how to win. The mental
skills needed to close out a match need to be understood, practiced
and refined over and over. With these skills firmly in place, the
player will have developed the killer instinct!
Here are a few tips to help you develop the killer instinct:
In sum, it takes a precise combination of mental skills and practice
to consistently close out matches that should be won. Don't wait
for your opponent's next dramatic comeback to realize this truth.
Invest in Sport Psychology and prosper! See you next month...
- Never become comfortable with a lead. There are no guarantees
for victory. Games are often won and lost in streaks, so you must
always be wary of your opponent's ability to rally.
- When you have a commanding lead, play mental games with yourself
to avoid a letdown. Pretend that you are really several games behind
and need a complete effort to even remain in the match.
- Decreased arousal is often associated with a letdown. If you
find your energy level slipping or begin to lose interest in the
match, fire yourself back up to an optimal arousal level (See
September 1995 Article on Arousal).
- Overconfidence is another major trap leading to reduced effort
and performance (See January 1996 Article on Confidence). Find the
right mixture of poise and modesty.
- Avoid thinking about or discussing the final score or your next
opponent. Stay completely focused on the present and eliminate all
other distractions (See November 1995 Article on Attentional
- Keep the pressure on the opponent by playing well with a big lead
rather than just doing what it takes to win. Your goal should be to
convince your opponent that they have absolutely no chance of coming
Mental Equipment Archive
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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.
Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.