Confidence in Tennis – Expert Analysis of Rafael Nadal’s Breakdown

Learn how mental confidence in tennis has impacted Nadal's game and how to overcome your own challenges on the court from a leading mental tennis expert.

Allen Fox

Dr. Fox earned a Ph.D. in psychology at UCLA and is a former NCAA champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a 3-time member of the US Davis Cup team. He also coached Pepperdine tennis to 2 NCAA finals.

I have been reading about Nadal’s recent loss of confidence. He says his game and physicality are OK, but he is getting concerned about being more nervous in matches and on big points than he used to be. (I don’t blame him. He used to hit shots with his unorthodox forehand that were nothing short of miraculous and required confidence of the highest order.) And because of it, he has been taking some bad losses.

Since I have I’ve seen this syndrome with other great players, I began analyzing the situation as follows. There appear to be two different kinds of confidence:

Basic Confidence

It’s a trait of those few, gifted individuals that are either born with it or get it somehow in their early life. (Most of us don’t have to be concerned with this type of confidence, but it is interesting to watch those that have it.) These geniuses just, at some deep, primal level, feel they are going to win. And this even persists in the face of some losses, and it enables them to win the vast majority of their matches, particularly the tight ones, because they come through on the majority of big points, especially in the important tournaments. And it lasts for years.

You can see it as young players burst on the scene early: Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras, etc. They have “it” and win “Slam” events at their first opportunity.

Acquired Confidence

This is the kind most of us have, and it is earned through successful performances. It comes and goes, depending on our wins and losses. It’s streaky – we all start to build confidence when we get a few wins, and, unfortunately, we all start to lose it when we take a few losses. This is unlike the basic type of confidence, which seems resistant to losses (at least for awhile) and underlies and drives performance over a longer period of time. Players can still become champions with acquired confidence, but it is not so immediate, usually takes extraordinary work, and requires players to deliberately strive to control their emotions.

Examples are players like Ivan Lendl, Stephan Edberg, Martina Navratilova, and Andy Murray.

Basic Confidence Breakdowns

Interestingly, the players with basic confidence often find that it breaks down later in their careers. At some point it dissipates, and then they suffer from shaky nerves just like the rest of us. It is somewhat counter-intuitive. Most of us would think that these great champions, having already won so many tournaments and major events, would not feel so much pressure later in their careers. After all, they have already proved themselves, and the additional tournament wins would just be gravy anyway.

But it isn’t so. At some stage in their careers, the great champions, the ones with “it,” begin to perform like the players with acquired confidence. Instead of being confident all the time, their confidence comes and goes and is dependent on performance. They have good streaks and bad streaks, and suffer from shaky nerves that must be controlled, just like the players that lacked basic confidence to begin with. Pancho Segura once told me, “Kid, when you get older the first thing to go is your eyes. Then, your nerves!”

I suspect this happens to the champions because of some small, maybe even imperceptible, decrease in physical ability that occurs with age or injury. It also might start with an extended layoff. In any case, instead of the magic they could always count on, they surprise themselves by missing a few shots that they used to routinely make. It must cause a bit of an emotional shock, and then episodes of uncertainty and fear begin to raise their ugly heads.

You have seen it in Federer’s career. He held match points against Djokovic at the US Open two years in a row (2010 and 2011), got wobbly, and lost both matches. He has even admitted in interviews in recent years that he misses on a lot on break points. (Don’t we all, but Roger, with 17 Slams to his credit?) And now it’s starting to happen with Nadal. (You can even see it happen to the greats in other sports, such as with Tiger Woods.) The nerves go, and it must be quite disturbing to the champions with “it,” who, unlike the rest of us, have never before had to deal with this level of fear and shaky hands.

But even though these gifted players may lose some of their basic confidence and the effortless abilities they used to have to raise their games on big points, they can still win majors. But they must get on a hot streak or a roll. Sampras did it late in his career, and Nadal and Federer may do it tomorrow. (Unfortunately for them, Djokovic has gotten so darn good at the moment that he will need to be disposed of in some way – a weird upset; an injury; etc.)


The Cyclical Nature of Confidence in Tennis

Confidence is cyclical and tends to build on itself because it comes largely from winning. It is an unconscious expectation of success, and since most of our expectations come from past experience, winning in the past makes us expect to win in the future. Of course it is circular in that confidence helps you win and winning makes you confident, but this explains why confidence tends to be cyclical. When you win you become more confident, you play better, and your results cycle upward.

But eventually the streak ends. Maybe a poor night’s sleep, a bad diet, a loss of motivation, or just random human variability causes you to take some losses. In any case something changes, you lose; your confidence slips; and your results cycle downward.

This cycle will repeat itself many times during your tennis lifetime, and it is useful to remember this when you are taking losses and your confidence is deteriorating. It gives you realistic hope because the long view tells you that there is nothing terribly wrong with your game and that the upward turn will eventually come.

The Impact of Confidence for Pros on the ATP Tour

Vince Spadea’s professional career provided a dramatic example. After reaching a career high ATP world ranking of #19 in 1999, he began taking losses – lots of them – as his confidence sank to unprecedented depths, highlighted by a record-breaking 21 straight first-round tournament defeats! And his ranking fell to #233. But Spadea is a tough guy, and he took the long view. He continued to work on his game; he played some minor-league Challenger tournaments to get confidence-building wins; and though it took a long time, he ultimately clawed his way back to a career-high ATP ranking of #18 in 2005.

Temporary confidence “hot streaks” also play out on the pro tour. Here players get some wins, make sudden moves upward, and start to look like “the next great thing” only to falter and slide back into the pack. Marcos Bagdhatis burst on the scene like this in 2006. He was unseeded in the Australian Championship but reached the final and even blew out Roger Federer for a set before reality set in.

Petra Kvitova looked on the verge of becoming a dominant player when, at Wimbledon in 2011, she dismissed Maria Sharapova in the final in straight sets. Unfortunately for Petra, that magical week has not yet recurred. But the positive take-away from these examples is that just as hot streaks eventually dissipate, so do slumps.

How Recreational and Competitive Players Overcome Low Confidence

As for the rest of us, when we suffer those inevitable periods of low confidence, we will not be content to passively sit back and wait for it to return. Fortunately there are steps you can take to speed things up.

You will need to replace the missing confidence with emotional discipline.

This is because when you are unconfident you will tend to become angry or discouraged more quickly and choke more often than usual. Knowing this and recognizing that the confidence process is cyclical, your objective should be to avoid self-destructing while you rehabilitate yourself in the following ways:

  1. Be more determined, before you walk on court, to remain emotionally stable and controlled regardless of what happens during your match. Don’t wait until the match starts to make this decision because your amped-up emotions will make your judgment unreliable.
  2. Play high-percentage tennis. This means you should be prepared to work the points longer and grind your opponents down rather than trying to blow them out quickly. Get more of your first serves in play, and hit more crosscourts rather than going for aces or quick down-the-line winners.
  3. Have a strategy of attrition in the back of your mind. Be determined to outlast your opponent mentally by conserving your own emotional energy while draining the mental strength of your opponent with long, tough points and a minimum of errors. Yes, this is hard work, and you are more dependent on your opponent’s errors and weaknesses than you might like. But it’s better than forcing your game to function above its comfort level, “hitting and hoping,” missing, and losing.
  4. Play easier opponents to get some wins and allow your game to stabilize when it is not under high pressure.
  5. Reduce your focus on winning by concentrating on getting into position early, staying relaxed, watching the ball, and enjoying the competitive experience.
  6. Spend some additional time on the practice court working on fundamentals.

Doing this will at least keep your game functional, and it will give you a chance to get those few wins that are crucial to turning things around and starting your level of confidence on the upswing.

Case Study – How Strokes Can Get Better While the Game Gets Worse

Confidence plays an enormous role in competitive performance. In the short run it has a more powerful effect on execution than strategy or even work on the practice court. For example, I was consulting with a 15-year old tournament player (I’ll call her Sandra) who was terribly upset with her tournament results. She was attending a high-powered tennis academy, practicing four hours a day, spending time in the gym and on the track, and yet her results and ranking had gotten worse over the past three months. Sandra was discouraged because, she said, “All the practice and physical training has done nothing but make me worse!” How is this possible?

Of course the problem is confidence. Sandra’s game was not getting worse. In fact, it was probably getting better, but her improvement was masked by a drop in confidence and her results reflected it. As with us all, the basic skill level of Sandra’s game is a function of habit strength. Her simple ability to hit forehands and backhands is largely determined by how many of each she has hit properly in practice. (Habit strength is a function of number of repetitions.) Since she had hit more of these at the end of the three months than at the beginning, her habits were necessarily stronger. Unfortunately, her confidence was weaker, and it affected her performance far more than short-term improvement in strokes.

Was I able to cure her lack of confidence? No, only winning does that. But by gaining perspective she was able to reduce her immediate stress and pain. She became more hopeful, emotionally controlled, and productive. About a month later, as it always does, the situation turned around. She got a couple of wins, started to feel better, built on this, and finished the year with a substantially improved ranking and outlook.

Confidence can make a 10% to 15% difference in performance. (I’m just guessing.) On the other hand, let’s see how much stroke improvement we can expect with three months of practice. Assume Sandra hits 500 forehands per day, six days a week, for 13 weeks. That is a total of 39,000. But Sandra has been playing since she was 8 years old. Assume she had hit only 300 forehands a day, six days a week for the previous seven years. That is a total of 655,200 forehands. The three months additional practice would have added only 6% to the total number of repetitions, an improvement easily swamped by a 15% performance decrement due to confidence. (This assumes that the increase in habit strength is linear with respect to repetitions. My guess is that it isn’t, and that the additional repetitions increase habit strength less than did the earlier ones.)

There were a number of positive conclusions for Sandra here. The first is that her game was improving with practice, even though she couldn’t see it at the moment. This gave her incentive to continue practicing because she understood that more repetitions necessarily made the strokes themselves better.

Replace confidence with discipline.


September 1, 2015