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Decision Making in Tennis

By Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc. M.Sc.(Hons) B.Ed.

Importance of Decision Making in Tennis

Tennis is a game of decisions - all throughout the match a player is making decisions which affect the outcome of the game. Some of these decisions are made consciously .... for example :

Do I serve the ball to his backhand or forehand?;

Do I chip and charge or stay back?;

Do I go for a winner or play it safe?

However, many of the most important and significant decisions are not made consciously at all, and many players are totally unaware of the pre-programmed patterns of decision making that are limiting their performance.

In this article I take a look at some of the conscious and unconscious decisions players make, and make some suggestions for improving both conscious and unconscious decision making to improve YOUR game.

Three Important Decisions

It's crucial to understand that both as tennis players, and as ordinary human beings, we all are making decisions about three things which affect us enormously :

decisions about focus; decisions about what things mean; and decisions about what to do right now.

At every instant you're making a decision about what to focus your attention upon, then once your attention is focused on a particular event or set of circumstances the next decision you make is "What does this mean? Is it good, bad or unimportant either way?" This is then followed by the decision about "What do I do now?".

Let's consider an example. The first decision, "What do I focus on?", most people readily understand and appreciate it's importance on the surface.

At each moment, what you decide to pay attention to, and what you decide to focus your thinking on, affects how you feel, and what you do. A person who is focused on watching the ball is obviously going to perform more consistently than another player thinking about someone watching them from the grandstand, or who's mind is on their hot date after the game!

The best players in any sport have learned how to manage this crucial triple decision making process to get the best out of themselves.

However let's probe a little deeper into this process. Consider another example. It's five games all on your serve, and after leading 40 : 0, you double fault twice, and then two scorching unplayable returns from your opponent puts them into advantage with the potential to break your serve, and potentially be serving for the set.

However, you've been serving well so far all match and so walk up confidently, and serve what appears to be a clear ace - only to have it called a fault by the linesperson.

Now ...... what you decide to focus your attention on at that moment determines how you feel and how you perform!

What do many people choose to focus on in such an instance? The injustice of the call, perhaps thinking things like: "There goes the first set now"; or "I hate having to depend on my second serve under pressure; I never play it well."; or "I always play poorly near the end of a game"; or even "There goes this match"! Or perhaps their attention gets captured by thoughts of "I should have ........ in the previous game I should have put away that easy volley, and I would be the one putting pressure on them now", or "I should have served to his backhand like I was going to" ..... etc. etc.

In order to do better at something, it's useful to ask the question, "What do the top people focus on at any point in time, and in particular circumstances?". In this instance, invariably champion players focus on their strongly desired goal, and committed standard of performance. They choose to focus their attention on the excellent serves they have done in the game already, and on previous good serves from situations similar to this, and imagine successfully serving a strong second serve and winning the point - rather than dwelling on the misfortune of the poor line call.

Your Consistent Focus is What is Important

I like to suggest that we human beings are a lot like guided missiles - we move toward whatever we regularly and consistently focus on and picture in our imagination and thoughts, with feeling.

It's not what you think about occasionally that's important, but what you're consistently and regularly focusing your attention upon that influences your life, and performance .

Think for a minute about when you were a child - didn't you imagine yourself playing tennis as you watched your heroes play on TV, and think to yourself, "I'm going to do that!" Likewise, we first imagine ourselves into every new job, relationship, activity and performance, before we do it in reality.

So realise that your decisions about what you focus your attention upon are directing your life.

Ask your self, right now, "What have I been thinking about most today, and this week? What has my focus been upon? What have I spent most of my time thinking about?"

It's interesting to note that for many people, their focus is often on what otherpeople are doing : the latest office gossip; which celebrities have been sleeping with whom; the racing form; or details of the recent performances of their favourite sports stars.

Champions tend to be much more concerned with themselvesand their life to focus for too long on other people.

Every thought has one of only two consequences - it either moves you closer to your dreams, or it takes you further away. There are no other choices, and no 'idle' thoughts! What you decide to focus upon and think about moves you in that direction.

However, many people allow their focus to be distracted and controlled by other people and events, rather than being directed by their own dreams and desires.

For many people, life is like a river, and they're just floating along with the current - current fashions and fads, current events and current problems. The trouble is that sometimes that current can smash you into the rocks or over the waterfall - so it's a good idea to have a direction in mind for where you want to go, and regularly and consistently focus your thinking on that.

Directing Your Focus

What this means in practice is to develop the discipline to consistently focus your attention and thinking on what you want.

For many people, thoughts are things that happen to them - I hear it all the time! "I can't help it; I always do it" they say, as if someone else was actually putting the thoughts in their head! That's garbage!

No-one is in charge of your thinking but you; no-one but you directs your thoughts, so quit whingeing and bitching or making excuses - and learn to discipline your mind!

All mental training MUST begin with the discipline of training your focus, and realising that YOU control and direct your thoughts. Thinking positively doesn't always guarantee success, but when has thinking negatively ever done you any good?


Thoughts are essentially decisions you're making - each moment, you make decisions about what to focus your attention upon, and once you focus your attention, you then make a decision about what a particular thing or event means to you. For every event in your life, in order to understand and respond to it, you have to give a meaning to it. The important thing to realise is that these meanings are arbitrary - the meanings you give to events become the meanings of these events for you.

There is nothing that is inherently 'good' or 'bad' - it all depends on what you choose to make of it. A wonderful example of this was given by Denis Waitley in his New Dynamics of Winningaudio tape, in which he tells the story of running late for an airline flight, and arriving just as they closed the flight. Despite his angry demands and pleas to the staff at the airport to hold the plane and let him on, they refuse. He decides to make a complaint to the management, and while he is waiting to do so, the news comes that the plane has crashed on take-off, killing everyone on board.

What was seen by him just a few moments ago as something to get angry and complain about, suddenly in an instant becomes something he is incredibly grateful for. I'm sure you can think of similar situations that have happened to you, in which something happened that you initially judged negatively, but which actually turned out to be to your benefit?

Of course, this doesn't mean that we decide to just blindly accept anything and everything that happens to us as 'good', and have no sense of discrimination, and no

For me, having a strong positive mental attitude is a process of deliberately looking for solutions - the good in any situation, while holding an expectation for the best.

Nor is a positive mental attitude just affirming positive things to yourself - it's mostly about how you handle the setbacks, defeats, challenges, and downright failures that happen to us all. Anyone can be positive and confident when things are going well, but only someone with a truly positive mental attitude can walk off the playing field after a loss, or poorer than expected performance, with their head held high thinking about the positive aspects of their performance, and what they will do over the coming weeks to turn things around.

Also pay attention to the kinds of questions you're asking yourself - use questions that seek solutions rather than dissect problems. " How can I achieve X and enjoy the process?" is far more useful than " Why is this happening?", or "What am I doing wrong?"

In the next issue I will discuss the other two, less conscious, decision making processes that influence your confidence, self belief and performance consistency.

In the next issue I will discuss the other two, less conscious, decision making processes that influence your confidence, self belief and performance consistency.

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed "Sportsmind - An Athlete's Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training" and "Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings"; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph's College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
email : This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
website :

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