What is confidence?
Put simply, it is a particular internal state that enables us to make maximum use of one’s potential, or even go beyond that potential. Three main mechanisms participate in the building of self-confidence:
First, there is the process of accumulation.
This is a chain reaction that requires feelings of success to function. It is this series of successes, first during practice sessions and then in matches that enables the tennis player to develop his self-confidence. The tennis player knows he can count on his shots and on his physical condition. He knows he can win points, matches and tournaments. Confidence by accumulation requires continued success to work. It demands results that are tangible to develop.
A few years ago, Andre Agassi was in search of his lost confidence. He recharged his batteries by winning matches in lower rung tournaments. A place in the final of the Las Vegas tournament in early November, immediately followed by a victory in Burbank, California, got things going again for him. His results in the early part of the following year were indicative of his increase in confidence: a place in the 4th round of the Australian Open, a victory in Scottsdale, a second victory in San Jose (this time over Pete Sampras), a quarter-final showing in Indian Wells and a place in the final of the Lipton Championships at Key Biscayne.
Accumulation of Successes ➯ Confidence
Second, there is the process of revelation. This can occur after a significant success in which the emotional intensity reaches such a level that it gives the tennis player a very strong feeling of confidence. From that point in time, the tennis player will start to approach each match in a very positive way.
In Patrick Rafter’s case, his Davis Cup match against Pioline in February 1997 was a real eye-opener. Down two sets to love, he recovered to win the match and thus give his country a decisive point. He was then ranked number 63 in the world. His 1997 results? A semi-final at the French Open, a victory at the US Open and a career high ranking of number two (that he went on to improve to number one in 1999).
Success +++ ➯ Confidence
On the other hand, a revelation can also occur after a negative experience of high intensity that triggers a feeling of pride, as long as the tennis player has the minimum potential to succeed.
In 1998, Nicolas Escudé, ranked 406th in the world at the start of 1997, said that the successes of players like Kuerten, Rios, and Costa, whom he used to beat when he was 16, had made him suddenly realise what his true potential was. After the 1998 Australian Open, his coach Tarik Benhabiles, described the event that triggered this realisation by Escudé: ‘He had every chance of succeeding. He only needed that little extra something to realise what he was capable of doing. That happened about a year ago while he was playing a satellite tournament in Montrouge. He had just lost to Olivier Malcor (then ranked -30). He was shattered, he had hit rock bottom. After the match, we spent four and a half hours working really hard on the court. In his head, the defeat was history’.
A comparison of the Nicolas Escudé who was playing and losing the Montrouge satellite tournament in February 1997 and the Nicolas Escudé who reached the semi-final at the 1998 Australian Open, had seen barely a year go by. Technically speaking, it is unlikely his game underwent any major changes in such a short period of time. How can we then explain this turnaround? The difference lies elsewhere: it lies inside the tennis player. The French tennis player started to build his confidence. The comparison of his poor results at the beginning of 1997 (up to his defeat in Montrouge) with the brilliant results of the tennis players he used to beat when he was 16 acted as a stimulus to his confidence. All of a sudden, he decided to believe in himself!
Initial Success + Defeat ➯ Confidence
Third, there is the process of the fundamental positive faith. This can be described as an unconditional and intrinsic self-confidence. This type of self-confidence does not require any external motivators to show itself. The tennis player has blind faith in himself, whatever his results may be. His confidence appears to be indestructible and permanent. He has absolute faith in his potential. The tennis player uses this fundamental positive faith to succeed. It dictates day after day his decisions, his training methods and his behaviour on the tennis court.
Venus Williams is undoubtedly the tennis player that best epitomises this fundamental positive faith. She is firmly convinced that she will be the number one tennis player in the world. She said it when she first appeared on the WTA tour and has kept saying it ever since. But most importantly, she keeps saying it to herself. She fundamentally believes in herself, her talent and her potential. With her recent victories back-to-back at Wimbledon and at the US Open it is clear that such faith is bearing considerable fruit. In her case, confidence does not come from success.
In fact, it is to the contrary and it is this feature that distinguishes her confidence from that which has been previously presented.
Faith +++ ➱ Confidence ➱ Success
Here are five efficient ways to build, develop and maintain self-confidence:
1. Use self-persuasion at all times (especially when in doubt).
For instance, decide on a positive belief on your serve or return of serve. And then repeat it to yourself time and time again, like a leitmotif, things like: ‘My serve is my real strength’, or ‘My return of serve is my real strength’. This positive assertion will have a positive influence on your training methods and on the way you approach your shots during match play.
2. Follow a thorough physical, technical and tactical training program.
A well-trained tennis player will develop tremendous confidence. He knows that he can count on himself and have faith in himself during tennis match play.
3. Memorise experiences of success.
The tennis player should memorise each shot that he performs well during practice. This may well be the first link in the confidence chain. Each point that a tennis player wins in a match, each victory, especially in difficult conditions, should also be memorised. To do so, the tennis player can use the following four methods:
a. Use positive self-talk after each significant success (e.g. ‘come on!’). You can also say the word aloud.
b. Use rituals after each significant success (e.g., clench your fist).
c. Take a ‘mental picture’ of the success you have just experienced.
d. Develop post-match routines: in a notebook write down all of the significant successes that you have experienced in the match in order to implant them in your memory. Whenever a tennis player is in doubt, these words, rituals, mental images, or a quick look at the notebook will help him to rapidly reactivate his feeling of confidence.
4. Recognise negative signs and reactions.
The following are signs are indicative of a tennis player in doubt:
• Negative self-talk (‘I stink’).
• Negative body language: head, eyes, racket and shoulders down, rapid breathing, physically lethargic, etc.
• Continuous mental images of missed shots, lost matches, etc.
As soon as a negative sign appears, it is important to realise that you are experiencing doubts to help put things into perspective. You then have to chase away all the negative thoughts by switching back to positive statements or beliefs. To do so, you need to activate the positive aspects of your performances that you have memorised (refer to 3.). Following a defeat or a match that you have won by playing badly it is similarly important to get into the habit of writing down on a flyer, objectively and as soon as possible, the things that did not work. Then, you must try to learn from your mistakes to avoid repeating them. Write down in your notebook the new positive attitude that you need to develop in the future and get rid of the flyer. This is an excellent way to learn from your mistakes in a positive way while simultaneously extinguishing any self-doubts. Finish this routine by once again reading your list of past successes to further re-affirm your positive thoughts.
If I had confidence in myself, how would I feel? What would my attitude be like? How would I walk? The trick is to reproduce the stance (head up, eyes looking straight ahead, shoulders back and broad), the gestures (confident steps, sure movements), the respiratory rhythm and amplitude, as well as the muscular tone that epitomise self-confidence. You need to identify yourself with the character that you want to be: a tennis player who believes in himself. It is always surprising to see how quickly and efficiently this technique works in match play!