The Realities of a Great Sport: You Can’t Always Win (October 2014 )

Posted on: October 2, 2011 |
Tags: competition, Elite Tennis, Professional Tennis, spain, sports science, Tennis Academy, Tennis Academy Spain

I would like to thank James Cluskey (Irish Davis Cup Player) for sending me a quote he read in Roy Keanes Autobiography from his Sports Psychologist Bill Beswick, as it has helped label some of the strong thoughts I have had on this subject for a long time.

Let me share the quote with you first and then I will look to show some specific examples of this within the tennis world. I hope the examples and objective data provided will help some of you understand your own thoughts and feelings which can only be a step in the right direction in making some progress with how you control these emotions.

“Sport is all about disappointment. It’s about dealing with the disappointments. It’s not the highs. There are so few of them. It’s the defeats, the injuries. Great careers carry massive disappointments. It’s how you cope with them. You have to look forward, home in on the positives. Take the positive out of every negative. Look to the next game”

This may sound a little bit pessimistic, but I can assure you it is realistic. Maybe I can give a little insight that may give you a different perspective.

Let’s take Roger Federer- I have chosen RF as some would argue (including myself) that he is the greatest Male Tennis Player of all time. He has 17 Grand Slam victories to his name and has won 81 Career Titles. If anyone in the sport of tennis doesn’t have to deal with disappointment it’s him, right?  RF has had to deal with losing in 73.6% of weeks that he plays a tournament throughout his career. Out of the 306 tournaments, he has played on the ATP Tour he has lost in 225 of them! In simple terms, Roger Federer has averaged losing in 3 out of 4 tournaments that he has played throughout his career.

When we break this down even further it is what makes tennis a stand out ‘difficult’ sport when it comes to ‘dealing with disappointment’. Within every match, we lose almost as many points as we win. To give an example of this: In the 2008 Wimbledon Final between Federer and Nadal, it was 188 points to 187 points in Nadal’s favor. He had just won Wimbledon yet had to deal with the emotion of losing a point on 187 occasions within the 4 hours and 48 minutes that they competed. When we then think about how we feel when we make a mistake or we lose a point and we think about the reactions we see up and down the country to losing a point from the racket bangs to the head hangs, to the groans and the moans and the whinges. Is this sustainable emotionally? Do Rafa and Roger feel the same pain? Of course, they do, they are winners, they hate the feeling of losing, but they know it is part and parcel of the game. They have learned how to ‘cope with them’.

To bring home the realities of this in our sport I would like to share a few facts and figures:

-During every Grand Slam Main Draw, 127 players lose during the tournament

-During every Futures MD event- 16 lose on the first day and 31 lose every week

-Roger Federer lost EVERY week bar one that he competed in 2013

-Tobia Kamke ranked 93 in the world has won 11 matches and lost 23 matches during 2014

-Donald Young ranked 69 in the world has won 23 matches and lost 29 matches in 2014 AND his ranking has significantly increased throughout 2014! He has had a good year!

-Francesca Schiavone (and Former French Open Winner) currently ranked 83 in the world. She has dealt with losing 27 times on the tour this year whilst only winning 22 matches.

And don’t forget, not only are they losing matches, they are dealing with ‘losing’ often over 100 times within each match! So how do we typically see junior tennis players deal with the natural disappointments of the sport and how can we help them to ‘cope’ with these disappointments better? What we see in the large proportion of players is the extreme reaction to losing points and losing matches.

Losing points

Racket banging, moaning, groaning, shouting as mentioned before…the list goes on. These are all behaviors seen on the surface, the more destructive work happens on the inside. The negative thoughts: ‘Why bother playing?’ ‘Give up’ ‘what is the point’  and even worse players building up or even down a career with one shot, one point, one match. ‘If I can’t beat this girl how am I ever going to play at Wimbledon?’ We can’t perform to our capabilities with these thoughts at the forefront of our mind. These thoughts paralyze us. They lead players to feel ‘demotivated’ and in turn, effort/application drops. It feels easier to deal with the pain that way. It is not…

Losing matches

All players react differently and we see many different reactions from comfort eating to silence to punishing ourselves with physical activity. The key issue being IF you do have an extreme reaction to a loss it shows that you do not have a ‘tolerance for failure’. This needs to be built up over time.

This then leads to often 2-3 days of ‘mood’ whilst we get over the loss and in the meantime, we are wasting valuable practice/preparation time for the next event. We then build up the next tournament in our heads and can’t bear that feeling of ‘losing’ so play another tight match and the cycle continues….

So how do we help players to ‘cope’ with disappointment and break this cycle? How can we help speed up this process? (Remember there is no magic wand here, just dedication and hard work in the correct environment)



This is important for parents and players alike (I hope a blog such as this can have an impact).  It is important that players know this is a normal feeling…a natural feeling. We are not made to enjoy disappointment. We have to learn the coping skills as we go, it will not happen overnight as you won’t be hitting BH returns like myself overnight- it takes time, effort, energy and commitment day in day out and as ever there will be difficult times along the journey.


This can come from the environment that you are in…

Support Team (Parents play a big role in this)

Players you are around.

What do you reward? I would suggest rewarding effort and attitude instead of rewarding winning. First questions after a player come off the court: Did you have fun? Did you work hard? How was your “x” process goal’?

What we are after in our players?

Philosophical View- I love Rafa Nadal’s saying: “Play the game like it’s the most important thing in the world, but… Understand it is not”

We want players to fight and fight as hard as they can, but at the same time, we want players to understand that there is more to life than tennis. We want players to understand that tennis is an amazing vehicle in life that will provide life opportunities, friendships, and skills. These thoughts can not only soften the blow of the inevitable disappointment but will also allow our mind to stay clear whilst in the heat of the battle, therefore, reducing the amount that we are to be disappointed…Otherwise known as winning!

Control the Controllables

If you can measure success in terms of doing everything in your control with unconditional effort then you retain ownership of your success. As long as you are doing everything in your control you cannot fail to have success in this life.

This way of thinking may help you get over the disappointments a little easier…

Good luck!

Control the Controllable’s

Dan Kiernan

Director, SotoTennis Academy

Inspiring Excellence | Tennis Academy Spain

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