Has anyone ever told you that you are an extremely talented tennis player?

If yes, how did being dubbed as super gifted make you feel?

Did it boost your confidence so you were able to compete better at important tournaments? 

Or did it trigger the kind of pressure that would make you dread matches and tournaments that could challenge your superiority?

On the other hand, what if you had no special talent? Could you still succeed as a tennis player, or even outperform “talented” tennis players?

The Growth vs Fixed Mindset Experiment

These are the kind of questions researcher and developmental psychologist, Carol Dweck wanted to explore.

Dweck was fascinated by how some children loved challenges, while others would feel terrified.

Specifically, she wanted to find if the way we praise kids would influence their resilience, so she invited over four hundred 5th graders to a 4-part test.

This is how it worked:

First, the students were divided into two groups.

They were asked to solve a very easy IQ test.

Her team praised the first  group on their abilities and intelligence by telling them things like:

Wow, you did a great job. You are so smart. 

By doing this, they would instill a fixed mindset in the kids.

The second group was praised for their effort and hard work, by telling them things like:

Wow well done, you must have worked really hard to get this right. 

This group of kids would be subjected to a growth mindset.

Next, the kids could choose to solve either an easy test, that they would easily solve, or a difficult one, that increased the chances of failure.

92% of the fixed mindset group chose an easy task. That is because they feared jeopardizing their reputation if they would fail to solve the more difficult riddle.

If they failed, it meant that they weren’t as talented after all.

In contrast, only 33% of the growth mindset group chose the easy task, and the majority of them chose the more difficult challenge, despite the higher risk of failure.

That’s because they didn’t care about being seen as talented - instead, they wanted to be seen as hard-working.

Next, all the kids were given an unsolvable puzzle.

In this phase of the experiment, it was the kids from the growth mindset group who persisted much longer and often actually seemed to enjoy their struggles, while those from the fixed mindset group gave up much quicker, often feeling frustrated and annoyed.

Finally, all the kids were given an easy riddle.

This time, the kids with the growth mindset performed around 30% better than they did when solving the first riddle, while the performance from the fixed mindset group went down by around 20%.

In other words, simply by praising kids differently resulted in a 50% difference in their performance of solving the easy riddle.

So how does this relate to tennis?

If you develop a  fixed mindset as a tennis player, you will:

  • Choose to play easier opponents and tournaments rather than harder ones, because you won’t want to lose your reputation as a “talented” tennis player. Because of this, you may have a better ranking in the short run, but you will fail to improve your game in the way you would by consistently playing opponents stronger than you.
  • Give up much quicker when playing opponents that are way better than you, and often feel frustrated and annoyed in the process. This is why you’ll rarely win matches as the underdog and have excuses for every time you lose.
  • Feel more pressure to retain your reputation as a talented tennis player, and perform worse against even the easier opponents - hence you’ll often see them as a threat, and fear losing against them.

If you develop a growth mindset as a tennis player, you will:

  • Choose to play harder opponents and tournaments more often (and therefore improve your game and increase your long term ranking)
  • Keep fighting hard, even when the odds are stacked against you, and beat more better players than you with your grit and resilience.
  • Actually enjoy your struggles and see them as challenges, which will motivate you to play and train even harder.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at how developing a growth mindset will help you improve your tennis career.

No matter what level of tennis you play, you get feedback from people around you.

In fact, it is likely that ever since you were a kid, your parents, your coaches and your friends shared their opinion about your tennis.

And based on their feedback, you will have developed your own belief system as to what is really possible for yourself.

For example, let’s assume you were predominantly praised for innate skills you will have heard things like:

Wow, you are so talented.

You are the best.

Nobody can beat you.

Over time, you will have created a belief that your tennis is based on your incredible talent.

Initially, this will have flattered you!

However, the hallmark of this kind of Fixed Mindset is that you are either born as a great tennis player, or you will never become one.

This sets up incredibly high expectations.

In fact, people around you will often be extremely disappointed whenever you lose, and that makes you feel devastated.

So what can you do to avoid losing matches you should win, disappoint people around you, and minimize the risk of being called out as an imposter?

Well, you could try and choose to play opponents that nobody expects you to beat:

For example, I once managed a world-class junior player who decided not to play any junior Grand Slams although she had all the skills to win at least one of them. Instead, she wanted to play bigger professional events where she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The problem with this strategy is that sooner or later you will be expected to win more matches, and the pressure will only become bigger the longer you wait.

Alternatively, you could carefully select tournaments so you play weaker opponents.

But even then, chances are you may face tough opponents or have a poor day, and chances are when matches get tight, you will become so nervous that you will actually start playing below your capabilities, and even lose matches you would expect to win.

In either case, you are sacrificing your joy and development of your tennis for the short term comfort of maintaining your reputation as a very skilled player.

In fact, you might do things that don’t make you feel proud, like calling a ball out even though it was in, or seeking excuses when you lose even though you know your opponent simply played better than you on that day.

Now let’s assume for a second that you were praised by your team and the people around you in practice and after matches for your effort and hard work.

You heard your coaches and parents say things like:

Well done, you played a great match, you really fought hard, point for point.

You worked so hard during this practice.

You are getting better from practice to practice.

What would change?

Over time, you will have developed a Growth Mindset that lets you believe you have limitless potential and that your goal is to continuously improve so you become the best player you can.

In this situation, you would feel compelled to play tougher tournaments without trying to avoid competitions that match your age category.

You would see tough matches as opportunities to improve and losses as valuable feedback on how you can improve.

And you would not panic when matches become tight because you would embrace those opportunities as moments that will make you a tougher competitor.

Instead, you would love playing tennis, practicing hard and pushing your own limits. 

Please note I am not saying you can’t be successful with a Fixed Mindset.

In her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck uses John McEnroe as a good example of a person who predominantly had a Fixed Mindset and still became one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

McEnroe was known for his tantrums whenever he made mistakes, and for blaming the crowd, the umpire or line judges when things didn’t go his way. 

In fact, seeking excuses is a key characteristic of a Fixed Mindset and served him to protect the appearance of being a great tennis player regardless of the outcome of a match. 

The real question is:

How great could McEnroe have been if he had more of a Growth Mindset?

And How much more would he have enjoyed his career?

As McEnroe once said himself:

I’ve never loved tennis the way I should, the way people think I should.

A key benefit of a Growth Mindset is that it allows you to constantly improve your game whilst also enjoying all the ups and downs that come with any competitive career.

One player who embraces this kind of Growth Mindset is Roger Federer, who once said:

I always questioned myself in the best of times.  Even when I was world #1 for many months in a row I would ask myself:

What can I improve?

What do I need to change?

If you don’t do anything or you just do the same thing over and over again you stay the same.

Staying the same means going backward.

It's important for me to actually hear critics.

That's what makes me a better player.

His focus has always been on improvement and not on avoiding challenges which are why at the age of 38 years he is still having such a remarkable career.

How do we develop a Growth Mindset?

Before I continue, it is important to note that every athlete has a mix of both the Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset, and our goal is to gradually increase the amount of growth mindset we have.

A gradual shift in your beliefs can transform your career, and the process can be quite simple:

All you really need to do is make sure you are exposed to people who praise your efforts and our hard work and give you honest feedback with regards to how you are improving.

This means speaking to your coaches and asking them to praise your effort and hard work.

After practice, they might tell you things like:

You really worked hard, well done.

You seemed a bit tired today, and were not able to give 100%, what happened?

Your footwork is getting better and better, it's great to see how your efforts are paying off.

After a match the feedback might look like this:

Well done, you were fighting really well.

After losing the first set, you looked a bit down and it took a few games until you were able to push yourself again, this is something we can work on.

Overall, it's great to see how you are improving and how much more competitive you are becoming.

I am not saying you can’t be disappointed after losing a match.

We are humans, after all.

The key is to recover quickly, to stop ruminating and instead focus on your team on what you did well, and what you could do better next time.

This is how you will become a better tennis player without fearing to challenge yourself in ways that will help you improve.

In addition, you also want to speak to other people, like your parents, your agent and even sponsor. 

Your message is simple:

We all want me to become the best tennis player I can. For this to happen, the key is that I consistently improve, and that I embrace challenges. Therefore, I am asking you to please give me feedback and praise related to my efforts and hard work, instead of specific results and inborn traits like talent.

Once you get everyone on board, you have created the kind of environment that will gradually allow you to focus on giving your best and becoming a better tennis player. 

You will start becoming mentally tougher and win more close matches than you ever have.

And most importantly:

You will love all the challenges that come with playing competitive tennis!

Mental Drill:

Start a conversation with your coaches and ask them to praise your effort and hard work instead of specific results or innate skills that they see in you. In addition, you could get them and yourself the book Mindset by Carol Dweck and discuss why it is so crucial for you to develop a growth mindset.

If you want more Mental Drills to upgrade the way you play your matches, you will love the Ultimate Guide to becoming a Mentally Tougher Tennis Player. In this guide, you will learn:

  • 13 mental toughness drills that will give you the confidence to fight hard and give your best regardless of the score.
  • How to constantly improve your game, love the thrill of competition and become a world-class player by practicing less not more!
  • What you need to do in those pressure-filled moments that make feel so tense you can barely hold your racket!

Get your free PDF copy of my 25,430 words long epic Ultimate Guide To Becoming A Mentally Tough Tennis Player and learn:

13 mental toughness drills that will give you the confidence to fight hard and give your best regardless of the score.

How to constantly improve your game, love the thrill of competition and become a world-class player by practicing less not more!

What you need to do in those pressure-filled moments that make feel so tense you can barely hold your racket!