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Mental Equipment
August 1999 Article

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Accepting Defeat Graciously

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Dr. John Murray

Last month we explored real loss and grief, a topic far too relevant after the JFK Jr. tragedy. This month we'll discuss the much lighter topic of reaction to loss on the tennis court. I argue that how we handle defeat often influences our performance and overall well being even more than court savvy and smarts.

The Problem

In all sports, people talk about sportsmanship, class, or grace following defeat. Unfortunately, many tennis players still have not mastered this skill. Rather than crediting the opponent, defeated players often sulk, ignore eye contact, or invent clever excuses. We've also known players who refuse to shake hands, insult their opponents or just pack up and bolt. Who or what created these monsters? The reasons are abundant and cannot all be listed here, but let's examine a few.

Obsession with Outcome

Some players become so obsessed with outcome that the cost of possible loss is magnified tenfold. This thinking not only distracts one from a healthy "present focus," but creates catastrophic fear and pressure too. Once the match is over, courtesy and regard for the opponent is simply impossible because the losing player is still obsessed with the outcome!


Perfectionism may appear noble on its surface, but crumbles apart under closer scrutiny (See the Mental Equipment article Eliminate Perfectionism for Success). This kind of thinking may also set the stage for negative or disrespectful conduct toward the opponent following a defeat. Perfectionists usually develop their personalities by trying to please others, or live up to some impossible standard. So, after a loss, it's not too far removed to expect sour grapes since these players see their loss as just another personal failure rather than opponent success. The problem is that by acting nasty, these players further motivate their opponents for the next match, and lose support along the way.


Another reason why some players fail to lose with grace is due to faulty expectations based in immaturity. These players unrealistically think that they have complete control over the match. Their self-centeredness keeps them from appreciating the opponent when they lose, and they lose often due to overconfidence! While tennis is an individual sport where reliance on the self is critical to success, in its worst form it may also contribute to disrespect for others.

Does This Really Matter?

Okay, so some players act like poor sports following defeat. Who really cares? Ask yourself how you felt the last time you played against a poor loser? You might have enjoyed exploiting the defective mental equipment in your rival, and you should, but did you want to get together with this person again soon? Probably not! Does this attitude grow the sport or help you find practice partners easily? I doubt it.

If you play tennis for the fun, fitness, or competition, you'll hopefully realize that respect for the opponent is a fundamental skill that needs to be taught and constantly encouraged. We could all learn a lesson or two from players like Steffi Graf and the grace she has shown the game throughout her career. Even in loss, she usually keeps her cool and credits her opponents.

Tips Following a Loss

  1. Immediately and enthusiastically shake your opponent's hand and say something nice.

  2. Avoid making excuses for your loss. There are many reasons for outcome, but direct focus on your opponent's strengths that day rather than on your own shortcomings.

  3. Keep your sense of humor. This is only a sport for goodness sakes and there are many tomorrows!

  4. Make a list of everything you will do better next time - and just do it.

  5. Reinterpret a loss as a free lesson rather than failure. It's only when we're pushed to the limit that we really grow.

How Are You Doing?

I really hope you win more matches than you lose, and I hope that Mental Equipment is helping you accomplish your goals. Send me a message using this form and let me know where you are still struggling so I can address your needs in a future column. Thanks for the input! See you next month...

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Mental Equipment Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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