A strange title, I know. Vulnerability is the thing that I’ve spent my entire tennis career trying to avoid.
But what if my fear of vulnerability is actually the thing that’s holding me back most in my game?
In tennis, we’re encouraged to hide our vulnerabilities. The entire premise of the game is to hit shots that your opponent can’t return, or can’t return well. So basically we’re always looking for vulnerabilities in our opponents and trying to figure out how to expose these. Weak backhand? Attack it. Out of shape, injured, or fatigued? Extend the rallies and make them run. Weak second serve? Step in on the return. Etc.
And, conversely, they’re trying to do the same to us.
But, like in many things in tennis, there’s another side to the story that I think we need to be aware of.
While we never want to expose our vulnerabilities to our opponents, we need to be vulnerable to everyone else: spectators, friends, and most of all, ourselves.
Why? Because we need to be ok with being vulnerable to play our best tennis. No matter how reliable your serve is, you’re going to miss serves. You’re going to make unforced errors. You’re going to lose games, sets, matches and tournaments. You’re going to have bad days on the court.
If you can’t handle the prospect of these things happening, you’ll have to hold back. You’ll play tentatively. You’ll hide your weaker shots instead of improving them. You’ll avoid playing certain players. You won’t play in competitive matches or tournaments. You’ll make excuses at every turn.
All to avoid the prospect of being vulnerable. Of appearing weak. Of appearing flawed.
I’ve spent a lot of this off-season reading about fear on the court. I’ve written about how fear took over my 2016 season and impacted my performance and enjoyment of the game, about how my goal-oriented mentality caused problems for me and how I’m trying to shift my perspective away from external goals and towards inner satisfaction. And most recently I wrote about the neuroscience of fear and how our subconscious minds get involved.
What exactly are we afraid of? For most of us tennis is no life or death situation. We don’t depend on our match earnings to feed our families. Even for those who do, who understandably shoulder great pressure, losing a tennis match is not the end of the world. The very top players lose a lot of points, games, sets, and matches.
At every level, it seems, players experience fear on the court that is disproportionate to the actual consequences of making mistakes or losing matches.
I think that what we’re afraid of is vulnerability. And this vulnerability really has nothing to do with the stakes of the game. No matter if you’re playing Serena Williams or the person three spots below you on the ladder, you are vulnerable whenever you put your skills on the line.
Vulnerable to what? To appearing weak, to realizing you’re not as good as you thought, to the opinions of those around you.
Why are we so afraid of being vulnerable? As humans, being vulnerable can be both an innate fear and a cultural one. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was beneficial to be seen as strong to attract mates and be accepted into the group. From a cultural standpoint, we value strength and abhor weakness. So it’s perfectly understandable that we feel this way.
But, in my opinion, there’s just no way to play your best tennis without opening yourself up to vulnerability.
Do you wear a mask on the tennis court?
I wear a few. Strategically, I pretend that I’m confident in my forehand and want to use it as much as possible rather than admitting I’m terrified of hitting a backhand. When a backhand can’t be avoided I slice rather than test my new topspin one-hander. I avoid the net. I hit a very slow but reliable second serve even though, in practice, I have a pretty decent topspin serve that I’m just too afraid to use when missing would mean a double fault.
These types of behaviours prevent me from developing into a complete player. Sure, my strengths get stronger, but my weaknesses stay the same.
Psychologically, I wear a mask of indifference. I’m afraid that if others see how much I care, how much work I’ve put in both on and off the court, any weakness in my game will appear that much worse. It’s much easier on my ego if I can blame poor performance on not having practiced much or not really caring about tennis in the first place.
But this limits my improvement. In order to appear like I haven’t practiced much, I can’t be seen at the club hitting baskets of serves, taking lessons or using the ball machine. I can’t have cones laid out on the court as targets in organized drills or an off-court warm-up routine I do before every match and practice. These activities would demonstrate my commitment, my desire to improve, and they remove my mask of indifference. They make me vulnerable.
Some other ways we mask our vulnerability in tennis are:
1. we find excuses not to compete
We say we just want to play tennis for fun, or that we have unavoidable plans on tournament weekends. This is fine if these things are true, but if they’re actually just helping us avoid putting our game on the line, and thus opening ourselves up to vulnerability, they stunt our growth as players.
2. We play fearfully
A common complaint in tennis is that we can’t play in matches the way we do in practice. There’s actually no reason for this except for our fear of appearing vulnerable to ourselves, our opponents, or spectators. If you can hit a reliable 100mph serve in practice, the only thing limiting your serve to 80mph in matches is your fear of what will happen if you miss your serve.
By not opening ourselves up to the possibility of missing when the outcome matters the most to us – or in other words by not opening ourselves up to vulnerability – we can’t play any way but fearfully.
Until we can accept the possibility that we’ll miss, and genuinely be ok with this, we’ll always hold back.
3. We play more fearfully against “pushers”
Our fear of being vulnerable increases when we’re up against players who we perceive as weaker than us. It’s one thing to get beaten by the Roger Federer of your club – this is expected and nothing to be ashamed of.
It’s another to lose to someone with no technique to speak of, who seems to get every ball back simply by putting their racquet on it. We blame our struggles on the unusual spins on the ball, the lack of rhythm to the match, on having to generate our own pace.
But I think these are often just masks over the real cause – the fear that losing will demonstrate that we are in fact even weaker than our opponent. We’ve identified ourselves as “better than” and we’re now facing the possibility that we’re “worse than.” If this outcome didn’t terrify us, playing pushers would be a lot easier. We’d adjust our timing and capitalize on short balls. We’d stay calm and identify then hit shots our opponent struggles with. Instead, we play fearfully.
Our stress responses get triggered and affect our ability to play calm and relaxed tennis. Read more about the stress response in tennis here.
I don’t mean to suggest that opening yourself up to vulnerability on the tennis court is easy. Many of us are accustomed to our usual way of presenting ourselves to the world – after all, we have identities to uphold. But over time we can change our behaviours and habitual thinking if we put the effort in.
Stan Wawrinka is an example of someone who I think works hard to let himself be vulnerable. His tattoo on the inside of his forearm, where he can easily see it during matches, is a quote from Samuel Beckett that says:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Stan sees no shame in failure.
He’s also open about his mental-game struggles, which is refreshing to see.
Wawrinka gave an interview in a Swiss Newspaper after his 2016 US Open win over Novak Djokovic in which he openly discussed having a “stress attack” prior to the match. He says in the interview that he was crying in the locker room and was worried that the crowd would notice his “reddened eyes.” He says he had to hide his condition in the match.
So while, yes, he had to hide his mental vulnerability to his opponent to win the match, I think Wawrinka shows great strength in being able to share his pre-match experience – something that many would see as a vulnerability – with the world.
Learning to Be Vulnerable
I think that one way of learning to be comfortable with vulnerability is by showing yourself that the consequences of failure – of making mistakes, of having a bad game, of losing in a tournament to someone you expected to beat – aren’t really all that bad. There will still be practice tomorrow. Life goes on.
Often our fear of an upcoming event is mostly imaginary. Our brains are very good at discouraging us from taking on uncomfortable tasks with no certain outcome. As soon as we begin contemplating taking a step into unknown territory, we’ll start anticipating all the things that could possibly go wrong.
But most of these never actually happen. And the more we get out of our comfort zones, and learn that we can survive out there, the less we’ll come to fear that place of uncertainty, of vulnerability.
So the way to learn to get comfortable with vulnerability is to simply put yourself in situations where you feel vulnerable – hit that shot you’ve been working on, enter that tournament, challenge that player – and realize that you’re ok coming out the other side, regardless of the result.
This isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable. But it could just be the key to take your game to the next level.
What do you think? Are you able to be vulnerable on the tennis court? I’d love to hear how you do it.