The Psychology of the Overhead (in Tennis)

I hit the ball high, aiming for over Karen’s head.

I’m really good at making people run. Hit it high and deep, I figured, and she’ll have to double-back and scurry to even touch the ball.

Standing at the net, she was perfectly poised to deflect every killer shot I could muster. My friend manages the net well, which is a power position. It’s a position of offense, rather than defense, which is what it is to hang out at the base line, afraid of net shots.

So when I lobbed it high and the neon-yellow ball arced over her head, but slowly, she had enough time to set up an overhead shot.

The overhead is the shot everyone loves, but we get few chances to nail it. Most people don’t want to be on the receiving end of an overhead. It’s a great opportunity for all your strength and the emotions that have piled up during the match.

If you nail it, it sails hard and fast and sharp toward your opponent, virtually untouchable.

If you miss it, we’re talking big-time circus opportunity. Imagine all that gusto and bravado and cockiness and arrogance put into one shot and…you miss. The ball goes past you. Your racquet comes down hard. Maybe you hit your leg with your racquet. Major fumble.

It’s a 50-50 possibility, but the opponent mentality is, oh shit, it’s coming right at me, fast, and there’s no way I can touch it.

Which of course is not always the truth. Not even close.

Except the psychology of a shot and the reality of it, like all things, can be very, very different. So when I hit that high shot and Karen nailed it, I had psyched myself out of even going for it.

In my head, the narrative went like this: oh man, she’s going for it, her racquet is connecting with the ball, it’s angling away from me…and I didn’t even move my feet, so paralyzed was I to the court with the stories in my head.

In the game of tennis – and in life? – whether we win or lose depends on our own state of mind and how we approach each shot. It’s not the other person hitting killer shots. It’s us, making stupid mistakes.

Karen’s overhead was fine. Not too hard or powerful and not too wimpy. It wouldn’t even have been a challenge to return it. There was no zing on the speed – just a clean, clear arc of a shot, a really good steady return on her part.

I lost the point because of me and me alone. She played fair and consistent. I told myself a story that wasn’t even true.

And we all know it’s not just in tennis.

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