The seven biggest mistakes the favorite makes
  | By Rob Polishook
Credit:David De Lossy

“I’m the better player, how did I lose?” Does this phrase sound familiar? Imagine this: it was the finals of the annual 16-and-Under Tournament, the weather was hot and muggy, and the sun was beaming down like a laser. The time was 3:00 p.m. and the stands were jammed with fans, coaches and the local media. The match featured the heavily favored local boy, Sander Myles, and his opponent Paul Robinson. They had never met before, but many people suspected that Myles was the stronger player based on his reputation and ranking. Some people even referred to Robinson as a pusher. Robinson referred to himself as a competitor.

The match did not go as most expected. Myles, who had looked so self-assured during the warm-up, seemed surprised by the steady Robinson. At points in the match, Myles got a bit deflated, began missing some easy balls, berated himself a few times, and soon was shaking hands at the net with his head down. The score was 4-6, 2-6. The boy now looked shell-shocked. He had no idea how he could lose to a fellow with strokes like that. But one thing he did know was that Robinson never gave up, always ran down that last ball that seemed out of reach, and maintained a steady level of play until the last point.

All club, high school and tournament players have probably experienced this situation at least once in their competitive career. Yet how many of these players really seek to understand what happened, and try to put a plan together so that history doesn’t repeat itself in the next match?

This article is intended to highlight the biggest mistakes a favorite can make against a supposed underdog:

1. Overconfidence
How many players have you seen begin a match feeling like they are entitled to win based on seeding, technique or past results? The downfall with such a mindset is that focusing on off-court factors will take a player out of the present moment, and distract them from performing their best during the match.

2. Focus on winning
We all want to win! However, it is important to remember that winning is not 100 percent in our control; he or she must also take into account that they have an opponent who also wants to win. Additionally, winning is in the future, and we cannot control the future. Whenever a player begins to think ahead to the result, he or she should change their focus away from the outcome and back to the process of the present moment on something they can control. They could ask themselves, “What do I need to do to play this point well?” It might start with focusing on their breathing and getting themselves in a centered and relaxed place.

3. Listening to the hype
Your friends, teammates, coaches and maybe even the media are going to be singing your praises. While these accolades are nice to hear, they will not get you one point on the scoreboard. All of your efforts should be on what you can do to prepare for the match. This mindset isn’t glamorous, but if you listen to the true champions, this is how they approach each match. They focus only on what they can control and let the rest go.

4. Rely on talent alone
Talent is great, it makes the sport easier to learn for some than for others. However, everyone eventually faces an opponent where talent alone isn’t enough to earn the victory. In fact, sometimes talent is a curse for a player who views his or her ability as “enough” to get results. Talent, work ethic, on-court intelligence, and the ability to compete (detailed in point number five) are all crucial factors in player development.

5. Lack competitive intensity
If you ask anyone what percentage of a match is about competing, and what percent is about playing your best, the answer always comes back that competing is more important. Brad Gilbert, author of Winning Ugly, spoke about how essential it is to scrap, battle and fight no matter what the circumstances. It’s extremely rare that someone is able to play their best all the time. However, a player can always control how ferociously they compete.

6. Lose composure
Sure, if you’re the favorite, everybody is expecting you to win. Therefore, when things get close, the underdog is inspired, while for you, the frustration kicks in. Before you know it, the negative self-talk begins, the racket flies, and suddenly you have lost control on the court. The favorite always has to be prepared to give a full effort, remain focused, and work for every point, no matter what the level of player they are competing against. Without this mindset, expect an upset.

7. Awareness
Oftentimes, the favorite is not even aware of what is happening on the court in regards to tactics and strategy. This is particularly the case because they have a pre-conceived notion of how the match should play out. Once again, their focus is in the past/future and they are playing to an ideal instead of playing in the present. It's important to play the match with no preconceived notions except that you will compete fully and attempt to play your best. This will put the player in a state of curious presence and allow them the calm to see what's unfolding before them. This open mindset will allow the player to be relaxed enough to make necessary adjustments.

As a favorite, it is important to remember that you must focus on the present, compete and let go of uncontrollable expectations. The famous Tiki Barber, former football player for the New York Giants and current NBC analyst, was once asked what his mother said to him before games. Tiki replied that, regardless of whether he was a favorite or an underdog, “She told me to play proud.” These words are simple, empowering, and show respect to the person, opponent and game—a perfect mindset for entering any match.

Rob Polishook

Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology  and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail rob@insidethezone.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.