As a Mental Skills Coach I get asked about winning a lot.

Recently I had a discussion with a client about “BIG game” performance. Nate is a tennis player who is on track to compete in the 2016 Olympic games. He came to me because his performance struggles in big tournaments. He is a great practice player. He plays with excellence in smaller tournaments. However, once he steps on the court for a “big game” his ability to perform disappears. He gets tight. His thinking speeds up. He can’t seem to make the simple shot.

This phenomenon has been the topic of discussion with his coach, his trainers and even a hypno-therapist for years. Sometimes he works through it, other times he can’t. Nobody could seem to get to the core of the issue.   Something that was unique about Nate’s case was that he didn’t seem to feel nervous prior to his matches. He trained hard, felt prepared and confident in his ability.

As we began working together and got him using all of the mental skills, his confidence soared further. He drastically improved his ability to stay calm and focused and he played consistently well. However, once again, as soon as he stepped on the court in a recent BIG match, it happened again. So what was going on with Nate? As it turns out, Nate had been taught to step on to the court with what he calls, “Warrior Mentality.” This mentality is focused on dominating and winning.   His intensity is high. His expectations change to perfection and winning. His focus is on beating his opponent. The goal is to destroy his opponent. Seems like a good way to win, right?


Why does this strategy consistently backfire? Simple; this is not how he practices. In practice (and smaller matches) he works on playing with a calm mind and energized body. He strategizes shots and focuses on good footwork. His thinking is simple and he easily reads his opponents next shot. The “Warrior Mentality” obliterated his ability to do any of that. It overwhelmed him and completely took away his mental performance, and therefore his physical skills disappeared too.

The lesson here is simple: Compete like you practice. AND…Practice like you compete. The urge to “do more” in BIG games will hurt you. A more effective strategy is to DO MORE IN PRACTICE (train with more intensity, increase your speed, adversity and pressure) so that the BIG game feels normal. Your game is your game. Nate is no longer making big changes when he steps on to the court in his big matches.   He knows what changes in BIG matches is only the environment (what’s going on around him)…His strategies and style of play should stay the same.

Here are the do’s and don’ts for BIG Games:


  • Compete like you practice
  • Practice like you compete
  • Raise your intensity in practice
  • Keep mentally calm
  • Practice simple thinking


  • Compete at completely different intensity level
  • Be lazy in training
  • Do more, try harder
  • Focus only your opponent
  • Focus on winning

Erika Carlson, M.A.,CC-AASP

Excellence in Sport Performance

[email protected]