July 2021
fear of losing in sport

The fear of losing in competitive sports

When it comes to competing in tennis –and sports in general- there is one thing most people dread: losing. The fear of losing can be strong enough to stop you from competing altogether. I know it had been the case for me for several years, no matter the sport. A loss is of course painful for anyone, no question about it. But there is a fine line between the normal discomfort that a defeat can cause and it being a reason for completely avoiding the competition.

You can only see that line and whether you have crossed it, when you actually win a match. If the primary feeling you experience after a win is relief, then you probably dread losing more than you should. Instead, you should be experiencing feelings of joy and satisfaction, because of your achievement. Feeling relieved means that you had placed the expectation of victory upon yourself, hence winning is nothing to celebrate about.

Tennis in particular, can be rather cruel when it comes to losing. It’s an individual sport, so you’re all alone out there trying to figure things out. Often times you’ll feel the match slipping through your hands point after point. At the same time, even a seemingly “easy” loss can drag on for many painful minutes -or even hours. To top it all off, you’ll have to acknowledge your defeat and congratulate your opponent before leaving the court. Even if it has been an ugly tennis match. It is not a sport for the fainthearted. So how can you enjoy competing in tennis while staying -relatively- sane?

How to enjoy competing in spite of your fear of losing

Now, I carefully crafted the above heading, to reflect reality. I could have attracted more clicks and interest, had I written tips on “how to overcome your fear of losing”. But for anyone who is competitive enough to play any sport at a tournament level, there’s no overcoming that fear 100%. Unless you don’t mind losing, in which case you’re perfectly fine playing against your friends at the club. Not so much for winning trophies and tournaments though.

Not wanting to lose, to the point where your guts turn at the thought, is inextricably attached to a champion’s mentality. It’s one of the telling signs of an athlete with the potential to excel at their sport. If you don’t get that burning feeling deep down inside, that you have to be the best, you’ll never at least be the best version of what you can be. So let’s see a few ideas that can help battle the fear of losing, just enough so that competition is still fun.

Manage your expectations

The fear of losing is obviously greater when you are the favorite to win a match. The stakes are there, there’s something for you to prove, losing would be the definition of failure. But regardless of whom you’re competing against and how convinced you are that you should win, losing is still part of the game. In sport, as in life, no one goes through the whole thing undefeated. The sooner you release yourself from the obligation to win every single match, the sooner competing will become fun and winning actually more enjoyable. The nonnegotiable expectation you should have from yourself, on any given day, is to not give up before you’ve done the best you could.

Give credit where credit is due

One of the things I’ve traditionally struggled with is to accept that someone else can play better than I could, on any given day. As arrogant as this may sound, it’s a deep-seated superiority-complex-like trait that can probably be traced back to my childhood. I just can’t help it. I’ve worked really hard to embrace the thought that anyone can be better and it has started to work, helping me to handle loss a healthier way. But in order for it to work, you need to truly acknowledge how exactly your opponent played better than you and give them credit wholeheartedly. This will not only allow you to deal with your defeat and be ready to go out there again. It will also help you improve your game and anticipation skills. This tip is particularly useful when competing against a tennis pusher. 😉

Stay hungry and look for the next opportunity

Regardless of how hard you try to deal with your fear of losing, defeat will still simply suck. That feeling will start fading when you win again and in order to do that, you have to compete again. The best thing you can do after a loss is to look for the next opportunity to play and try to win. Keep yourself motivated to work for the next game. Like the famous sign at the Wimbledon venue says “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same…”, Kipling’s poem “If” continues “…yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it”. Take Roger Federer’s example. After everything he’s accomplished, Federer sees a loss as motivation to work harder and try to win the next tournament. If Roger Federer can stay hungry, so can you.

Turn losing into learning

Bethany Mattek-Sands recently posted something I found truly inspirational. She said “I’m either winning or I’m learning”. The most important thing was her timing –she posted that right after a loss, at the first match she got to play following her gruesome injury in last year’s Wimbledon. There’s no such thing as losing for a champion, because they realize that loss is part of a much greater process. The process of becoming the best version of whatever you were made to be. If we could mirror this at a lower level in sport, the most important thing is to learn how to play your best. The only way to improve to that level is to acknowledge your weaknesses and work on them. Consequently, the only way to have those weaknesses truly exposed, to the point where you really take notice, is through losses.

What I have learned from my losses

The first match I lost in a tennis tournament was to a very skilled tennis pusher. She would return practically every shot I made, most of them sliced with heavy underspin. I was not fit for this type of match, particularly on a clay court. I started crossfit a few days later and have built up my fitness level to the point where this type of match doesn’t scare me anymore.

My second loss was against an experienced player who read the game very well. She started off aggressively, but as soon as she realized that I like pace, she switched to moonballing with good topspin. I didn’t have much room to move backwards and tried to stick to an aggressive game play, but I couldn’t. As much as I hated the game we ended up playing, I realized I would need to work more on similar balls. And that is what i did from the very next practice.

There are some losses that I still find extremely hard to digest. But my point is that there is always something to take away from most of the matches you’ll play. What I fear now is not so much losing, as not enjoying the game and facing the ugly side of tennis in a tournament match.

As in sport, so in life

In life, as in sport, the fear of losing is usually one of the main reasons why we give up trying. The fear of losing a game, losing a person, losing face, losing status or material things. Most of the things I’ve mentioned above can be applied in sport and life alike. Learning not to be afraid to lose is one more step towards true mental toughness, but also one more step towards leading a happy life. I still have a long way to go to get there myself. So, instead of a conclusion, here are some incredibly inspiring verses from *Kipling’s “If” on the subject:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,  

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it

  And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! 

*You can read the entire poem here.


Featured photo by Kees Streefkerk on Unsplash

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