A Survival Instinct That Hurts Your Tennis

There is a natural body instinct that may be preventing you from giving your best through the whole match. If you don't become aware of it and overcome it with conscious decision, then you'll never reach the level of play that matches your true capabilities.

It's the need to preserve energy.

This is a survival instinct and it's working every moment of your life.

Total loss of energy means death and every small loss of energy therefore brings the body closer to the danger of dying. At least that's how this primitive survival instinct works.

Lion saving energy
Take a look at animals; they don't expend their energy for unnecessary activities. They use energy to eat, to move and increase the chances of survival, to fight, to take flight, to mate and so on.

While young animals (young predators like lions, cats, dogs ...) do play occasionally, it's just another instinct to help them improve their hunting skills. For other types of animals (like deer, antelopes ...) playing is a way to develop their speed so that they can escape predators.

And if there is no need for an animal to involve itself in one of these activities, it rests - it preserves energy!

So the only way this animal instinct to preserve energy is overridden is when there is another instinct (eating, mating, escaping, hunting ...) kicking in that is more important for survival.

This same principle works in human beings. The difference, of course, is that humans have many more motivations than just survival. We want to be famous, wealthy, powerful, better than others, appreciated, accepted, listened to and so on. We want to travel, watch movies, play sports and so on.

But the whole time we are engaged in these activities, our body and mind are constantly monitoring our energy expenditure and will alert us to preserve energy, if needed.

So we try to balance our desires and activities with our energy expenditure and we replenish our energy through eating, drinking, resting and sleeping.

Steffi Graf running
In a tennis match, what happens is that we consciously decide to expend a lot of energy to win the match.

Meanwhile, our survival instinct starts sending signals to body (to move a little slower, to avoid activities with a big demand for energy - like sprints for a drop shot!, …) and to our mind (do I really have to work so hard, is there a more efficient way of winning, ...) to save energy and prevent us from dying.

This instinct, of course, doesn't know that we have plenty of water and food and that we'll never play a match so long that we could actually seriously threaten our bodily energy reserves to the point where this loss would be critical to our health.

It's a very safe system protecting us from dying through energy loss.

How To Overcome The Survival Instict Of Energy Preservation

You need to be aware of this instinct constantly working in your body and that it's totally wrong when it comes to probability of dying when you're playing a tennis match and have plenty of food and water to replenish your energy.

Note that this instinct will, in 99% of cases, NOT slow down your body! It will just send signals of tiredness and YOU will slow down your body.

But you don't have to. It's just a decision, nothing more.

The real body survival mechanism can kick in much later, when you are really close to spending most of your energy in the body and there's nothing you can do mentally or physically to prevent that. But this is an extreme situation, where you'd need to play 3 or more hours per day a few days in a row with very little food and water intake and little rest.

You need to overcome the signals from your body, that want to slow down your movement and urge you to rest, and signals from your mind - the thoughts of finding a more efficient way of winning and similar - and just give 100% of effort while you're playing.

Here's what I did to learn to overcome the urges of my body to rest. I decided to test myself and after a volleyball practice, when I was really tired, I decided to sprint 5 minutes.

So I started to run at full speed and after a few seconds, my body wanted to rest and slow down. But I didn't. It's really just a matter of decision. So I kept running, as fast as I could.

All that happened to me was that I was breathing very heavily and my body was feeling REALLY uncomfortable, but that's it. I didn't bleed, I didn't fall unconscious - nothing serious happened.

Of course, don't try this if you have any health issues, especially with your heart. When we talk about serious tennis players, though, they should push their bodies to the limit to see where it is.

The problem is that we believe we're tired and we cannot move intensely, based on the feelings from our body. Think about it, though, if at the moment you feel very tired, someone offered you a million dollars to sprint 200 meters or someone threatened you with a gun, you would have no problems activating your energy!

We also don't like to feel uncomfortable - it's just that simple. When you work hard in a tennis match, your body will feel uncomfortable.

The more you are able to ignore or accept this feeling, without listening to it, the better you will play.

It's obvious that, with any energy saving "tactic" you employ (not moving 100%, not hitting 100%), you INCREASE the chances of losing.

So what you are really doing in a match is deciding which is more important to you:

1. Working 100% (and being tired, feeling uncomfortable) and increasing the chances of winning


2. Saving energy and feeling LESS tired and LESS uncomfortable, but DECREASING the chances of winning

In the end, it comes down to this: what do you want more - to win or to not be tired?



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Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.