tennis with dr Nahlah Saimeh: Fear in the match, recurring mistakes and the madness of the competition

The racket almost slips out of your hand on the forehand. Arms and legs cramp when the fuzzy ball of felt flies towards you. You feel like you’re bound in thick steel chains.

The coolness from training is gone. Negative thoughts fly through your head.

As loud as jet planes.

You’ve been convinced for years that something can’t be right with you. You must have a “head problem”. In training, the forehand longline sits perfectly in the corner at 120 km/h. The rate on the first serve is at least 70%. Your plank through the middle would have even Pete Sampras applauding in amazement, with a raised eyebrow.

But then …

In the match you push your forehand . Lie on your back without swinging over your shoulder. You’re just trying to avoid mistakes. And make more mistakes.

You play more in training than you think. In the match you think more than you play.
In this article you will learn why you do not have a head problem. For this I have brought you support from outside the field. Miss Dr. Nahlah Saimeh is a forensic psychiatrist. She deals with the emotional spectrum of perpetrators and engaged in an epic five-set match with me.

Make yourself comfortable and let’s see what you can learn about your mental health in tennis from a forensic expert.

You will be partially amazed.

who is dr medical Nahlah Saimeh?
Miss Dr. Saimeh has already been a guest at SWR and Markus Lanz. At the end of the article I have put together some links for you.

Dr. Nahlah Sameh
Here’s a little profile so you know who you’re dealing with:

Specialist in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
Focus: Forensic Psychiatry (Medical Association of Westphalia/Lippe)
Certified and re-certified in Forensic Psychiatry (DGPPN)
Certified by the German Society for Neuroscientific Assessment (DGNB)
Expert in Forensic Psychiatry

German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology (DGPPN)
German Society for Neuroscientific Assessment (DGNB)
Interdisciplinary working group for forensic psychiatry and psychology (IAFP)
German Society for Sexual Medicine (DGfS)
Association Forensic Psychiatry Berlin (FPPB)
German Section of the International Lawyers’ Commission e. V
You can find additional links at the end of this article.


We introduced our guest. I would suggest we swing the racquet now and see how your behavior in the jungle of a match can be explained – and of course improved .

Let`s go!

What is your head doing to you during a match?
I used to hate puzzles.

My patience was as long as Carlos Alcaraz’s drop shots. It took me too long to see a result.

With a jigsaw puzzle, we piece together a picture. We have to be careful that one part fits the other. Jigsaw puzzles are quite a complicated story. Your head on the court is also an image made up of different puzzle pieces. I chatted with my old coach Tom on a hot summer’s day sometime in the 90’s between basket practice and collecting balls (it wasn’t my specialty!) about Agassi, Sampras and Chang.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember which player we were just philosophizing about. Then Tom lit this rocket tennis wisdom:

The character always comes with you on the pitch!
I would even say:

The character plays the big points.

Let’s start at birth.

Uff, crazy transition, right? 😉 You’ll understand as the article progresses why we’re starting right there. It is interesting for us to know: At what age does the basic character of a person form, which decisively determines the view of the world?

Miss Dr. Saimeh on this:

“The first three years of life are of fundamental importance. But of course, personality is also formed considerably during puberty under the influence of peer groups and the socio-cultural milieu from which one comes. But the be-all and end-all is the early safe one Bond. And anyone who experiences prenatal violence while still in the womb because the pregnant mother is beaten, has genes that adapt to a hostile environment. Nature has unbelievable adaptation mechanisms. The risk of later antisocial development increases.”
As tennis players, we want to do “everything” better from match to match, from coaching session to coaching session. We want to play perfect for 60 minutes. Each shot should be uniquely strong. In competitions we always want to play with concentration, not make mistakes, show our opponents mental strength and not give the impression that we might be even a little uncomfortable.

Forget it, this doesn’t work.

A lot of your behaviors in the match are just fixed. They belong to your basic character, to you. If you set yourself the task of wanting to change your behavior completely, then you will not solve this task until the end of your career. It’s wasted time and energy. Brandon Nakashima, for example, is shy and introverted. But he uses these qualities for himself.

We’ll get to how you can improve stuck behaviors in-match in a moment. Let’s stay with character for now. That’s what Mrs. Dr. Saimeh on the question of whether it is still possible to optimize one’s character traits after a certain age:

that others suffer from me, or do I really want to change that? With any therapy, the important question is what you really want for yourself.”
I find the word “behaviour control” interesting here.

A good example is Alexander Zverev .

A while ago he was still extremely emotional in the match. It was mainly the negative behavior that cost him a few victories. He angrily threw the bat, talked a lot to himself and his box, cursed – but that didn’t do him any good. He harmed himself.

Miss Dr. Saimeh on this:

“Anger is often basically anger at yourself, because the limit we hit shows us that we are not as omnipotent as we would like to be. The limit, the mistake, the failure forces us to be humble. Even when we are angry at others, this anger hits us because the other is pushing us to a limit of our influence. It’s a matter of personality how you deal with it.”
Has he changed completely now?

No, not at all. He’s still at it. He still wears the chains around his (now muscular) neck. However, he can control his behavior much better in heated situations. I’m sure he worked on it consciously.

Let’s come to you. What can you do?

Reading tip for tennis elbow: The Masalo Cuff

agassi neu
I would suggest:

Analyze for yourself which of your character traits slow you down in the match. Then see if you can find ways to better control them. It works like Dr. Saimeh doesn’t write about making a whole new character out of you.

It’s about taking control of what you already are.
Okay, let’s get to the subject that many tennis players have on their racquet.

Fear before and during the match
I’ve never been very scared of a match before. My pulse only went up when I was on the court. In my work as a mental coach, I found that there are two different types of players:

1) The players who experience strong fears before a match

2) The players who are only gripped by their fear in the match

Then there are different kinds of fear.

Many, and I count myself among them, are afraid of going down against a weaker opponent. That’s one reason for being a little looser against higher ranked players. Other players are terrified of the competitive situation. You feel undressed from the eyes of the spectators.

You feel a certain shame in the match.

Now comes the prize question: What can you do?

Miss Dr. Saimeh wrote to me about fear:

“Fear is a feeling that is deeply rooted in developmental history. It is essential for survival. Those who cannot experience fear do not recognize any dangers. Those who do not recognize dangers die earlier. Because it developed very early in developmental history, control by brain areas that developed late in developmental history is also difficult. Anxiety disorders in the psychiatric sense are characterized by exaggerated, rationally nonsensical, unfounded fears. Behavioral therapy helps with concrete situation-related fears. Pathological freedom from fear, such as in psychopaths, leads to high risks being taken, even at the expense of other people.”
Regarding the fear of the weaker opponent, however, she wrote:

“It’s a specific fear that has to do with the fear of shame. If you lose against a weaker opponent, the “weak” one shows the “stronger” his limits, his “weaknesses”. You’re afraid of the moment of potential embarrassment when everyone else sees that you’re not “strong”. Fear and self-esteem instability are linked here. You know yourself what others don’t know: you have weaknesses and the opponent could recognize them and exploit them.”
Here’s one thing that’s incredibly interesting. The most asked question in my email inbox and from parents of talented children is:

“What can you do against fear?!”.

I’ll quote the important passage again: “It’s essential for survival. If you can’t experience fear, you don’t recognize any danger. If you don’t recognize any danger, you’ll die sooner.”

If you weren’t feeling anxious as a player in a match, you wouldn’t be able to concentrate. Unfortunately, in the match you concentrate more on your negative emotions than on the upcoming rally. But the concentration is there. You cannot conquer the “evolutionally” deeply rooted fear like your opponent on the other side of the net.

So you shouldn’t ask yourself what you can do about your fear. You should ask yourself what you can do with your fear. This gives you a healthier perspective.

A perspective from which you can better act in the match.

Recurring behaviors in the match
Roger Federer was famous for having a decent dispersion in his groundstrokes every now and then. Rafa Nadal is visibly tense at the start of a match and far from his best.

And you know at least five players in your club where you say at least three times as a spectator:

“Hey, that always happens to him…!”.

Miss Dr. Saimeh on recurring behaviors that we are aware of but cannot change:

“Evolutionally we are need-beings. We cling to habits if they somehow make us feel good, calm us down, stabilize our self-esteem for a certain period of time. The reward center is in a way the antagonist of our reason. We do things because we feel something emotionally of it. We want to enjoy and also link the idea of ​​enjoyment to problem behavior.”
I find the sentence very beautiful and apt:

“The reward center is in a way the antagonist of our reason”.

fed cartoon
I used to screw up umpteen game situations in which I just had to push the ball into the open field. But no, that would have been too easy. It had to be the perfect drop shot . The one that jumps back to its own page after tapping it.

Or the simple forehand from the half field.

The point was already over.

The opponent already waved it off. But instead of simply lifting the ball into the field, it had to be the perfect-looking shot, short-cross, straight into the T-field corner.

From the short cross we now lead to the conclusion.

Conclusion: Do you have a head problem?
The answer is unequivocal: no.

Tennis is more than a few good basic strokes and a fine technique. Your character always comes onto the pitch and actively plays the most important rallies. Your character, on the other hand, is much more complex than any punch.

The biggest mistake a tennis player makes is thinking they have a mistake.
Miss Dr. Nahlah Saimeh was able to use appropriate formulations to make it clear that fear, for example, is something completely normal. Hopefully this article has given you a different perspective on yourself and your tennis.

You have every reason to see yourself in a much better light. Don’t be so extremely critical of yourself and your achievements. Forgive yourself for weaker days, accept defeats and don’t constantly curse yourself if you don’t show perfect tennis for 60 minutes at a time.

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