Tennis is a game of virtuous and vicious circles. I hit a great forehand and that emboldens me to hit another great one. I miss badly, that renders me insecure, and so I execute my next shot tentatively and screw up even worse.

Up the good ladder, down the bad one …

Today my practice partner hit a big topspin backhand deep into my backhand corner. I’m a one-handed backhand guy, so shots like that spell trouble for me. (It’s how Nadal beat Federer for years, so it’s not exactly an embarrassing confession.)

When I saw that big, heavy topspin coming at me, a neon “uh-oh” flashed through my mind.

(Okay, I’ll be honest: It was more like, “Oh, f–k.”)

It’s not an impossible shot for me to return, but it’s a tricky one. The timing is delicate and it’s really hard to get the weight shift right. And of course, the alarm bell going off in my mind made it worse. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about without being a little bit panicky!

There’s a fix for this, as there is for most mental issues on the court. Turn threats into a positive. Instead of “oh, f–k,” how about this for a replacement: “Oh boy, I get to try something really challenging!”

It’s a quite simple program, really: Replace fear with excitement. Replace anxiety with opportunity.

I’m reminded of a joke my dad used to tell me. A family has two boys. The parents are concerned that one is too pessimistic and the other is too optimistic, so they decide to give the pessimist boy a bicycle for Christmas and the optimistic boy a bag of horse manure.

The pessimist boy sees the bike and goes, “Oh no, now I’m going to fall off it and break my leg, and I’ll be crippled forever.”

The optimist boy sees the bag of horse manure and says, “Oh boy, oh boy, I got a horse, but it ran away!”

When you switch from fear to opportunity, you’re switching from pessimist to optimist. You’re turning your anxiety into eagerness.

There’s an entire school of psychology built around this. It‘s called ’positive psychology.’ It’s not about going into denial about what’s bad and frightening. It’s about consciously choosing to make the most out of what life hands you.

Practicing positive psychology has been shown to help enormously when it comes to getting into flow.

‘Flow’ as in, that state where things come easily and effortlessly, where you feel like you’re performing at your best.

Flow as in … the infamous zone.

And it starts with undoing that toxic “uh-oh.”

Do you manage your fear or do you let your fear manage you? Do you have an escape hatch when a vicious circle closes in?

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