Problem Solving on Court: If X happens, I will do Y

Written by: Stephanie Nihon

In Collaboration with: Vietta ‘Sue’ Wilson


***Stephanie has received her Masters in Kinesiology and Sports from the University of Sydney. There she performed extensive testing and training on elite athletes and specialized in Human Biomechanics. As a varsity and national athlete herself in the USA and Australia, Stephanie received her Undergraduate Degree in Psychology and wrote her dissertation on golfers using Neurofeedback to enhance their performance***


I hate it when I hit a fantastic shot, get caught watching the ball, and for some magical reason my opponent gets it back in the court- a frequent grievance of many tennis players. One way to resolve situations like this is to have a simple plan, much like a huddle in a football game. “If – then planning” is a technique uniquely useful for building good habits, resisting temptation to go away from your game plan, and solving problems on court.

When building a plan, you need to be as specific as possible. The if-then version of any plan must spell out exactly what needs to be done in a critical situation. If X happens, then I will do Y. X can be a scenario, such as, my opponent keeps hitting cross-court to my backhand. Y is the specific action you will take when Y occurs, for example, hit the ball deep with spin.

Amazingly, you are two to three times more likely to succeed if you use an if-then plan then if you don’t use the plan.  Peter Gollwitcher, a NYU psychologist who first articulated the if-then planning, recently reviewed results from 94 studies that used the technique and found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of. This includes competitive tennis situations!

These plans work well because they speak the language of our brain: the language of possibilities. Humans are very good at encoding information in “if X, then Y” terms, and using this process to guide our behavior. Deciding when and where we will act on our goal creates neural-networks in our brain between the situation (the if) and the behavior that should follow (the then). It goes with the age-old expression that the neurons that wire together, fire together.

By saying, “if I start to get emotional on court (X), then I will take my 3 deep breaths, release the muscles, and clear my mind (Y),” the plan has already been processed in your brain, and when the situation occurs, you have a better chance of having a solution. With practice, the “if-then” plan can become ‘automatic,’ and your plan is carried out while consciously unaware.

Problem solving through ‘if-then’ can be practiced every time you are on court.  Two examples are as follows:

1)      If you hit two balls in a row into the net, you can perform the following routine:

i)                   Evaluate If X (hit two balls into the net), then Y (more spin, hit higher).

ii)                 Relax/ let go

iii)               Plan next action –see or say, “ball into back of court.”

iv)               Cue word: back

2)     You won the first set against a similar skilled player and you know s/he will change his/her playing strategy.   If s/he gets aggressive and comes to the net, then I will do…Y. If s/he goes for fewer winners and extends the points, then I will do…Y.

If you are having difficulty knowing what to do for the THEN (Y) part of the problem solving solution, talk to your coach.  If you have difficulty thinking on the court, see us, as we can use brain equipment to track your thinking patterns and help you improve.

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