Faults and Fortitude: Accepting Imperfection in Tennis and Life

  • Cynthia Johnson

It was exciting following New Zealand born Lulu Sun to the Wimbledon quarter finals. On the eve of her quarter final game her coach commented that all the technical and physical training had been completed. Now, he said, it was all about the mental game. Could Sun find a balance between striving for perfection and accepting mistakes?

"Sometimes Lulu wants to be too perfect … this perfection was killing her because she only wanted to hit winners, and she was only happy with the point if she hit a winner. Now I think she understands it has to be a mixture, and she's more patient and playing more correct technique."

We might not playing at be at Wimbledon but it’s the same for many of us when we have to perform under pressure. The research which sits behind our Challenge of Change Resilience programmes shows that one of the mental games that can block performance and cause us stress is perfectionism. Part of what drives perfectionism is a fear of making mistakes, of getting things wrong. People who score high on our perfectionism scale may see themselves as hard workers prepared to put in the hours to get it right. Commentators at Wimbledon talked about Sun’s work ethic as she strove for flawlessness in her serves, volleys, and footwork, but as the coach identified, there needs to be a balance. Not every shot can be perfect. Learning to accept that is part of the game of tennis, and as Roger Federer said in his 2024 commencement speech at Dartmouth, it is also part of life.

In the 1,526 matches Federer played in his career he won almost 80% of those matches but he won only 54% of the points. He says:

“when you lose every second point on average you learn not to dwell on every shot."

You teach yourself to think: OK, I double-faulted. It’s only a point. OK, I came to the net and I got passed again. It’s only a point. Even a great shot, an overhead backhand smash that ends up on ESPN’s Top Ten Plays: that, too, is just a point.”

“Here’s why I am telling you this.

When you are playing an important point it has to be the most important thing in the world, and it is, but when it’s behind you, it’s behind you. This mindset is really crucial, because it frees you to fully commit to the next point… and the next one after that… with intensity, clarity and focus. The truth is, whatever game you play in life… sometimes you’re going to lose.”

Remember next time you get caught in a mind game of perfectionism that it’s just a point, while you want it to be perfect, not everything is. Remember that even champions don’t always get it right, and that if you do make a mistake, it is important to recover quickly. As Lulu is learning, becoming a champion lies not in flawlessness but in resilience and self-acceptance.

You can watch the quoted part of Federer’s speech here:

The full speech can be watched here:


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