ETI 032 | Attitude – the Space between Stimulus and Response

An excellent book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Victor Frankl, serves as a useful guidepost in living but equally when playing on court.

When Andy Murray hooked up with Ivan Lendl to capture his two grand slam titles, he was working at the same time with a sports psychologist (the same one who had worked with Lendl years before) to improve his attitude – to improve his emotional responses to the challenges he faced (and still faces) on court.

To quote Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

But take a moment with this – it is not psychobable or some automatic quick fix – but really something truthful and very very meaningful.

Monitor your emotional state – how you feel between your ears when on court.  You will make errors, your will lose some matches, you will make some crazy mistakes (all stimulus) but you can manage and even choose your reaction to these events.

At the end of the day, our game of tennis is a difficult mental game.


  • David Zinger

    Reply Reply March 17, 2015


    I enjoy your short videos and loved the idea of the “space” between stimulus and response.

    I am uncomfortable with the prophets of positive thinking and the shallowness of positive thinking for myself and other players.

    When my youngest son was eight, he was a hockey goalie. He was so wise at 8. I asked him if he got excited about a big save. “Not really,” he replied, “as big saves looked big because the goalies was out of position.” So then I asked him about if he got upset when he got scored on. “No,” he said, “it might have been the other kids first goal.”

    I then asked what he did to mentally prepare for a game, if he had positive thoughts and expected to win? “No,” he said again. He said, “I just go in the net and I’ll see what I can do.”

    WOW. What a fantastic mental approach. Not positive, not negative, a little smidgen detached with a healthy dose of curiosity! Ah the wisdom of 8 year olds, he knew without ever being taught how to transform judgement (positive or negative) into curiosity and not get hooked by outcome. To enter a game (or a match) with bemused curiosity.

    Sorry for the long response, but your video triggered this for me. Must remind myself the next time I take the court to keep it simple, play the game “I’LL SEE WHAT I CAN DO.”


    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 17, 2015

      David – well well done – great note about your son and the quote – which I will use and attribute to you – “I will see what I can do”

  • Pierre Forest

    Reply Reply October 26, 2014

    Hello Jim,
    I am new here at your essential Tennis Instruction…Great Job:) Just a quick comment to this post “Attitude – The space between stimulus and response”. First off, I’d like to mention that I am probably one of the rare Tennis player who play Tennis to improve my “inner life”, I am not a big player but I love this game. I really enjoyed this post since there is a bit of connection with “What happen inside” and to me any sport we’re practicing is, yes, to keep our body in shape and try to stay fit, but also when there is an effort to get the mind focus and sharp, isn’t it what is all about? I also practice some form of Tai Chi or QiGong that basically teach the adept to become more conscious about “moving” not only the body but the “energy” that we also “unconsciously” uses as we breath and move. I has always been interested in this “mind-body” connection, and I believe tennis is one of the best sport to develop such a healthy connection. It can sure be compared to martial arts in many aspect. So, ‘the space” you are referring to is, I think, very relevant. I am a former Engineer, so I also like all the mechanical explanation for each shot and how to improve them whether it’s the Kick serve or the forehand, but when we are on the court, the bottom line is not what you know about the movement, it’s about how fast your mind can give a command to the body who can execute it with speed and accuracy…and this takes a lot of practice. I was watching an old video of Bruce Lee recently who was playing ping-pong with (I think they call them “nunchakus”) and it was just mind blowing how fast and accurate he developed those skills…but the amount of training behind that is probably huge. So, keep bringing those “analogy” or “psychology-game” connection, because, like martial arts, it’s the balance between the yin and the yang, that makes the Tennis game so interesting, but the secret of the game may be just as well in the “space” between those two fundamental principles.

  • Everett Cox

    Reply Reply September 21, 2014

    I have the book by my bed in a stack of other books I intend to read. Makes sense to me – your body can only go where your head takes it. I will try to be more conscious of my attitude, especially in those rough patches we have all experienced when our strokes seem broken.

  • Leona

    Reply Reply September 17, 2014

    Hi Jim,
    As always, a big fan of yours. Your podcast strikes a chord again!
    Last year, I came across Get Your Game Face On, by Kathy Toon, and it has taken my tennis to a higher level. I am now more confident and consistent on the court. In it are lessons to learn about what to do in the space you mentioned, between stimulus and response.

  • Frank

    Reply Reply September 9, 2014

    Jim I’ve enjoyed your technique presentations and on this topic I’m sure you’re familiar with The Inner Game of Tennis. I ask people to remember there are two ways to play tennis and two ways to live, with or without confidence. It’s fairly obvious which is preferable and more fun. Play and live with confidence. Play to have fun. Even Federer lost matches when he was at his peak. Tennis is not life or death contrary to how it may appear to some of us when we’re facing match point to someone we expected to beat. If you get down on yourself you’re letting your opponent play someone who’s not all there. Why would we do that? People say “but it’s hard, what about the pressure….” yet pressure is something you have to choose to accept, you have to choose to feel. If pressure helps you focus and perform then great, by all means feel it, double it if you want, triple it, but if it doesn’t help you, if it makes you nervous, ignore it, focus on what works for you. I teach Identity Design and I always ask people to find a way to look at any situation and any challenge in the way that gives them the most power to deal with that challenge. I’m getting over a case of tennis elbow and didn’t want to stop playing or spend my days worrying about when I would “get over it” so I just started playing left handed. I have to hit against the wall to groove my stroke but it’s a nice challenge and it’s coming and I’m getting my workout, what’s not to like?

    What if we chose to play for fitness, or to play for fun? What if we choose to focus on hitting a good shot? Isn’t that how you win this game after all, by hitting good shots? Thanks again Jim

    Judge Frank

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply September 13, 2014

      Frank – I am getting closer and closer to the Inner Game – and have found essentially the Inner Game 2.0, as it were – with Jackie Reardon’s wonderful book and website Mindset
      Billie Jean King called the Inner Game her tennis bible

  • mike erhardt

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    I read Victor Frankl’s, “Between stimulus and response in 1968 . I must admit I had forgotten that line as directly quoted but have tried to use that idea and have found it to be profound.
    A great thought for life and tennis
    Thanks for the reminder , great quote.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply September 5, 2014

      Mike – thanks – great words the challenge for me is to live them

  • Robert

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    I can say without (excessive) embarrassment that when I acknowledged that my various displays on the court, minor as they may have been — fingering main strings as if to locate the offender, expressing chagrin at a ball catching the tape or flying somewhere off the court — were in fact a means to disguise from myself my actual level as a player and the state of my skills, I began the process of actually learning the game, and building a new game from the ground up.

  • Karen

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    I have experienced a lightness of mind where I can see the ball earlier and go get it! Since I cannot will this state of mind, just playing by doing what I am working on and accepting the results seems to produce my best tennis. I must focus on playing well and not trying to play well. Each error teaches me what not to do on the court and in life! Thank you for sharing your tips. Karen

  • Brian Taylor

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    In communication training we call it the ABC. A is the Activating Event … C is the Consequence …
    B is the Behaviour. B is the area to work on because we can choose a particular behaviour and get a more positive consequence.

  • Slobodan

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    Hello Jim, attitude is dependent of weather.
    Every living creature react on weather changing.
    People who are not in good shape or ill or heart have the lot of problems and doctors say that you suffer of Meteopathy or ‘weather sense’,
    Less problems, if you are in very good shape and condition, but even Roger Federer have this problem. Approaching cloud may cause disturbance in concentration sleepiness and influence coordination (disturbance of normal functioning).
    But all Technics (physical or mental) in the world could not help you.
    I am 72 and still in good shape ( active fencing veteran) and I ask doctors for the cure. The answer was: take a rest and sleep a while, which was not good suggestion when you are in the middle of world championship.
    Still if you are aware of this problem than you can tray to accommodate actions and not blame anybody.
    This is not your day!

  • Tatiana

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    I agree and I will read that book you mentioned. The attitude that always helped me is have fun and celebrate your good shots (internally if possible, that I am working on) and just focus on the ball.
    The opponents and the rest of the world can be an incentive, different incentives help but the best incentive is preparation to build confidence.

  • The mental bible for tennis players should be Inner Tennis by Tim Gallowey. It puts tennis in perspective & focuses on the real meaning of competition, how to concentrate during a match & how our “ego” self interferes with optimal performance on the court.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply September 4, 2014

      Janice – Gallwey may have been both the first and the best at introducing “sports psychology”
      And I find his approach excellent for my work as an on court teacher

  • Tennisball007

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Hi Jim,

    great to explore other aspects of the game.



  • Chris

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    I read Man’s Search For Meaning in high school. Also started playing tennis then. Coincidence? I think not.

  • Tony Martin

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Jim, this is excellent, you hit it on the nose. So much attention is placed on hitting the tennis ball as hard as we can, but little to our attitude to the game. Mental preparation is so important to the outcome, yet little or none is given to our mindset.

    Thanks for sharing, have a great day!!

  • Charlie from London

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Hello Jim, long time no speak, it’s Charlie from sunny London. Yes, Frankle’s book is one of the definitive books in this genre. As I’m a child of holoucost survivors, I’ve lived my life as a blessed human being, trying always to have a purpose to my day and enjoy the journey. As a keen student of tennis, I’ve used tennis as a metaphor of life, and the mental skills which we need to master in tennis serve us well in every day life. Knowing how to lose, knowing how to win, and understanding that we should enjoy the process and not get obssessed. with outcomes is vital to mental toughness. But our society doesn’t reinforce this view, as the bottom line and winning is what’s it all about? Hence how can we as humble tennis players adjust our thinking on the court when in everyday life it’s contrary, winner takes all! The answer in my mind is having great teachers and mentors to remind us why we play tennis and how to enjoy the process , and keep reinforcing this point. I feel that you Jim have done a good job in broadening the subject of tennis beyond just hitting a ball. Would you not agree that with age and maturity we all humble a bit and start shedding some of our ego, and that’s when true learning can start. I feel that at the age of 62, I have improved more recently then in past 30 years, purely because I want to learn the game more then I want to win matches, the good news is that the results, style and technique are better then ever! Thank you again for your contribution to all our learning!! Cheers, Charlie

  • ricardo

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    2500 hundreds years ago Buddha discovers the key issue behind these sacred moment and teached us the way to train ourselves to choose the more convenient election out of our typical and painfull reaction.
    He showed us the path, concrete steps for a way out, trough buddhist meditation.
    Vippasanna…is the name. Pali word that means cabal vission.
    lately Gurdjieff spoke about the same, but different ancient approach.

  • George Ernst

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    If you were to ask a tennis player one question : What are the things you can control in a tennis match? You would get answers like this, I can control where I hit the ball, I can contol the pace of the ball, I can control my tacticsI can control my strategy. All of these answers are wrong! The only thing that you can control 100% is your attitude. Thats it you can’ t control mis hits, you cant control net cord shots, you cant control a gust of win, the one thing you can control and the only thing you can control is your attitude.
    This of course is not easy.

  • Ian

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    The problem with your podcasts is that the initial 80% is irrelevant. The remaining 20% is cryptic, overly short and generally inadequate. Given that the total time is about 180 seconds, that’s not much meat in the sandwich. You don’t need to hold a tennis racquet, to be believed. That’s like someone appearing on TV, wearing a white coat and advertising a headache pill. It appears contrived and insincere.

  • RAB

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    thanks. forwarding to our daughter who is starting HS just now and this is perfect!

  • Gary gonzalez

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Motivation works for me,I’m a 52 years old playing with guy younger than me on tennis-Miami .com and for this season I only need it tree match to win to go to the playoff last Friday with no chance to make it for playoff I ask the best on the list to give me a rematch we play for 3 and 1/2 hours very hot I was winning 5/4 and I was serving but since I had an colonoscopy the day before I loss all my energy and I lost 5/7 we rest for a while and we star the second set 1/0,2/0,3/0 I though it was all over for me but suddenly 1/3,2/3,3/3 I won 7/5 we go for a 10 point tiebrake he didn’t want to loss and I want to beat the guy with a 9/1 record that was my motivation I won 13/11 to a guy 20 years younger than me thank you.

  • Mike Lammens

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Excellent advice. Don’t know if I could have done this though at 16 years old – did anyone think like that way back in the 60’s and 70’s? But definitely I use that tip now. I think the trick for me is like this – my initial response might be disappointment or anger (usually at myself), but then I catch myself and change my thoughts to a more neutral line of thinking, as in “what do I do next time”, or ” how did I end up in that situation and how can I avoid it”.

    Wish I would have learned that a lot sooner! Good tip!

  • src

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Great stuff. Now to apply it.

    For further enlightenment on this subject see Escaping the Prison of the Intellect by Deepak Chopra.

    When our minds are stuck in the mode of object referral it makes prisoners of us. We are not free to choose. Thus we must practice to find a way to release the power of conscious choice making and thus no longer be a prisoner to mental conditioning that is automatic, mechanical, habitual. Thus we must learn to regain our position as master rather than a slave to thoughts/attitudes. Thoughts and attitudes can be our friend but they are never you. We are not an attitude, be it a so called good one or a so called bad one. We are far superior to such temporary worldly activity.

    Find that space, for in that space is where true magic happens.

  • Amar

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    We should first examine if our response is instinctive or conscious.
    If instinctive we need to change it to conscious by inculcating a sense of self and environmental awareness. Without this sense of awareness we will not be able to dictate our choice of response.
    The Japanese refer to this sense of awareness as “Kuki Yomenai”.
    Tennis is so much like martial arts.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply September 4, 2014

      Amar – thanks for this note – I am reading something on the martial arts and how it could be applied to tennis as regards relaxation, finding ones center, feeling and using the ground, and reducing effort
      more on this soon

  • Emma - England

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    Great podcast – I think this is key to any athlete’s true fulfillment in their sport. We CHOOSE our reaction – we have the ability to make positive choices EVERY TIME. I’ve just finished reading Victor Frankl’s book and it is truly inspiring.

  • Steve Seel

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    This was really good. Another thing that has helped me is to focus on the process, not the result.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply September 4, 2014

      Steve – the more I read/study/teach and observe I see it is all about process and the players at our club who are often stuck at a certain level are nearly always focused on outcome and not on process

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field