Solving One Problem at a Time

Tennis is a game of moments, of snap decisions in the face of ever-changing circumstances. A great player has mastered the art of honing the ability to navigate these moments fluidly with a calm mind, responding moment-to-moment with the appropriate decision.

How do we achieve such an ability? Although his circumstances were different, we can take wisdom from the words of fictional astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon in the film The Martian.


Was it luck or incredible skill that ensured Watney’s survival until a rescue crew could retrieve him from the red planet where he was stranded? Neither. Years after his rescue, Watney shared his secret with a classroom of students:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you, and you’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Like Watney, we can think of tennis in the same way: a series of problems to be solved.

Focus on the shot

“You solve one problem and you solve the next one,” explained Watney. His situation was rife with unpredictable and unknown variables. Similarly, to navigate the unpredictable flow of situations that is a tennis match, it’s crucial to do exactly this. Don’t think ahead to the next shot until you’ve decided what to do with the current situation. After all, what happens after your shot is out of your hands once that ball leaves your racket. Therefore, it’s best not to over-strategize into the future beyond the prediction needed to come up with and execute an intentional shot. In doing so, you’ll be more capable of being in command over your placement of the ball.

Hit ball, move to next position

The next “problem” to solve once you’ve executed a shot is immediate: where to be next. In general, you want to give yourself as much freedom as possible in moving to the best part of the court by staying near the center when playing singles, or spacing yourself out when you’re playing with a partner. Use all information at your disposal to predict your best next position: your opponent’s style, the shot you just hit, and where they are most likely to return it based on their style, history, and position.

Switching from offense to neutral to defense

When playing offensively, you’re in charge of your opponent’s movement. When in neutral, you’re assessing to decide if you need to respond offensively or defensively. On defense, your opponent is deciding where you need to go to get the ball. In any one volley, you need to be able to decide which scenario you’re in. Switching between each of these modes is a split second decision that will develop with experience, and with the next tip.

Be in the moment

As touched upon earlier, playing with undivided attention is crucial to good game. For instance, as you enter your swing motion, you should be focusing only on hitting the ball well, carrying out your choice by trusting your ability, your natural instinct to perform in that moment.

Keep in mind that your options and choices will be determined in part by what your opponent can and does decide to do.

Taking his predicament one step at a time, “the Martian” problem-solved his way back to Earth. So, as you put these tips into practice, consider yourself lucky that your on-court problems are more fun than life-or-death, and happening right here in the cushy conditions of our hospitable planet’s surface.