Roberta Vinci’s Low Expectations May Be Why She Beat Serena Williams at the U.S. Open

If Roberta Vinci’s epic win over Serena Williams at the semifinal match in the US Open last week taught us anything, it’s that life is nothing if not unpredictable. And while we were shocked at the Italian unseating our very own (and ruining Williams’ chance to make history), Vinci seems to have been even more surprised, saying she thought there was no way she would possibly win against the American tennis legend. Vinci apparently went into that match not worrying about a win, but instead with the goal of just having fun. So while this might have been the ultimate surprise for Vinci, it may have been these underdog expectations that were the actual key to her victory.

Sports psychology studies have shown that your mental state—specifically the amount of pressure you’re putting on yourself—has a direct effect on performance. In a recent study in Frontiers In Human Neuroscience, athletes who recieved positive enforcement during a cycling challenge in the form of a smiley face had more endurance and percieved the challenge as requiring less effort on their part because it made the workout more fun and lighthearted. (Check out Your Mental Marathon Training Plan.)

For most of us, though, taking off the pressure is easier said than done. But according to sports psychologists, this is precisely the art that Vinci mastered, whether she meant to or not. “It’s sort of practicing the act of not caring while actually caring 100 percent,” says Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in New York City. “You have to be able to care so much about the process but not care about the results to be an exceptional athlete.”

The idea is not to go into the game thinking you’re going to lose, but instead to focus on enjoying it instead of winning, he adds. “For some people, thinking you’re going to lose helps to get to that ultimate goal of taking the pressure off.”

So how can we become Vinci-caliber winners on and off the court? Fader recommends practicing some sports psychology techniques that can help you clear you mind before getting in the game. Mindfulness, for one, helps professional athletes (and the average person!) focus on the experience rather than stress over the outcome. (In fact, it’s one of 17 Powerful Benefits of Meditation.)

And don’t underestimate the power of a good, positive pep talk. “The message to yourself that you’ll probably lose is going to increase the chances that you will,” he says. Instead of psyching yourself out, tell yourself things that keep you focused on the process like “Follow all the way through!” each time you serve or “I’ve done this before so I can do it now!” Fader also points to evidence that talking to ourselves in the third person can actually be more motivating. Think “you got this!” versus “I got this!” (And try these 8 Ways to Override the Urge to Quit.)

So take it from Vinci, drop the purusit of first place and just bring your A game instead—the trophy may follow naturally.

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