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Competitive Tennis and Pressure

Ever said this to your pro – I played well in practice this week, but I did not play nearly as well in the match over the weekend. Played for an hour and half and almost every game went to deuce, we lost 2-6, 1-6!!! Situations such as these happen over and over again! It happens to players who play league matches and tournaments, regardless of their level or rating.

Understanding Pressure

In the world of competitive tennis, matches are often won or lost based on a player’s ability to manage pressure. Competition leads to pressure that creates different levels of stress. Stress causes nervousness which in turn leads to faster heart rate. Players make hasty decisions almost rushing to get a point or situation over with.

Eustress v Distress

Being nervous means you care!

Competitive tennis players of all levels are nervous both before and during matches. During a match every ball struck is a decision made! It is part of a tennis player’s job to make sure they are not blinded by nerves in their decision making.

Not All Stress is bad! Eustress or good stress is just the right amount of stress which gets competitors in any field to prepare better and be on their toes. Players usually experience this nervousness before a match and it usually wears off as the match progresses. The problem starts when the level of nervousness gets beyond control leading to Distress. In the remainder of this article, we are going to discuss what creates pressure or tension and how to manage it.

“Pressure is Self-Inflicted!” – Steve Smith

Unlike Team sports, in tennis, players usually don’t get fired or traded. Club players usually play tennis because they like it and move from one club to another by choice! Most juniors play for the same reason and they either want to be ranked or make their school’s varsity team. In any case, losing any one single match does not put an end to the rest of your tennis life! There might be external pressures – Parents, coaches in some cases, spot on a particular team, etc, however, when you step on the court and once your support staff is now become an audience, your DESIRE TO WIN and ultimately how you have PREPARED are the two main ingredients determining how much pressure you feel on game day.

With one’s desire to win, comes the pressure to perform. In most cases, it is safe to say that by the end of warm up, one of three conclusions are drawn –

1. This match is very winnable

2. The opponents are certainly stronger and I/we have to play very well to win

3. The match could go either way (50% chance)

In spite of popular belief, conclusions 1 and 3 lead to the most pressure, while conclusion 2 brings out the best game in players (until the match actually becomes winnable). This is precisely why most people like competing with someone who is better.

Although it is true that certain points create more pressure than others in tennis (e.g.: 30-40, 40-30 etc), the players’ choice shot selection must not be hindered by the situation. If there is a short ball – ATTACK, don’t put it back in play and hope for an unforced error by your opponent. The ability to make decisions irrespective of the score is a skill developed through deliberate practice of such situations.

Techniques to manage pressure

  • Breathing - Breathing is the simplest way to relax, avoid rushing into points and control the fast heart rate your nervousness has caused. Take deep breaths before a serve or return, and breathe out as you strike the ball. Practice breathing vigorously in your clinics and practice matches. After all habits are NOT formed in a day!

  • Rituals- Rituals for any competitor are habits that lead the person to a place of comfort and work in avoiding hasty decisions. They are like sensors that make an athlete go back and forth between a state of relaxation and focus. It is hard to focus 100%, all the time. In order to sustain long periods of time competing, tennis players have to constantly learn to switch on their level of focus at the beginning of points while relaxing once the point has been played. Rituals tell you – “It is time to focus, it is game time.” Examples of rituals include bouncing the ball before serving, jog on the spot before point begins, using the towel, taking specific number of deep breaths, adjusting your sleeve, etc.,

  • Visualization- It is safe to say that tennis players can often see an unforced error coming. Next time you hit a double fault, odds are you were doubtful before you even hit the second serve. While mind control is a subject well beyond this article, it is possible for players to train themselves not to let the thought of the potential error enter your mind.

Visualization or planning and filling your mind with positive ideas will reduce the amount of thought of potential errors. For example: before you serve, think of serve placement and your next potential shot.

Usual reply by player: “I am happy to just get the serve in!”

Well, if your thoughts get consumed in JUST getting the serve in, the odds of NOT getting the serve occupy at least 50% of your thought process. However, having a target or a plan prior to every shot or decision significantly reduces the amount of thought given to “WHAT IF I MISS?”Instead it focuses on the positive - serve to her backhand and look for a short ball.

  • Practice with goals and targets- Repetition is the mother of Skill

The 5 P’s of tennis – Poor Preparation leads to Piss Poor Performance

Mental Toughness – The ability to hit the ball where you want to, when you want to.

Any skill in sports can be acquired. Granted some individuals have a head start in certain situations; but good practice with good advice and perseverance can be the difference maker!

When it comes to practice, in order to be a complete tennis player, one must practice every facet of the game. Tactics are fed by Technique. If you own a shot, odds are it will not fail you under pressure.

You are allowed 20 seconds between every point as per USTA rules and most leagues follow this. Players MUST practice their rituals, breathing and visualization – not just their tactics and technique! This will help you control the TEMPO of the match.

Most commonly ignored drills that players should include in their practice sessions - 2nd Serve Practice, Shot Threshold – ones rally count – how many balls can you keep in play before unforced error happens, Target practice

  • Be Performance oriented, not result oriented-

“Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser” – Vince Lombardi

Everybody likes to win! It is important to lose with class! However, losing must also motivate you to perform better. If tennis players demand performance – play and fight hard to the best of their ability – odds are you might end up on the winning side more often even on a subpar day. And if not, your hunger to treat the loss as a stepping stone towards getting better increases. This is a Win – Win situation!

  • Enjoy Pressure- “Pressure is a Privilege” – Billie Jean King

Remember – managing pressure is an acquired skill! Enjoying pressure comes from seeing the fruits of preparation! Constantly remind yourself why you play tennis. In many cases, repeating a line or two such as - I like pressure – eventually starts to have a positive effect on what the mind believes over time.

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