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Relaxing Under Pressure

Choking, tanking, tantrums, moping, whining, racket-slamming, screaming, official-berating, etc., if you've been around this sport for a while, particularly in the junior division trenches, you're likely to have seen it all. Where do these emotions come from? It seems that a child who is an angel one moment is liable to turn into a monster the second he's faced with a minor obstacle during a match. Does tennis make people crazy or are crazy people attracted to tennis? I don't know if there is an answer to this question and arguments can go both ways. However, if you don't have a sports psychologist on staff to assist you with your child's mental game, how do you break through the initial stages - when it seems that the whole world is collapsing around you no matter how hard you try - before the game itself breaks you?!

Again, as with all topics covered on our site, it doesn't seem that an easy solution is readily available. Sorry, folks, no DVDs, self-help books, magic pills, or imported snake-oil. When faced with certain situations that seem insurmountable, it helps to think of the game of tennis as a way of life rather than an end result. Everything you're feeling is not novel; people have gone through the same emotional stages for generations. In this regard, the best players know that there are some situations that they can control and a number of situations that are not within their realm of authority. Initially, the components of competition that are totally within your control are those dealing with your preparation. These are your practices, workouts, training, studying, attitude, emotions, effort, stretching, icing, practice matches, and all the other little things that come together to form a symphony of who you are as a player. Skip on one or more of these things ("hey, it's just stretching. No big deal;" or "I'll play sets tomorrow"; or "My serve's good enough. I don't need to practice it today") and the stress that you feel on court are the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. All of a sudden, you wish that you could go back in time to do all those drills that your coach asked - nay, BEGGED - you to do. But time travel is not within our grasp at this moment. Therefore, what would otherwise be a calm and confident performance turns into a masterpiece of inconsistency, paralysis, anger, nerves, dissatisfaction, anxiety, stress and, ultimately, acceptance.

Nevertheless, while you're contemplating hanging up the racket and enrolling in that Norse mythology class that you've always wanted to take, it's worth noting that all successful people are faced with pressure situations on a day-in and day-out basis. How do they cope and excel while lesser players fold? First of all, be they lawyers, doctors, accountants, professional athletes or world-class musicians, the "best of the best" start out by focusing on the process, not the result. They know that the results are natural products of a number of factors including: preparation + attitude + work + dedication + consistency + luck. A surgeon thinks about the steps she must follow - from anesthesia to closing up the patient. The thought that the patient might die on the operating table is not something that consumes the physician's every waking moment. Sure, it's something to keep in the back of the mind as a possibility but constantly fretting about everything that could go wrong would end up paralyzing the physician with fear. Same with an attorneys - they analyze the facts and the laws. They are not obsessed with how the judge might rule. These non-tennis professionals are aware that the result (win or loss) does not define them as human beings. How they deal with obstacles says more about them than their actual results. A loss is only a loss if they fail to bounce back and strive for a win. To use an analogy, the end result is like the canvas of a painting - it's something that remains in the background but the art-work, that is, the process, remains in the foreground.

Theory aside, if you are faced with a pressure situation during the match, here are some things on which you can focus in order to shift the emphasis from the result to the process and, hopefully, relieve some of your stress:

1. Have you won a point? Yes? Great; if you can win a point, you can win 4. 4 points won equal a game; 24 points amount to a set and 48 add up to a match. Therefore, if you won a point (and I'm assuming it wasn't a double fault by the opponent - in which case, you shouldn't be feeling too much pressure) you can win a match. Therefore, relax. As corny as it sounds, "you can do this". The key is to figure out the way to get there by focusing on the little bites not swallowing the whale in one piece. Even the best climbers need multiple, smallest steps to reach the top of the Himalayas. As a player, learn to put one foot in front of the other and follow in the footsteps of giants - one step, one point at a time. Strive to regain a 2:1 win-loss ratio for your points. Maintain this balance for a few games, and your opponent will eventually throw a couple more points your way. If you can win 2 points for every one that you lose, you will win the match - it's not magic, it's math.

2. Are you taking appropriate breaks between points/games? This is important. Too many times, a player who's facing the executioner's noose is all too willing to sprint to the gallows. The player races from point to point, ditching 2-3 returns straight into the net or tossing a few consecutive double faults for the benefit of the opponent. Following this path takes a great deal of pressure off the opponent since he sees that he's made you reach your boiling point. If you cleared the first obstacle (i.e., answered "yes" to #1 above), the second duty is to "stop the bleeding". Stop donating points to your opponent; stop giving him confidence. Instead, make him think about the trophy (i.e., the result). As outlined in the step above, you want to maintain a positive win-loss ratio with respect to the points. Don't allow your opponent to steamroll you off the court. Slow things down to a crawl and regain your composure.

3. Control the things that you can control and by this we mean: serves. Ultimately, your serve should be your primary weapon. It's the one shot where your opponent has little or no say in it. Focus on picking your spots and having a high first serve percentage. The key is to serve "smart". Depending on your skills, serving smart may mean mixing up the pace, placement or even spin. Read your opponent's stance and try to figure out if he is anticipating a certain serve. No need to bomb serves if the opponent is standing 10 feet behind the baseline. A deft angle will do just fine. Don't forget about the jam serve. In pressure situations, our brains seem to focus on the "openings" (i.e., the corners) while excluding a more obvious target - the body. Mix things up so that you can spend the greatest amount of your energy on breaking your opponent's serve not holding your own. Players such as Federer and Sampras are tough because they breeze through their service games and then marshal(ed) their assets to tearing down their opponents' serves. Learn from them by focusing on your serve and shot immediately following the serve.

4. Don't play a hero on the returns. As previously mentioned, aiming for the lines with the returns is usually a bad idea and it's even more so when you're playing key points under pressure. Drive your returns deep in the middle of the court in order to neutralize the opponent's initial advantage. Make her play every single point. Show her that you are not to going away without a fight. Force her to show you how much she wants that trophy. By putting constant pressure on your opponent's serve you will, hopefully, relieve some pressure off your serves. Think about all the times when you struggled to hold serve and didn't have the energy or focus to mount an offense in the following game on your opponent's serve. It's only natural for your mind to take a mini-break after having to concentrate for a significant period of time. Thus, in step #4, you are attempting to make holding your serve (step #3) easier by pressuring your opponent's service game.

5. Share the pressure. Remember that the term "competitor" means to "jointly seek". That means that you and your opponent are in this battle together. Shift some of the pressure onto the opponent by making him hit uncomfortable shots in pressure situations. For example, 4-4 and 30-30 - this is a great time to chip and charge on your opponent's second serve. Make a good play, and all of a sudden the opponent is facing break point. Lose the point - no big deal; the opponent still has to serve it out but now he's thinking about the last point and how lucky he was for coming up with a good play. At least he's not thinking about the point ahead!!! Making your opponent think about the past means that your opponent is not living in the present. Now, you're opponent will start to feel some pressure because you have become unpredictable and the situation uncontrollable. By dictating the tempo, first through well-timed breaks, second through surprise plays, the momentum will start to swing your way.

6. Don't give your opponent easy points. Scrape, moon ball, push, grind, hack, whatever it takes - make your opponent fight for every point. Move your feet! This is a similar concept to point #4, but there's no use in making your returns just to ditch an easy rally. Take pride in your defensive capabilities but this is not the time to aim for the ESPN highlight real. Go after your opponent's legs, lugs and heart. Make him question the wisdom of being there on the court. Remember that, unless you're an ATP-level player, your opponents are not world-beaters. With basic planning and execution, they are all very, very beatable. Part of the pressure that you are feeling is caused by the feeling of wanting to win without a fight...being unsure of whether you have what it takes. Forget it; embrace the contest. Tell yourself "there's no place I'd rather be right now than on this tennis court". Repeat it and believe it. The sport of tennis entails virtues such as patience, perseverance, passion, sacrifice and, most of all, "game." Game means your willingness to rise to the occasion and love the heat of battle. When your heart beats fastest, your breath is loudest...that's the aspect that you need to learn to enjoy the most.

7. Keep your eyes on the court. A lot of players are not comfortable being out on the court by themselves. Normally, mommy and daddy are out on the practice court "helping the coach" collect balls or encouraging the player to try harder. Unfortunately, when you're playing a match you're out there on your own. Looking at the sidelines and seeing mommy's face grimacing (or disappointment in her eyes) after you've missed a shot will only increase your anxiety and sense of helplessness. Therefore, stop looking for safe harbor in your parents' eyes. You will not find it there. The consolation can only be found on court. Accordingly, in between points, focus on your strings, the towel and the ball. Never ever look at anything beyond the fence. Even the best players envelop their head in a towel on the changeover in order to block out the prying eyes of the audience (as a side-note, a non-player asked me one time: "why do these guys always look at their strings between points? What's wrong with their strings?!" That is, even she noticed that the players' eyes are fixated on the string-bed and NOT wandering around the arena). If focusing on the court is good enough for them, it's good enough for you.

Lastly, remember that it's only one game. It's seems like it's the biggest cliche, but it's the truth. At the end of the day, we're not solving the world's problems - we're just hitting a little yellow ball across the net and trying to break a sweat in the process. Therefore, learn the most you can from the experience, experiment with all the shots and strategies that you have covered in practice and remember that this is all just a test. It's how you bounce back from your experience - be it a loss or a win - that says more about you as a person that the actual score.

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Reader Comments (1)

#7 is brilliant!

November 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa S

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