Every tennis player who competes, at any level, will experience feelings of nervousness at some point. This can happen at the start of a match which they consider important, or when the match is at a critical stage like a set point or match point. When a player feels nervous, their heart will beat a little faster and their breathing will become a little more shallow. They will feel slightly less in control of their movements, and they may feel that some of their strength has dissipated.
With all of these things happening, it becomes much harder to play the level of tennis needed to win a match. Some players seem to be afflicted by nerves far less than others, meaning that they can win more important matches. It is highly unlikely that they are actually immune to pressure, so what kind of experiences or techniques might be helping them to keep their nerves under control?
It is true that to be a successful tennis player you must be mentally strong, but this is something which can be learned.
Nerves in tennis are a natural response to self-doubt, although they tend to become less significant the more you play. Whilst nerves are therefore unlikely to ever be completely eradicated, even by the top players, psychological strategies can be employed to control them during matches.
The Importance Of Being Mentally Strong
Multiple grand slam champion Venus Williams believes that: ‘Tennis is mostly mental. You win or lose the match before you even go out there’.
If you doubt your ability to win, then nerves will hit you when you get a chance to do so. It is vital to understand, however, that players are not born with the mental strength they need in order to succeed at the higher levels of the game: such strength comes from training their mind to deal with any issues which might arise.
If you watch professional tennis, you will see that some matches are quite predictable, despite the difference in ability of the players appearing small. This is often because, as Venus observed, one player is far stronger mentally, having trained themselves to perform solidly in the important points and to have confidence in their ability to take the initiative when necessary.
Why Do We Get Nervous During A Tennis Match?
Fundamentally, we get nervous because we doubt our ability to do what we are attempting. In practice sessions we are unlikely to get nervous, as it is accepted that these are a learning environment. Mistakes, whilst not encouraged, are accepted as part of the process.
In a match, we want to win. There may be people watching, whom we might want to impress. The contest might be important for the team we are representing, or we may be playing an opponent whom we do not really believe we can beat. Any of these factors can magnify a minor lack of confidence until we feel like we are attempting the impossible.
This occurs because our mind starts to consider all of the implications of failure when it should just be allowing our body to do what it has been trained to do. If you find yourself thinking: ‘If I double-fault here we won’t make the final and everyone will know I choked’, or something similar, a positive outcome is not likely.
The physiological symptoms described earlier, such as an elevated heart rate and rapid breathing, arise because you are starting to panic, and these will also prevent you from playing positive, relaxed tennis.
Playing More Often = Less Anxiety
One reason why we may doubt our ability is unfamiliarity with the situation. For example, if we find ourselves in our first final, it is natural for us to feel a little anxious, especially as there may well be more people watching and taking notice of the result than we are used to. This tends to result in our being more vulnerable to feelings of self-doubt and panic if anything starts to go wrong. As we improve, we will reach more finals.
The experience we have had in previous big matches, whether we won them or not, will stand us in good stead for the next one, and we will be much less prone to anxiety and panic.
This same argument aplies to any situation we encounter in matchplay. If you are faced with something you have experienced many times before, it is unlikely to faze you. Playing a lot of matches, therefore, tends to make you mentally stronger and better capable of handling high-pressure situations.
Effective Strategies For Remaining Calm During A Match
A Sport Psychologist will be able to help you to learn a ‘toolbox’ of techniques that you can use either before or after anxiety strikes. A clear game plan, which you can focus on when things start to go awry, can be a good preventative measure, as it takes your mind off what might be causing your anxiety.
Self-talk can be useful as either prevention or cure. If you work on speaking to yourself in a positive, encouraging way, counteracting any intrusive negative thoughts, you will be able to attack anxiety at its source.
Finally, relaxation techniques can alleviate the physical symptoms, helping you to be calm and ready to play. Abdominal breathing ensures that you take deep, calming, breaths, and progressive muscle relaxation can reduce physical tension.
Do You Ever Get Rid Of Nerves 100%?
The answer to this is, sadly, no. Even the great champions are nervous at the Grand Slams. The mental training they have undertaken simply enables them to deal with these feelings and continue to perform well.
Everyone gets nervous- the best players simply know how to deal with these feelings. If someone is regarded as a ‘choker’ this is not a character weakness: it simply means that they have not yet learned how to handle nerves. A few sessions with a sport psychologist, covering some of the ideas discussed here, will set them on the right path.