Tennis is a very enjoyable sport, offering a test of your skill and athleticism in a generally pleasant environment. Despite this, we all tend to put ourselves under pressure to play well, or to win, in certain circumstances, and this can provoke crippling anxiety.
A high-profile example of this was seen in the men’s singles final at the 2004 French Open. World number 3 Guillermo Coria was at the peak of his powers, dominating on clay and strong favorite to win the final against 44th-ranked Gaston Gaudio.
Coria duly took the first two sets comfortably, for the loss of just three games, but then something changed. As Gaudio relaxed, a wave of anxiety seemed to overcome Coria. Gaudio took the third set, and Coria’s legs started to cramp. The contest was soon in a final set, and the favourite tried to dig in, twice going a break up and serving for the match.
Despite holding two match points, Coria could not close it out, and Gaudio eventually took the title, winning 8-6 in the fifth. Coria had looked vastly superior, but he was ultimately defeated by his own anxiety. So, how can a player cope with feelings like those Coria experienced?
It is important to consider what is causing the anxiety if you wish to overcome it, as you must address the root cause. Playing a lot of matches and becoming used to the pressure can be helpful. A sound game plan can give you something else to focus on, and solid pre-match preparation can be reassuring.
There are also psychological strategies that can reduce anxiety.
Why Are You Feeling Pressured?
We all become anxious about our tennis on occasions. For Coria, it probably arose from the big boost to his status within the game which would have arisen if he had won the French Open, combined with his wish to prove himself after what he considered to be an unjust doping ban.
For the rest of us, the causes of anxiety will vary, but in many cases, it comes down to a link we make between our performance in tennis and our self-esteem. The anxiety can be heightened if more people are watching, or if we have decided that the outcome of a match is important for some reason.
The important thing to realize is that the bulk of this pressure is in our own mind and, given this, it is entirely in our power to reduce it. It may be that if we analyze the cause of our anxiety we can put it into perspective and feel more relaxed. If this proves difficult, there are several other ways of dealing with pressure.
The Importance Of Playing A Lot Of Matches
Competing regularly means that you are regularly exposed to pressure situations. This gives you more experience of dealing with anxiety, and should mean that you gradually become better at handling it and slowly become mentally tougher.
This will not, however, help if you do not make the effort to understand your anxiety, or to admit how you feel. Following the 2004 final, Coria admitted that he had felt afraid, but that his pride had prevented him from accepting this fact. Instead, he simply pressed on regardless as his mind and body betrayed him.
The Importance Of Having A Game Plan
A game plan is always useful, as it implies that you have devised an appropriate set of tactics to deal with your opponent’s style of play. It can also help with anxiety by giving you something else to focus on which you trust will help you succeed.
It is difficult to become overwhelmed by anxiety if you are constantly assessing your adherence to your game plan and considering whether it needs to be revised.
The Importance Of Warming Up Well
It will often reduce anxiety if you are well prepared for a match, as you will be hitting the ball and moving reassuringly well when you take to the court. This emphasizes the importance of a thorough pre-match warm-up, involving stretching and hitting. You should not rely on the 5-minute warm-up prior to the start of the contest.
Effective Strategies For Coping With Performance Anxiety
Routines are very important in coping with anxiety. In particular, what you do between points and between games can be carefully designed to maintain calmness. A helpful routine for the time between points might be as follows.
– Clear your mind of thoughts about what has gone before. Turn away from the court or go to your towel as a trigger for moving on to the next point and forgetting the previous one.
– Visualise what you plan to do on the next point, beginning with where you intend to place your serve or return.
– Execute your plan.
At changes of ends you have more time, so you can add a phase in which you review your game plan and consider if any revisions are necessary.
Despite all of the above, feelings of anxiety can still creep in at inopportune times, so it is helpful to practice relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, perhaps using a special technique like abdominal breathing, can be beneficial between points. During a rally, it is important to continue breathing as you hit your shots, and grunting as you do so can ensure that you do not hold your breath.
Finally, it is possible to introduce more pressure situations in practice to create anxiety and enable players to learn how to deal with it. For example, games where a difficult target is set, and where you must start again from the beginning if you do not succeed, can create increasing pressure.
Everyone gets anxious sometimes, and unhelpful words like ‘choking’ can create a stigma around it. The key is to understand why you are anxious, and to have effective strategies for dealing with it if it occurs.