Pressure is a factor in any competitive sport. The legendary Billie Jean King has suggested that: ‘Pressure is a privilege- it only comes to those who earn it.’ In other words, if you work hard at your game and play well, you will get the chance to play in increasingly ‘important’ matches, in which it will feel like there is more pressure. So In BJK’s mind, pressure is a reward for doing well.
Nonetheless, not everyone finds high-pressure situations comfortable, and tennis can provide a lot of these. Former grand slam champion Jim Courier has observed that tennis can actually produce a more intense feeling of being under pressure than other sports, for the reason that: ‘In tennis you’re out there by yourself.’ Given that pressure is always going to be a factor in tennis, what can players do to ensure that it does not negatively affect their play?
To handle pressure in tennis effectively, you need to understand where it comes from and deal with the source. Focusing on a clear game plan can take your mind off the situation. It is also helpful to use proven strategies for reducing the psychological effects of pressure and building the confidence to feel mentally tough.
Pressure Sources: Internal vs External
The real question here is what motivates you. ‘Intrinsic’ motivation comes from within. This produces a pressure to perform well to satisfy your own goals, which might relate to how you play rather than the outcome. If you set your goals sensibly, intrinsic motivation will push you to do your best without being concerned about what anyone else thinks. There will be pressure, but you can manage it by adjusting your goals, which is a healthy situation.
‘Extrinsic’ motivation comes from outside. It might arise from parental pressure, a need to achieve a specific ranking or prize money target, a fear of letting your team down, or a wish to perform well on a big occasion or in front of a large audience. In these situations, your goals are largely being set for you by other people, and pressure arises from factors that you cannot control. This lack of control can cause stress when things are not going well.
Is Pressure On A Tennis Court Good Or Bad?
This depends on where the pressure comes from. If your motivation and goals come from within, you will probably feel, like Billie-Jean King, that pressure is a privilege. You will set goals that encourage you to perform at your best. You will use this self-imposed pressure to make sure that you give your best effort throughout the match. This kind of pressure is a good thing, as it is part of challenging yourself to improve.
If your motivation comes from one of the outside influences described above, this produces pressure that is less productive. With goals that are out of your control, you can quickly begin to feel inadequate if things are not going your way. Aiming to satisfy people other than yourself can be extremely stressful in a physically and mentally demanding sport like tennis, and the anxiety which arises from this is not generally good for your mental health.
Have A Game Plan And Visualise It
If external factors are causing you to feel under pressure during a tennis match, it is important not to allow these feelings to cloud your thinking during rallies. One way to avoid this is to have a clear game plan, combined with a disciplined routine for the time between points.
The game plan will ideally include strategies for serving, returning, and rallying, bearing in mind your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. You need to be fully familiar with the details of the game plan before you go on court.
Between points, your routine should start with a trigger, such as turning away from the court, which tells you to forget about what happened in the previous point. You should then close your eyes and visualize what your game plan requires you to do in the next point.
Finally, you need to execute your plan. This kind of routine allows you to control your thoughts, by continually drawing you back to your game plan, and to push the pressure to one side.
Effective Strategies To Reduce Pressure During A Match
The routine described in the previous paragraph will certainly help to reduce feelings of being under pressure, but negative thoughts will still intrude occasionally. For example, unhelpful comments from the crowd or a parent might disrupt your concentration and cause you to begin to think about the pressure rather than your game plan. For these situations, there are techniques that can reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts.
The simplest is to control your breathing to reduce feelings of stress. Abdominal breathing techniques can be practiced which allow you to breathe slowly and fully, even when feeling under pressure.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can relax your muscles and help your mind to feel calmer. Finally, you can practice improving your ‘self-talk’ so that you can think positively when pressure starts to make you feel nervous.
Building Up Confidence
The more confident you are, the less likely you are to be knocked off course by pressure. Confidence can be enhanced by working hard on both the physical and mental sides of the game in training. Make your game as solid and reliable as you can, and develop resolutely positive self-talk. Set yourself demanding but attainable goals and you can go on court feeling confident and positive, so that external pressure is not a big factor.
If you find yourself feeling a lot of external pressure when you play, using the techniques described here, and perhaps speaking to a sport psychologist, should help you to find techniques to alleviate this. Everyone feels pressure, but some have learned to deal with it more effectively than others.