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. I 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.
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 a faster heart rate. Players make hasty decisions while rushing to get a point or situation over with.
Eustress v Distress
Competitive tennis players of all levels are nervous both before and during matches. But this can be a good thing, being nervous means you care! 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 also play for the same reasons, which is 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, a spot on a particular team, or a ranking. When you step on the court, your support staff has 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.