Anyone who’s ever picked up a racquet, from beginners to world class players, has experienced tension while on the court. It’s that feeling of nervousness, anxiety, excitement or fear stemming from a number of possible situations. I’ve seen it countless number of times working with beginners who have a complete lack of understanding. As they struggle to process new information they tense up which only makes it worse. The more experienced player may experience tension from a variety of things…fear of losing, playing in front of a crowd, trying to hit too hard, wanting to impress someone, playing someone who’s “really good,” or from the frustration of having a bad day. Tension promotes a tightening of the muscles that leads to an inability to perform uninhibitedly or what is better known as choking.
Imagine being Andy Murray playing for the Wimbledon title with the expectations of thousands of his countrymen riding on the outcome. If there was ever a reason to be tense on a tennis court that would be it! But Joe Club Dude can feel a huge amount of tension in his attempt to beat Bill Club Dude with comparatively little at stake. So what can you do to lessen the amount of tension you’re feeling out there…I’m not a sports psychologist but these are the things that have worked for me…
The first thing is to simply recognize that you’re tense. The sooner you’re able to do this the better because at least then have the opportunity to change things up. You know when you’re feeling good and things are flowing and when they’re not take stock of what the problem might be.
Breathing properly can help immensely. I’m not a fan of the Sharapova/Azerenka “knife in the gut” shrieking but simply expelling air when you strike a ball can help alleviate tension.
It’s break point or match point and this knowledge can fester in a matter of seconds to the point where you wind up bricking a ball that a minute or two earlier you were ripping. As soon as those kinds of thoughts creep into my head I remind myself that I love this situation…this is exactly where I want to be…enjoy being in that moment whatever the outcome.
Play a song you like in your head. I was once in a mixed doubles final of a town tournament played at a private court with a hundred or so people there who either knew I was a teaching pro or were actually taking lessons from me. I knew they had high expectations and I had to show them I could “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk.” To be sure, I was tense but during the warm up in my head I started singing Huey Lewis and the News’ a capella version of Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s Alright.” I kept that going throughout the match, I played loose and we pulled it out.
Staying focused on the ball and let the other stuff take care of itself. Don’t worry about your opponent’s reputation or that cute girl you want to impress.
Lastly, find a level of intensity that prevents you from trying to hit the ball too hard. On a scale of 1-10 this would be about 5. I like to warm up at 3 and work my way to 5. When you try to hit hard your grip gets tighter and your muscles tense up and often times you wind up off balance. Loosen your grip, and be content to hit the ball well and you’ll get far better results.