As a writer, player and coach with well over a decade of experience in two of the three aforementioned areas, there isn’t much I haven’t seen or experienced in the trio of roles I have been associated with in my dealings with the sport of tennis.
One of the most common aspects I have had to deal with both as a player – and now a coach – is how to overcome a case of the proverbial ‘nerves’.
From ATP superstar Roger Federer to an inexperienced beginner, no matter whom you are or what level you play at, there is bound to be at least one moment in nearly every match you play when the pressure to perform will be so intense, that many players often beat themselves mentally before ever completing their first service toss.
However, weekend tennis warriors everywhere can take comfort in the fact that even professional ATP and WTA Tour players have to learn how to control and eventually overcome their emotions before they can go on to maximize their full potential after mastering the physical aspects of the game (just think Andy Murray people).
Of course, I would be remiss in failing to mention the fact that I had to overcome my own personal ‘tennis demons’ mostly, (revolving around my often inconsistent serve), before I could ever go on to beat any opponent.
Throughout those struggles – and because I’ve coached several players with similar problems – I have come up with five keys for every player, no matter what level, to use in their fight against a case of the proverbial ‘nerves’.
With the tennis season heating up – right along with the summer temperatures – here are my top five ways to battle of case of nerves in tennis!
Slow Down Mentally
When things are going wrong and you’re battling nerves, the first thing that all tennis players need to do is slow the game down mentally – and slow down physically as well. I’ve seen thousands of tennis players lose a crucial point or two, only to rush into the next point or two as if they’re trying to win the entire match all in one fell swoop. Tosses become rushed, over-swinging starts to occur more frequently and everything else goes downhill from this point.
By slowing the game down mentally and using a bit more brain power to break down your opponent and correct your errors, particularly technical ones, you’ll give yourself valuable time to get back in the match, both, mentally and physically. Forget all about the previous point or the ensuing one and focus your efforts on finishing the point you’re playing right now.
A few deep breaths and a bit more time in between serves generally seems to do the trick, not to mention ‘not playing the score’. Try to concentrate on one point at a time.
Breathe Slowly and Relax
Speaking of breathing, controlling your breathing is a huge technique that could work wonders for your tennis game and on-court psyche. There are numerous web sites and online videos dedicated to helping athletes of all sports improve their personal breathing techniques like this one from one of my favorite athletes of all-time, Lance Armstrong.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes benefit immensely from proper breathing, leading to a relaxed state of mind while performing.
Stick to Your Rituals
When player are battling a case of nerves, they generally tend to rush through games like they’re running a 100 meter dash, but the fact of the matter is that the more you rush, the more you’ll pay for it with costly errors.
One of the keys to keeping your wits when all hell is breaking loose is to stay in your routine of rituals…meaning if you always take six ball bounces before serving, don’t suddenly shorten it to four. If you normally take 15 seconds to prepare your serve, don’t cut it down to 10 seconds. Whatever your normal rituals or routine is, then stick with it, just as you would in a meaningless practice match and you’ll find that it works wonders in big match pressure situations.
Swing Through Every Shot
When tennis players are battling their own nerves, they often tend to shorten up their strokes in an effort to control the ball more and keep them on court. While I do encourage hitting with a bit more topspin than usual until you get into a normal rhythm, I’ve also seen players shorten their strokes up to the point where they’re not swinging through balls they normally would bash. This generally results in a lot of shorts balls that don’t penetrate the court – and correspondingly – produce a bunch of winners for your opponent. Swing through every shot just as you would in practice and don’t play it too safe to the point where your opponent doesn’t have to worry about playing defense.
Play ‘Two-Feet’ Tennis
One of the things I teach the juniors that I coach is to play what I call ‘two-foot tennis’. This tactic means, not going for outright winners that land on either sideline or the baseline, but two feet shy of each line. This method will allow players to get back in a rhythm while simultaneously still allowing them to play offensively, just with a larger margin for error. Remember, getting your opponent on the run with a series of shots that all land within two feet of the baseline or either sideline is just as good – if not more so – than a potential outright winner that could land just a touch long or wide.
So remember tennis players, when you’re in the midst of battling your nerves, employ these tactics and watch the pressure-packed moments that come in almost every tennis match, become a time you look forward to instead of fearing like a trip to the dentist.