Pressure. It can proceed some of our greatest moments and it can also leave us ruined. Sometimes it makes us feel like the world is about to collapse on us, sometimes it makes us feel as if we can fly. Some of us deal with it better than others. But I can assure you, that deep down, we all love it, it’s like a drug to us. If this wasn’t the case, then why would we play tennis?
A sport that’s scoring system is designed to create pressurized points even when in theory you’re winning comfortably. A sport that leaves you completely isolated to go toe to toe with your opponent like a pair of gladiators slugging it out If you didn’t subconsciously love to feel pressure then you wouldn’t be playing this sport.
The problem is, our subconscious minds might love pressure, but our conscious, logical minds can be petrified of it. You’ve got a second serve at 5-6 in a tiebreak and your brain is just shouting double fault, the pressure increases, and you start to feel the classic signs of stress – fast breathing, accelerated heart rate, and tense muscles. You know the probability of a so-called “choke” just got much higher.
The good news (for your subconscious) and bad news (for your conscious mind) is that you’re always going to feel pressure, no matter what you do. The question is not how to eliminate pressure, the question is how to use pressure to get the best out of yourself.
Having spent an entire match last night dominating on return before proceeding to shank every breakpoint return to the fence I decided it was time to find out some strategies for dealing with pressure on the tennis court.
I won’t claim to be some psychological expert, but within my research, I think there’s plenty of information that you can use to overcome your problems with pressure points. So, to use the classic parent’s comeback to everything, “don’t do as I do, do as I say,” and follow these 6 strategies for handling pressure on the tennis court.
Embrace The Moment
As we’ve talked about in the introduction, one of the main reasons we all keep coming back to tennis is that deep down, we love these pressure situations. You may say “I play to win” or “I play to have fun,” but in the biggest wins you’ve ever had, the points you’re going to remember are those pressure points, and we can all agree, that when you “choke” under pressure it’s anything but fun, and yet you keep coming back.
So why don’t we just admit to ourselves before pressure points, “this is why I am here – these are the points I love!” This isn’t a mental trick, it’s just the truth. I think our brains can convince us that when the pressure is on we would rather be anywhere but where we are in that moment, it’s like a panic response, but in reality, you’re exactly where you want to be.
Obviously, when you start thinking “I would rather be anywhere else but here” that’s at the extreme of the pressure scale, you’ve pretty much been defeated at this point. But learning to embrace the moment and realizing that these are the points you love can be effective no matter how much pressure you are feeling.
I remember one time when I was young and playing in Spain, and I felt like I was under the pressure of the Greek god Atlas who was sentenced to hold up the sky. I’d reached the point where I could barely function on a tennis court. As I sat at the change of ends, I looked at the view and thought to myself “I’m playing tennis at this beautiful tennis club in perfect weather, doing the thing I love.” It was such a simple thought, but it released so much pressure.
As Simon Boulter says in his article, Performing Under Pressure — 9 Ways Great Athletes Make It Count, When It Counts Most, “the truth is you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving you best, you’re either going to win or you’re going to learn.”
Even on the off chance you don’t win and you don’t learn, you’re going to be doing what you love!
A Pressure Point is a Pressure Point For Everyone
Another way our brains like to trick us is by convincing us that we’re the only ones who feel pressure. In many ways, our brain treats being under pressure on the tennis court in the same way as it does a life or death situation. The accelerated heart rate, short breathing, and tight muscles are the same, and we also switch to a narrow self-focus as well which is designed to help us preserve ourselves.
When we start to feel the pressure we suddenly start to focus much more of our attention on ourselves and this can be a big problem. I read a great book a few years back called “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell and it had a great chapter on the distinction between choking and panicking.
“Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.”
Take for example, when you go trekking through the jungle. If you encounter a leopard or a big cat, the worst thing you can do is run. You may have gone through training for what to do when faced with an aggressive leopard, but when you’re faced with the prospect, your brain forgets logic and turns to instinct – you run. This is panic.
What’s much more common in tennis is choking, which is where rather than relying on our instincts we over think things. Our focus becomes much too narrow, obsessing about the tiny details of ourselves, your forehand technique, your last point, the last time you were in this situation, how you’re going to feel if you lose this point.
We’re so involved with ourselves that we fail to even consider that our opponent is going through the exact same thing as he’s playing the exact same point! It’s not really possible for a point to be huge for you and not matter to your opponent.
Everyone feels pressure because it is natural. So why not focus on the pressure your opponent is under and how you can maximize that pressure? A pressure point for you is a pressure point for your opponent and everyone feels pressure. Switch the focus of your attention from yourself to your opponent and take solace in the fact that you’re putting them under extreme pressure.
Control the Things You Can Control
One of the best ways to maximize the pressure you’re putting on your opponent is by controlling the things you can control. One of the reasons pressure can result in such stress in tennis is because you start to feel like you are not in control of anything. You’ve got to make sure you take back control of the things you can control and focus on those things.
The two things you can always be in control of no matter what are your routines and your strategy. The problem is, when we start to feel extreme pressure, we often completely disregard both of these things.
One of the most common things to do in pressure situations is to rush, both before the point and during the point. If you’re in control of your routines and strategy then you can easily avoid this common mistake, and make a big difference to your performance on pressure points.
This is another great way to shift your focus from yourself to your opponent. Rather than thinking about the tiny details of your game, think about how you can pile the pressure on your opponent through your strategy.
When you’re playing a big point it’s always best to be playing your favorite shots, so come up with a way to get play on your strength and on your opponent’s weakness. There’s no need to complicate things just because it’s a big point. Do what you do well and make your opponent play a difficult point.
Every second you spend thinking about your strategy is a second you’re not spending overanalyzing your own game and your own flaws.
There’s a reason why guys like Nadal and Djokovic have such elaborate routines – they work. Routines are an absolute favorite topic for sports psychologists and with good reason.
If you can really focus on your routines and keep the self-indulgent, introspective thoughts about your game out of your head then you’ve got a better chance of starting the point with a clear mind. At the end of the day, you know how to hit the ball back into court, you don’t need to think about that.
The goal is to get to your starting point and just do what you know you’re able to do, what you’ve done thousands of times before!
Things Aren’t As Interconnected As You Think
The fact that you lost a break point in the last game should have absolutely no bearing on your next break point. A break point (or any big point) is exactly the same as any other point. They all start with a serve, and they all end when someone hits a winner or someone misses. The only thing that has changed is the score.
Say you have a break point in the first game at 30-40 which you lose. When you get another break point in the 3rd game at 30-40 why should your performance on the first break point affect your performance on the second break point? All they are is the 6th point of the match and the 18th point of the match, so why should there be a correlation?
It’s like playing dice. Just because you’ve rolled the dice 20 times and not seen a six yet doesn’t mean the probability of a six coming up has changed. The next time you roll the dice your probability of getting a six is still 1 in 6.
It’s the same when it comes to big points in tennis. Even if you’ve made an error on the last three big points, you’ve got to believe that the odds reset each time because it’s just another point. We always want to see a pattern in things even when there is no pattern.
You can be losing 6-3 in tennis and have won the same number of points as your opponent, so when you approach a break point, are your chances 0% because you are 0-4 on break points or are your chances 50% because you’re 24-24 in all points? There’s a lot more data to suggest the second equation is more accurate.
If you’re in a pressure situation then you’ve almost certainly won plenty of points to get in that position. Focus on those positive points that have got you into the pressure position as opposed to the negative outcomes you might have experienced on previous pressure points.
Your performance on the next pressure point doesn’t have to be related to your performance on the last pressure points, but, it’s up to you to reset the odds. If you’re focussing on what’s happened on previous pressure points then the odds will keep stacking.
Trust That You Belong
I’d love to play Roger Federer tomorrow, but they don’t just let any old person play against Roger Federer – you’ve got to earn the right. The same is true of any tennis match, you’ve earned the right to be on that court.
There are many players out there, who, specifically when they’re playing against higher standard players, struggle to believe that they deserve to be there. This can be a cause of great anxiety, which ultimately leads to pressure.
We can only play our best tennis when we are focussed solely on our tennis. If you’re busy worrying about what everyone else is thinking then there’s virtually no chance you will play your best tennis. In order to put these distractions behind you, you have to believe that you belong at the level you’re playing at.
So, I’ll return to my original point! If you wanted to play Federer tomorrow, would you be able to? You wouldn’t. That’s because we have to earn our place on court. Now, there are plenty of guys that are going to go on court against Federer and get their butts kicked, but you cannot deny they’ve earned the right to be there.
The same is true in whatever tennis you’re playing. If you’re on the court, then you deserve to be there, otherwise, you wouldn’t have been asked to play or accepted into the tournament. You may get your butt kicked by a much better player, but you belong exactly where you are because otherwise, you wouldn’t be there.
As Peak Sports says, “when you focus on the ‘triggers for worry’ the pressure becomes unbearable.” When you don’t believe that you belong in the competition you’re playing you suddenly add a hundred more things to worry about.
The answer is simple though, if you are there then you deserve to be there.
Let Go of Fear
It’s amazing to hear an honest, heartfelt interview from an elite tennis player because you realize that they are just like us. One of my favorite pro players is Stefanos Tsitsipas, who sadly suffered a shock loss yesterday. Afterward, he gave an incredibly frank interview in which he said:
“It was very, very difficult to overcome that match. I was really disappointed. I am disappointed now. People expected things from me. I didn’t deliver. When you get so much support, so much energy, so much positivity from everyone, just ruin everything by yourself, it’s devastating,” Tsitsipas said. “I should be the one creating. I should be the one just playing my game. I can’t seem to find a way to do that.”
To me, those last sentences sum up the most difficult challenge that many people experience in tennis. You just want to play your game, but somehow you can’t find a way to do that. I’m not sure whether it’s fear that’s holding Tsitsipas back, but in many cases, fear can be the most crushing creator of pressure there is.
I recently played two back to back matches. The first was against a good doubles pair, the second against a pair we should have been beating every time.
The first match I played well on pressure points, on match point, at 6-5 in the deciding tiebreak, I hit a clean winner off the return. In the second match, I had about 8 break points and I made 1 return in court on those break points.
The difference between the two matches was that in the first one I was playing with a will to win, the second match, I was playing with a fear of losing. In the first match, the pressure was there, but I faced it with relish, the second match, the pressure built and built and built until it was too much.
Whatever it is you fear on the tennis court, it has a way of attracting pressure to you and destroying your performance. Fear is a natural human emotion, but we cannot let it control us.
When we go onto the tennis court, we have to find a way of reframing our focus to convince ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of. If you can use steps 1 to 5 to change the focus of your mind and let go of fear, then you will find you get a lot more enjoyment from tennis and you win a lot more matches.
You’re always going to feel pressure. If you didn’t feel pressure on the tennis court then you probably wouldn’t love the game half as much. The trick is learning to negate the negative effects of pressure and maximizing the positive effects.
At the end of the day, you don’t need to be impervious to pressure, you’ve just got to play the pressure points a tiny bit better than your opponent and you’re probably going to win. Tennis is a game of small margins and a tiny change on the biggest of points can make a massive difference to your results.
Next time you’re faced with a high-pressure situation on the tennis court why not focus on these 6 points:
- Embrace the Moment
- A pressure point is a pressure point for everyone
- Control the things you can control
- Things aren’t as interconnected as you think
- Trust that you belong
- Let go of fear
Everyone has their own ways of dealing with pressure, but making these small changes can bring you great benefits. Like anything, dealing with pressure takes practice, but it is something you can improve. You’ve got to take steps to change things though, and these six points are a great place to start.
Article by: Will