Tennis players come in all shapes, sizes and abilities, but we all have one thing in common--when the pressure is on, the match is on the line or we want to do well, our nerves and muscles seem to seize up and not work like they should. Be it a social doubles game, a league match or a professional tournament final, whenever the score is being kept, the opportunity to choke is always there.
We all choke, but guess what? It's OK, and, in fact, it's often funny. I've seen players hit the ball straight up in the air, straight down into the court and even swing and miss when the "big moment" arrives.
My all-time greatest choke happened 25 years ago, but I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was in the quarterfinals of a junior tournament and I was pumped up because it was my first time in the final eight. I felt confident I could win my next match and advance to the semifinals. "The semis," I thought at the time, "that's where real players end up, and I might just be one of them!"
I had a few days before the match, so I had time for a couple of practice sessions. I drilled, played and worked out on the ball machine. I used the ball machine mainly for one shot, my shoulder-high backhand volley. It was a weak shot for me, and I wanted to get the shot down before the big quarterfinal. I must have hit 2,000 shoulder-high backhands and got to the point where I could execute the shot consistently. I was ready.
Third set, 4-all in the tie-break. Back then we played 9-point tie-breaks, with the first player to reach five points winning the set, and, in this case, a trip to the semifinals. After a long rally, I made my way to the net and was given a gift--a shoulder-high floater to, you guessed it, my backhand side. I moved forward, like I had done a thousand times that week, squeezed my grip a bit tighter and volleyed the ball deep into the corner... of the next court. I choked, big time.
Now I've read all the theories about the enzymes in the brain that are released under stress which cause a chemical reaction that in turn affects our physiology and causes us to choke. But, the bottom line is we choke because we're afraid, plain and simple.
We're afraid to lose. We're afraid of looking bad in front of our friends. We're afraid of letting our parents down. We're afraid that we won't make the team. Often, we're even afraid to win, because if we win we may be expected to win again, and who needs that pressure?
This fear causes our muscles to tighten up and disrupts the smooth motion of our strokes. It also affects our concentration because it throws our emotions off balance. I was afraid of losing, and, as that shoulder-high easy sitter floated across the net, that fear crippled me.
People have two sides to their psyche that contribute to their behavior: their thinking side and their feeling side. John McEnroe immediately comes to mind as one whose behavior is frequently dominated by his feelings. Arthur Ashe was a competitor whose personality was defined more by his thinking side.
McEnroe, in his recent autobiography, admitted that his intense fear of losing outweighed his love of winning and often fueled his rages. Ashe undoubtedly experienced the same feelings, but his intellectual side was able to suppress his emotional desires to yell out or toss his racket when things didn't go his way.
When we're young we struggle to control our emotions. That's one of the reasons you see a large number of temper tantrums among junior players. The more fragile your self-image is, the more prone you are to choking. Players who tie their self-image to their results on the court tend to choke more because, in their minds, there is a lot more at stake than winning or losing a tennis match.
As we grow up, our intellectual side (hopefully) develops and has more of an influence on our actions. A well-balanced person still feels the emotions but has learned to control them and resist the urge to scream out or slam that ball into the backstop. Our intellectual side provides us with perspective. As the match begins to get tight and you feel the fear surfacing, slow down and ask yourself one question: "What am I afraid of? If you're honest with yourself, you'll then answer, "I'm afraid of losing."
When you stop and think about it, what are we really afraid of? In our competitive society, we're taught that winning is good and losing is bad. Unfortunately, we often take this to the extreme. We're afraid of what people will think of us if we lose. This is where our intellectual side must take over and put things in perspective.
Confront your fear. When you do, more often than not, you'll find that it is unfounded. This applies off the court as well. In college I was a communications and English major. One of the classes I was required to take was advanced public speaking. Having given tennis lessons for a few years, I was quite comfortable speaking in front of a small group, but speaking before a large audience was something completely different.
For three years I signed up for the class, and for three years I dropped the class. I was petrified. During my senior year, second semester, I had one more chance. I signed up again and was somewhat relieved when I saw that a few of my friends, who were as scared as I was, were in the class and had saved me a seat in the back. "At least I won't be alone in my misery," I remember thinking.
The teacher assigned speeches and allowed us to choose our time slot. I always chose the final slot, trying to delay the agony for as long as possible. Each week I would sit in the big classroom in a full sweat, watch and listen to my classmates give their speeches. By the time it was my turn, I would stumble and choke my way through my speech.
Our final speech of the term was to be 20 minutes on any subject of our choice, and we had a two-week span to give it. Two weeks of agony I could not handle, so 10 minutes before the first class I went around to all of my tennis-playing friends, gathered up their rackets and headed off to the auditorium.
When the teacher asked, "to whom will we have the pleasure of listening to first?" my hand shot up. I couldn't tell if the look on his face was shock that "Last Slot Greg" was volunteering, or pure relief in that he would be able to get my speech over with first. Either way, I was up!
Feeling the sweat dripping down my sides, I asked everyone to stand up and push their chairs to the side. I cleared a big space in the middle of the room, handed everyone a tennis racket and gave a tennis lesson. The fear went away, the sweat dried up and I truly enjoyed it. The teacher actually had to cut me off. From that point on, my fear of speaking in front of large groups disappeared.
I learned an important lesson during that speech: Once we learn to face our fears on and off the tennis court, we'll see that in virtually every situation we really have nothing to fear at all.
On the court there is no cure for choking, but there are a few techniques that can lessen its effects. When you feel the pressure building, remember these few tips:
Remember, each day half of the people who step onto a tennis court lose. In the overall scheme of our lives, it means nothing. Keep your tennis in perspective, and you'll realize that there is no pressure on the tennis court. As long as you can walk off the court having given your best effort and having conducted yourself appropriately, you are a winner--regardless of what the score, or anyone else, says.
- Keep your feet moving. Our footwork is one of the first things to go when we get nervous. When you begin to feel tight, be sure to bounce up and down and side to side a little bit. This constant movement will keep you loose and help you to concentrate. Remember: Lively feet equal a lively mind.
- Breathe. Become aware of your breath as it goes in and out. One negative response to nerves is to hold your breath. That only makes your muscles tighten up even more. Make sure to breathe in as you prepare your swing. As you make contact, breathe out. Grunting is a super way to keep the air flowing. Tennis great Ilie Nastase used to say "whoosh" to himself throughout his strokes to keep himself loose.
- Focus. Tension occurs because of "ifs." We think, "If I lose this next point I'm in trouble," or "If I lose this match, what will my friends say?" Instead of worrying about what may happen in the future, focus on the here and now. During the point, focus on the ball. Once the point ends, concentrate on your breathing and your strategy for the next point. If you feel an "if" creeping into your mind, push it aside with a deep breath.
- Learn to think like a winner. When you feel tight, don't try to ignore it. Acknowledge it, and view it as a challenge rather than a barrier. Learn to love the battle. Remember, the ball doesn't know what the score is.
- Don't look for excuses. They're readily available if you search for them, but excuses are the easy way out. They're a way of rationalizing our loss and hanging on to our self-esteem. There's no shame in losing a tennis match. The only shame is in not dealing with it maturely.
- Smile. The physical act of smiling releases chemicals in your brain which help you to relax.