Has this ever happened to you? You are in a pressure situation in an important match. You tighten up, and one more time you choke. What can you do that will help you learn to play under pressure?
I have been asked this question a thousand times by players from many different levels of play. The answer to this question is a kind of oxymoron. You must learn to fail in order to learn to play under pressure. That's right - FAIL! Think of it this way. You have two separate skills you are trying to master when playing under pressure. The mental skills and the physical skills. The mental skill of not freezing up, and the physical skill of getting the ball in the tennis court, which now under pressure looks like the size of a place mat!!! If you know when you are not under pressure the physical skills operate fine, obviously the mental skills need some training. Therefore, first and foremost is to experience what it 'feels' like to go for your shots under pressure.
Unfortunately most players fall into a major pitfall. They will say, "I did go for my shot, but I missed!" But I missed? Who said anything about making the shot? EXPERIENCE 'WHAT IT FEELS LIKE' was the phrase. You must treat this situation exactly like learning anything else in tennis...you practice! You practice going for the shot every time you are faced with this type of pressure situation. How do you think the pros have learned to think correctly under pressure? They have been practicing over and over again to go for their shots under pressure. By the time you see them on television they have already practiced over and over and over and over again that similar situation. As a result, they make it look easy. They have developed SPONTANEITY THROUGH PREPARATION.
You can do the same, but it will require a mental toughness on your part to accept the failures that come with going for your shots under pressure. When I am teaching a play action doubles drill where my students are playing points I constantly try to put them under pressure. I may say something like, "this is a key point, your partner is counting on you." Sounds cruel doesn't it?...They think so too!!! But, many of them have learned from these little tests to play relaxed under pressure. I let them know I do not care if they win or lose the point, what I am interested in is their ability to go for the shot and accept the outcome.
Mental toughness does not mean you never fail. Mental toughness is the ability to accept the failure and keep moving toward your goal. YOU ARE FAILING FORWARD! It is this mindset practiced over and over again under pressure that will prepare you to play automatic and spontaneous tennis. You must experience what it 'feels' like to go for your shots under pressure whether you win or lose the point.
Will you be able to learn to play under pressure? Well, you probably already have learned! Many things in life, at work, or whatever profession you are in requires you to perform under pressure. Just beginning a new job alone can provide pressure. Eventually you become comfortable because you practice day after day. The same is true for tennis, if you would like to learn how to play under pressure you must put yourself in pressure situations over and over and over again and consistently choose to go for your shots. Eventually you will shock yourself. And your opponent too!!!