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Mental Equipment
November 1996 Article

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Mental Equipment Archive

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Confronting Fear in Tennis

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Dr. John Murray

This month we examine a truly terrifying emotion in tennis ...fear!

Do you remember the last time you were struck by fear in a match? If it threw off your performance on a decisive point, you have plenty of company! Let's confront and destroy this feisty foe.


Webster defines fear as a distressing emotion aroused by impending pain, danger or evil, whether real or imagined. In tennis, fear is usually brought on by the possibility of making a mistake, appearing incompetent, or losing. Other descriptions of fear are self-doubt, worry, concern, and negative thoughts or feelings.


Fear is seldom helpful in tennis. It may lead to negative outcomes including dangerously high arousal (See September 1995 article), impaired concentration (See November 1995 article), reduced confidence (See January 1996 article), tensed muscles, lost rhythm, indecision, expectations of failure, and lowered perceptions of control. Although this emotion effectively alarmed our ancestors of approaching predators, the most threatening predator on the tennis court is often fear itself!

Typically, fear increases with the perceived importance of the situation. Play becomes more conscious, careful and tentative in an attempt to avoid mistakes. The term "choking" is used to describe this effect. A serve that was once loose and fluid is reduced to a fat marshmallow, and groundstrokes are awkwardly steered and pushed for added security. Opponents not overcome by these same tendencies quickly realize an opportunity, play more aggressively, and assume control of the match.


It is important to distinguish between fear and nervousness. Whereas fear is always a negative mental state, nervousness is a physical condition (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating) that can actually improve play. Martina Navratilova admitted that she always got nervous playing tennis and had to gradually learn that it was not a weakness. Jack Nicklaus stated that he did not know how to play great golf when he was not nervous. So while nervousness provides a great source of energy to enhance performance in critical moments, fearful thinking about what might go wrong is a useless menace.


There are no quick or easy solutions to eliminate fear from your game. Since fear arises as a result of your own appraisals and expectations, it will be important to comprehend performance in a slightly different way.

Here are some ideas to help you view things differently and begin to eliminate this harmful emotion:

  1. Forget about how others might see you. Your perceptions about yourself are most important.

  2. Begin thinking like a winner both on and off the court. Frequently image what you would like to have happen while avoiding doubtful thinking about possible misfortunes.

  3. Keep an active memory of times when you performed well and learn to eliminate memories of bad performances.

  4. If you become afraid during a match, realize that your opponent may feel the same way. Focus concretely on what you are going to accomplish and then just do it.

  5. Practice begining matches at 15-40, 4-5 in the final set. Learn to love this challenge. Maintain an aggressive style of play rather than becoming tentative.

Your best tennis comes when you are relaxed, poised, and believe in your abilities. You cannot control the outcome and you cannot always win, but by confronting your fears head on you'll develop the courage of a champion. See you next month ...

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Mental Equipment Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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