The key to avoiding choking in a tennis match is to learn how to stop battling with nerves and other difficult thoughts and emotions.
The process of choking begins when we respond unhelpfully to the worries and feelings that often occur when we’re in the lead.
Instead, we should recognize those thoughts and feelings for what they are – an inevitable human response to the situation we are in.
These thoughts and feelings may be inevitable, but they don’t have to guide how we perform in a match.
Choking is not caused by the presence of difficult thoughts or emotions. It’s caused by how we respond to them.
If we respond to those thoughts and emotions by thinking about them, or by trying to work them out, then we are contributing towards the choking process.
Choking is like a snowball gradually being rolled across the ground. At first the snowball is small and insubstantial. It needs to be packed with a few layers of snow to stop it disintegrating.
As you roll it through the fallen snow on the ground it picks up more and more snow, which gets impacted on the surface, making the ball bigger and more solid. After a while the ball is huge and if left alone will probably take hours to melt.
Something insubstantial that would have melted away into nothing became large and substantial because of your input.
The choking process is the same. At first, all it consists of is a few thoughts and a few feelings. Perhaps you think ‘I could lose this’ or ‘It will feel so good to win this!’. Maybe you feel a burst of nervous tension in the stomach or arms.
If you could disengage from these feelings at this point, the potential choke would remain insubstantial like a small snowball left alone on the ground to dissolve.
But that’s not what happens for most players who struggle with choking.
Instead, they keep rolling the snowball until it has gathered so much size and weight that it completely overwhelms them.
Rather than leaving those initial experiences (the troubling thought, the anxiety (link), the sensations in the body) to dissolve, the player responds to those experiences with thinking and self-examination.
The thought is interpreted as a premonition of defeat. The unpleasant feelings are interpreted as confirmation that the feared outcome is really happening. The fact that your arms are shaking or your stomach is full of butterflies is taken as proof that something is going wrong.
A vicious circle develops. The more you think about those thoughts and feelings, the more they occur. As this happens, your concentration begins to slip. You make poor choices during rallies. You play too defensively, or go for too much. You drift from your game plan. You lose confidence in your shots.
Crucially, you become tired as mental energy is spent on managing the choking process inside your head, rather than on the match itself.
The results are never pretty, and the post-match feeling after a choke is one of the worst any athlete can experience.
Choking can hurt so badly that many players who struggle with it consider quitting tennis.
Fortunately, it’s possible to eliminate choking from your game in a relatively short period of time.
The key is to learn how to short-circuit the process of choking.
Consider what it would be like if you could prevent the vicious circle of choking from ever forming.
Think about how it would feel if you could simply leave the initial troubling thoughts and emotions alone, and refocus on the match.
The first step in overcoming choking is to accept that it’s normal to have distracting thoughts in a match when you are in the lead. You should expect to experience thoughts like ‘I could lose this match’, or ‘It’ll feel so good to win this match’.
You also need to accept that it’s normal to feel a range of distracting emotions alongside these thoughts, such as anxiety, and elation or excitement at the prospect of winning.
The difference between choking and not choking lies in your ability to disengage from these thoughts and emotions.
The thoughts and emotions are not to be pushed away or fought with. Instead they need to be noticed and accepted. Just let them arise and pass in the mind and body as they will.
Acceptance frees you to refocus on the task in hand.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Choking can’t be banished overnight.
However, with the right mental training you can get to a stage where you will never choke again.
It will become a habit to notice difficult thoughts and feelings on court, and then refocus on the next point.
As a starting point, next time you feel the early stages of a choke coming on, take a short pause between points, notice the thoughts, notice the feelings. Then focus on your breathing for a few seconds, tuning into the sensations in your nose or belly. Then bring your attention back to preparing for the next point.
This is a basic way of beginning to interrupt the vicious cycle of choking.
Learning how to consistently disengage from unhelpful thoughts takes practice, and there are a range of tennis-specific mindfulness exercises which can help you get there.
If you want to transform your mental approach to tennis, then I offer coaching via Skype or phone. Feel free to contact me to arrange a free, no obligation 30 minute Skype or phone coaching session.
You can also download my Mindfulness-Based Tennis Psychology audio course and book here.