Struggling with nerves during tennis matches is one of the most common problems that new coaching clients ask me to help them with.
Like all difficult emotional experiences in tennis, nerves can be overcome, and soon you’ll be able to maintain a high performance level whatever pressures you experience on court.
I’m going to explain how you can beat nerves and play with freedom, even on the big points.
Nerves can manifest in many ways in tennis. The battle with nervousness can start well before a match for many players. The moments before going on court in a tournament are a nervous time for almost all players.
Even the mighty Rafael Nadal gets so nervous before matches that he has to go to the bathroom sometimes up to five or six times.
Many factors can play on your mind before a match. For example, fear of failure; intimidation at facing a strong opponent; worry about making mistakes in front of spectators; and sometimes fear of letting down a coach, team or family.
These fears lead to tension in the muscles, and other unpleasant sensations, such as butterflies in the stomach and trembling. Nerves can also make it hard to concentrate and some players can feel spaced out and tired even before striking a ball.
For other players, nerves are confined to the big points, or to situations like serving for the set or match. Moments of pressure in a match can turn some players’ legs and arms to jelly, send their minds racing and disrupt their concentration.
How many times have you seen elite players wilt under pressure when facing a match point, or relinquish a lead because the pressure got to them? It’s a common problem for tour professionals as much as for beginners.
Some players feel nervous and self-conscious about particular shots. This can lead to avoidant, defensive play or a loss of swing power.
Again, you can observe this phenomenon at times at the top of the professional game. Consider Andy Murray’s second serve which can lose power when he’s nervous, or Novak Djokovic’s overhead which can let him down when the pressure’s on.
Some players struggle with a more general sense of nervousness in a match, which can seep into everything they do. This pervasive performance anxiety can become overwhelming. Some players, including elite players, end up quitting the game because of this.
1 – Accept that Nerves are Normal in Tennis
The first thing to accept about nerves in tennis is that they are normal and unavoidable. That’s one reason why I’m including references to top professionals in this article.
Nerves are an inherent part of the game. Everyone feels them, including the very best players in the world. There is nothing wrong you if you feel nervous at multiple points in a match.
The very structure of a tennis match makes nerves inevitable. The unique scoring system repeatedly creates pressure points where one player is poised to take all, the other to lose all. If you’re match point up or down you can’t avoid being aware of what’s at stake. That knowledge will make you nervous, at least to some extent.
The tighter the match, the more intense the nerves. This is a natural reaction to a stressful situation.
2 – Your Response to Nerves is the Problem, Not the Nerves Themselves
As with all emotional experience on court, the problem is not the emotion, but how we respond to the emotion.
Players who struggle with nerves (and most players do to some extent) are responding to their nerves in unhelpful ways which exacerbate the problem. They tend not to accept nerves as normal, and instead feel that nervous feelings need to be banished or resolved in some way.
For example, some players respond to nerves by talking to themselves, internally or out loud, perhaps trying to rationalize the anxiety away or soothe themselves with affirmations. They may also get distracted by the unpleasant sensations in the body which occur with anxiety.
This approach is counterproductive for a number of reasons.
When we feel nervous, what we need to be able to do is maintain concentration and stay present. We have to be alert and ready to play the next point.
By engaging with nerves, by trying to ‘work them out’ or even comfort ourselves, we are taking the mind out of the present moment and generating unnecessary mental activity. As though the experience of nerves wasn’t enough, we are adding fuel to the fire with our attempts to lessen our nervousness.
The only sustainable way to deal with nerves is to leave them alone.
Allow yourself to be nervous. It’s normal and you can’t avoid it. You need to learn how to notice your anxious feelings without responding to them, and then refocus on the task in hand.
I use a wide range of tennis-specific mindfulness practices with my clients to help them overcome nerves and maximize their ability to stay focused on the big points.
It takes practice, but with consistent practice over a number of weeks, you can develop a sense of complete comfort with nerves.
You can develop a newfound ability to play with freedom and courage.
You’ll relish the big points, rather than fearing them.