Tag Archives: mental training for tennis

How To Deal With Nerves In Tennis

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.

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.

Anger In Tennis

The best way to control feelings of anger in a tennis match is to stop trying to control your anger. The best course of action is no course of action!

It may sound counterintuitive, but doing nothing is the best way to deal with your temper on court.

By doing nothing, I don’t mean you should continue doing what you usually do when you feel angry.

Usually, you respond to your feeling of anger with thinking and self-analysis.  You get involved with your anger. You take it seriously.

You justify your temper, believing that you need to respond to it in order to work it out, or get rid of it.

Perhaps you swear, or throw your racket, or berate the umpire, or curse your opponent.  Most likely, you curse yourself, either out loud or in the silence of your thoughts.

That’s right, for most players, anger is directed inwards.  We lash out at ourselves, with self-criticism and other unhelpful patterns of thought.

But what if you could just let go of anger, even welcome those uncomfortable feelings?

The first step is to acknowledge that anger itself is not the problem.  The problem lies in how we respond to anger.

Anger is a normal human emotion that all players will experience in tennis, sometimes multiple times in a match.

We should expect to feel angry sometimes in tennis.  It’s a demanding sport with a scoring system that constantly puts us on edge, with one player poised to take all, the other to lose all.

We’re not rewarded proportionately in tennis. We can win plenty of points in a game, but still lose it with nothing to show for our efforts.  We have to win the right points at the right time.

This explains why tennis is such a psychologically challenging game, and why so many players struggle with anger and lose their temper.

Overcoming Anger On Court

If you meddle with and respond to your angry feelings, then you’re adding fuel to the fire. There’s no time in a match to try to talk yourself out of being angry. The very act of trying to do this adds a layer of unnecessary thinking into an already overactive mind.

Likewise, acting out your anger by throwing your racket or shouting, apart from being embarrassing, is often counterproductive.  Sometimes it may bring temporary relief, but over time it exacerbates the problem, making angry episodes more likely.  This happens because the behavior reinforces the emotion, effectively encouraging it.

A more sustainable approach to anger management in tennis is to learn to leave anger alone and let it subside naturally.

This is hard because the emotional purpose of anger is to prompt an action.  Anger is useful if we are being physically attacked or need to motivate ourselves to resolve a problem or a social injustice.  Anger is not very useful in tennis, where a sense of deep concentration and calm are key drivers of success.

Sure, a ball struck in anger might sometimes result in a blistering winner.  But more often than not an angry shot will miss the mark.

John McEnroe is a great example of how anger impedes a tennis player.  McEnroe admitted in his autobiography ‘Serious’ that anger hindered rather than helped him on court.  Despite occasionally playing well after an angry outburst, in general it led to a decline in form.   He is clear that he would have been an even better player if he had been able to deal more effectively with his temper.

Fortunately there’s a lot we can do to improve our relationship with anger.

I’ve written before about an exercise which will help you to overcome anger on the tennis court.  This practice teaches you the importance of noticing and acknowledging anger – and then redirecting your attention.

The power of this exercise is enhanced substantially if you have already developed a range of tennis-specific mindfulness skills off court.  For this reason I teach my clients a broad repertoire of foundational and concentration-based mindfulness skills, as well as on court practices.

I also encourage players to notice when anger arises in their lives outside of tennis.

While anger sometimes has its uses in everyday life, there are also many times when anger is unhelpful.  When an unhelpful feeling of anger pops up, acknowledge it, notice what it feels like in the mind and body.  Practice being with that feeling without responding to it with an action. Remind yourself that this is a process of mental training.  You don’t have to be on court to practice this, or even in a tennis situation at all.

Finding a new and more productive way of dealing with anger is liberating.  It feels great not to be a slave to an emotion, when that emotion is leading you down a problematic path.

It feels great to relax into whatever your mind throws at you during a match – that’s what mental toughness in tennis really means.

It feels great to be a resilient, self-sufficient tennis player.  It feels great to be truly focused and present on court.

Above all, dealing better with anger during matches will lead to much better results, and greater enjoyment of match play.

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.