Tag Archives: nerves

How To Control Your Emotions In Tennis

Experiencing difficult emotions is normal in tennis.     It’s also normal to want to control or get rid of those emotions.

The problem is that trying to control emotions doesn’t work.  In fact it’s often counterproductive.  By attempting to control or eliminate uncomfortable feelings, we’re actually putting fuel on the fire, and compounding our difficulty.

The only effective way to control emotions is to give up on trying to control them.

This may sound counterintuitive, but I’m going to explain in this article why this is correct, and the steps you can take to deal more productively with emotions on court.

Accepting Difficult Emotions on Court

Players often ask me how they can get rid of troubling emotions during a match. How do I stop feeling unhappy about trailing in a match? How do I overcome feeling disappointment when I make a bad mistake? How do I avoid nerves on big points?

I explain to them that there is no need to get rid of any of these emotions. They’re normal responses to the inevitable events that occur in a match.

If we make a series of mistakes, it’s normal to feel frustration.  If we get a bad line call, or get distracted by someone shouting in the crowd, it’s normal to feel anger.  If we’re serving for the match, it’s normal to feel nervous.

Anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety and nerves are all common experiences and we should expect to feel them to a lesser or greater extent in every match we play.     Tennis is an unusually mentally challenging sport, largely as a result of its unique scoring system, which constantly puts us under pressure, with players poised to take all or lose all at regular intervals.  The game’s very structure continually pushes our emotional buttons.

Of course, we can also expect to feel joy, excitement, satisfaction and other positive emotions in tennis.  A tennis match is usually a rollercoaster experience of different feelings and thoughts, some positive, some negative.

Accepting this fact is the first step to an effective approach to our mental experience on court.

We should not expect to feel good all the time on court. One of the keys to developing mental toughness in tennis is learning how to play well when we’re not feeling good.  This is one of the least understood skills of all the great players – the ability to play well and win, even when you’re not feeling good.

Why Trying To Control Emotions Doesn’t Work

When we accept that difficult emotions are normal and can’t be avoided in a tennis match, then we no longer need to feel surprised by them or that something is wrong when they occur.  Instead we can focus on dealing with those challenging emotions in an appropriate way.

Think of your emotions as being like the weather.  Sometimes it’s a sunny day without a cloud in the sky, sometimes it’s overcast and cold, sometimes it’s stormy and dark.  Most of the time the weather is changeable.

So it is with your emotions.  Sometimes you’re happy and playing with ease and freedom.  Sometimes you feel flat and out of sorts.  Other times you’re struggling with dark and difficult feelings on court.  Very often you experience changeable and various emotions during the course of a match.

The lesson here is this: just as you can’t force the weather to change, in a tennis match you can’t force your emotions to change.

Interfering with your emotions and trying to change them can get you into trouble.   Just as shouting at a stormy sky because you want it to be sunny will not change the weather, so arguing with yourself, or trying to talk or think your way out of a bad mood or unwanted feeling will not work.

In fact it exacerbates the problem, focussing your mind more on the unwanted feeling, and less on the present moment and the match itself.

Crucially, trying to think your way out of difficult emotions on court increases the amount of cognitive activity in the mind.  This unnecessary thinking makes it hard to get into the zone, that state of flow in which you play with intuition and ease.

Remember that when you’re playing in the zone you’re not thinking a lot – you’re in a deep state of presence where thinking is either minimal or non-existent.

Trying to deal with difficult emotions by thinking about them or ‘working them out’ is generating more thinking, just at the time when you need to be thinking less!

There are also practical reasons why trying to think your way out of unwanted emotions on court doesn’t work.  You simply don’t have time!  You have at most a minute on the changeover or between points.  This should be a time for rest, maintaining composure, and perhaps a little strategic planning (ie. where to serve).  This time should not be wasted on interfering with emotions.

Dealing Effectively With Emotions On Court

So, we can’t control emotions.  And thinking about them on court doesn’t help us either.

In order to deal effectively with emotions, you have to learn to leave them alone, and then refocus on the match.

In short, we have to learn to do nothing with our emotions.

Sounds like it should be easy, but most players instinctively want to meddle with unwanted feelings and try to banish them.

You have to train yourself not to do this.

You need to learn to notice your emotions, then let them be there, then refocus on the present moment.

One of the most efficient ways of learning this is by training in tennis-specific mindfulness.

Mindfulness trains us to be present and focused. It enables players to maximize their potential in every match, whatever their emotional experiences are.  It helps players overcome nerves, choking, anger and frustration.  It enables players to play with ease, freedom and intuition.

When we give up on trying to control our emotions on court, we open up the door to a new, more effective way of playing the game.

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.

How to Stop Choking in Tennis

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.

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.