Dealing with nerves
By: Simon Grieve
Notes From The Over 35’s Tour
When was the last time you put yourself under real match pressure? When was the last time you got that tight feeling that is common with getting out of the comfort zone?
Last year I decided that after a long break from tournament play, I wanted to get back into competition tennis. Since January 2006 I have been eligible for over 35 tournaments and I have competed at both the Indoor Nationals at Birmingham and the Clay Court Nationals at Bournemouth. Next month I am going to play at Wimbledon at the Grass Court Nationals, I can’t wait!
Combined with Match plays and National Club League matches, I have clocked up quite a few matches in the last year and I have learnt lots about how I react under match pressure, sometimes well other times not so well.
Here are some points that I have learnt over the past months.
· Nerves can (and probably will) affect performance significantly: Having coping mechanisms for competition will really help. I identified the following points that helped me calm down during the difficult opening period of a match:
(a) Keep breathing, slow and deep.
(b) Remind myself to move my feet.
(c) Look at the ball, and
(d) Play higher percentage tennis (make lots of balls over the net).
· Feeling nervous is a good thing. Nerves show that we care about the outcome of the event and with training can be seen as an opportunity to test and develop your-self as an individual. At Indian Wells during a press conference, I asked Rafael Nadal if he felt nervous during matches. He laughed at me and said ‘of course’, then he said something that really made me think. He said ‘feeling nerves is the nicest part of tennis’. What an outlook, no wonder he plays so well during big occasions.
(a) Accept that you will feel nerves during matches.
(b) Look forward to feeling nerves and see them as a challenge to overcome, something that will help you become a better player. It is easy to perform skills during practice when the outcome means little, what counts is being able to really perform new techniques, tactics or thinking patterns under real match pressure!
(c) Realise that your opponent feels nerves too.
· Nerves causes muscle tightness. Goran Ivanisevic claimed that he could hardly lift his arm when he prepared to serve at match point up against Rafter in the 2001 Wimbledon final. The following tips have helped me, give them a go next time you feel tight during a match.
(a) Fully complete your follow through with the forehand and backhand. I have reference points for my groundstrokes e.g. Catch the racket in my left hand on the forehand side and feel a stretch in my chest with the one handed backhand.
(b) Drive the legs on the service. Make sure you go after the serve
(c) Be very aware of your internal conversations. What are you saying to yourself, make sure it’s positive.
(d) Encourage yourself to make ‘good’ mistakes, ‘brave’ mistakes, for example if you double fault make sure you go for the serve. The worst feeling is when you push the ball to get it in and you make a mistake, far better for the psyche to be brave and miss, and
(e) Play to win. This sounds simple but often under pressure we play not to lose, push the ball back in court and hope our opponent makes a mistake. Don’t get into a habit of doing this; it is much better to be in control of your own destiny.
I was really fortunate at Indian Wells to ask Roger Federer and James Blake the same question that I put to Nadal, ‘do you get nervous?’
Federer admitted that he handles pressure far better than he used to (no kidding Roger!). His advice was to put yourself in difficult pressure situations as much as possible, the more you experience pressure and the unknown the more it becomes familiar and easier to deal with.
Blake explained that after losing the first set 6-1 against a local junior wild card opponent, Sam Querry, he sat down and at the change over and calmly and positively talked to himself. He reminded himself that he was playing well and that his opponent was also playing well (perhaps the game of his life). He challenged himself to keep calm, play his game and stay in the present. His opponent’s game was out of his control, if Querry kept his level up it would be tough, however if his level dropped Blake would be there to grab hold of the match and take the victory. As you can imagine Querry could not sustain such a high level and Blake strolled through the final two sets 6-1 6-1. Blake admitted that this mental toughness had been learned; through years of experience, he had an inner belief that he could come through the challenge. No doubt in years gone by he might have panicked and lost the match
It has been said that some people are naturally more mentally tough than others. This may be the case, nevertheless, I believe you can make significant improvements to how you react under pressure by frequently putting yourself in tough match situations and by focusing on controllable aspects of the game, for example performance of strokes or self talk, rather than uncontrollable factors, for example winning and losing.
My advice is to listen to Federer, I am pretty sure he knows what he is talking about. Enter a tournament, it doesn’t even have to be tennis, it could be golf. It doesn’t even have to be a sport, it could be giving a public speech. Anything that gets the pulse racing will do, getting out of the comfort zone puts you in the winners circle!