Love them or hate them they are part of the reason we play. There is nothing quite like the nervous moments before a big match, not knowing what is about to happen, with every possible scenario running through your mind… this is why nerves make the win that much sweeter and the loss that much tougher. Here are a few tips I have picked up over the years to stop the nerves from overwhelming you on the court, but be warned… they aren’t all easy!
Don’t forget to breathe! Ok, you can’t forget how to breathe completely but breathing properly is a bigger part of tennis than most people realise. Of course we have the standard, 3 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, visualising that you are blowing the nerves out of your body as you do this. You can use this before a match, in between points, during changeovers… all of this is good and effective but I am sure you have heard it before.
Have you ever felt so nervous and tight that you desperately want to pause the match for 5 minutes, run to the practice court, hit ten balls to get that loose feeling before continuing the match? I have… plenty of times. Hoping for a rain delay is probably a waste of your time and energy, but you do have free shots in a match which you can use to loosen off. Every time they miss a serve long or wide, use that as your chance to breathe out strongly as you rip a big loose forehand with no fear anywhere you want. It is more helpful if it goes somewhere near the court and not over the fence, but each time you do this it will chip away at that tightness and before you know it, you have done it ten times within a few games and you are feeling much better. This is one of my favourite ways to feel more confident on the court and it is effective quickly too.
Annoyingly I can’t sell confidence and you can’t buy it, but many people think that confidence only comes from winning which I strongly disagree with. I have never felt more confident than when I walk in to a tournament, take a look at the draw and know that no one could have worked harder than me in the last few months. To know that I have pushed myself and improved every time I was on the court, I didn’t waste a ball in practice, I could not have done more and no one else could have either, gave me a huge amount of confidence even in the middle of a losing streak. Of course this doesn’t mean you are going to win the tournament, but it gives you a nice platform to start from.
This only works if you have been putting in that work for enough time and that is relative to your age and standard. For juniors it can be as little a few weeks of hard work, but it gets tougher and tougher as you progress. If you turn up to a tournament and know in the back of your mind that you didn’t train on Tuesday because you didn’t feel like it, and you rolled your eyes because you didn’t want to hear it, that means you are being led by your feelings rather than driven by discipline. When you walk on to the match court having been led by your feelings in preparation, they will take over once again and you could be overwhelmed by emotion and anxiety.
Where is it coming from? What is it? If you can get a better understanding as to why you are feeling such immense pressure then you will be able to diffuse it.
Are you expected to win? Top seed? Beaten them before? I found the best way to deal with this was to remember why I was the top seep, and similar to my previous point it was because I had competed harder, trained smarter and as a result won more matches. Every drop of pressure I felt I had earned and I should be proud of that. As a side point to that, pressure on the top seed is all in your head as they rarely win the tournament… most of the time they aren’t even the best player in the tournament so don’t read too much in to it. Being better than someone does not mean you are going to beat them, and losing to someone does not make them better than you… its just one match.
Learn to love the challenge! I have blogged about this before but I will do it again because that is what you are playing for! You have got to expect that your opponent will play well, not hope they will give it to you, that happens less and less as you get older. You are on your own out there and you need to become equipped to deal with any challenge that presents itself on the day. Most of this is around your own game… missing too many first serves, dragging the switch line into the middle, not being aggressive enough. “Control the controllables” Johanna Konta would say and this is where your focus should be. You never know what is going to happen in a match or what your opponent is going to do, but use your nerves to become excited about the challenges that may come… there is an answer to everything but can you think clearly enough to figure it out?
Nerves are so important and very few players will say they don’t feel them, but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by them. Be driven by discipline, ready for the challenge, and prepared to the best of your abilities and you will feel more confident and mature on the court.