10 Tactics to Combat Tightness During Pressure Situations
1.Forget technique during matches
Saif Syed once told me before a match to think only about three things: “Watch the ball, Move your feet, Trust your swing.” Other coaches have, in different ways, also underscored the importance of letting go of a focus on perfect technique during matches. Improving my technique will be a lifelong pursuit and there are plenty of good times to do it: match time is not one of them.
2. Breathe IN as the ball approaches.
Bubla urged me also to consciously inhale as the ball is coming toward me or as I’m tossing during a serve. It’s been a huge, huge help to me in focusing my mind while relaxing my shoulders and arm.
3. Watch the fuzz (or the seams) of the ball.
Timothy Gallwey in his timeless Inner Game of Tennis recommends this tactic, and it works wonders whenever I deploy it. Time slows down and the ball gets bigger.
4. “Behave your way into the zone.”
This is one of many gems of practical advice from the brilliant player, coach and sports psychologist Jeff Greenwald. Jeff encourages players to “Act like you belong” and “behave your way into the zone” through body language, posture, and attitude. Think of the way Djokovic looks before and during every point: head high, chin up, shoulders relaxed and back, athletic position… It all says “Bring it on.” When I start feeling insecure or discouraged (and therefore tight), I at least try to put on my game face and start acting more confident. Pretty soon, my body accepts this as “reality” and no longer acting.
5. Visualize the outcomes:
Many great coaches recommend visualizing specific outcomes you want during matches rather than trying to use your intellect to achieve them. Imagining Roger Federer’s effortless volleys usually helps me far more than over-analyzing my technical shortcomings. Visualizing a relaxed service motion by Djokovic and imagining the ball being placed exactly where I want it to go works better than telling myself the 5 things I need to do to achieve the perfect serve. Channeling the feeling from a recent moment of playing “in the zone” by recalling certain images or sounds is way more helpful than telling myself to “Relax!”
6. Think “Neutralize” (not “defend against”) tough balls.
I had a big epiphany moment when Bubla urged us to think about handing tough balls from opponents in an offensive way by “neutralizing” them. It was such an empowering concept: instead of panicking about a tough ball coming my way and getting my mind in defensive mode, the idea of neutralizing the ball made me focus on the opportunity ahead with the next ball.
7. Think Mohammed Ali to keep your feet moving. (Or Gangham Style… or whatever works!).
When focusing on upper-body relaxation, I’ve had the unfortunate side effect of overly relaxing my lower body and feet, which need to stay active and energized at all times. Visualizing Mohammed Ali– light as a butterfly on his feet– has been one of the most powerful ways to find the right combination of lower body engagement with upper body “grace.”
8. Use rituals.
Jeff Salzenstein recently published a great post and video on the importance of “rituals” to maintain (or rediscover) a calm state between points. My fellow tennis blogger Kim (“Tennis Fixation”) shares the rituals she uses when serving. It doesn’t matter what the rituals are, so long as they help clear and re-focus the mind. For me, incorporating good breathing into my rituals between points has been hugely important. I also use rituals to remind me of how grateful I am for many great people and things in my life: doing so during stressful moments helps me put things in proper perspective and calm me down.
This is one of Jeff Greenwald’s secret weapons, and now it’s one of mine. When my head getting tense and my body starts clenching up, I turn to the wall, take a breath, and smile. I often think of my hilarious teammate Ricardo who, whenever we’re about to play a match, is prone to (jokingly) making a gesture to indicate I’m about to get my throat slit. This always makes me laugh out loud and immediately loosens me up.
10. Add meditation and yoga to off-court training regimen.
It goes without saying that if we want to move more fluidly and efficiently on court we need to invest time in tennis-specific strength and flexibility conditioning (here’s some background on how I approach off-court training). But I’ve also discovered the benefits to my game that come from adding in some yoga and meditation to my routine. Yoga helps develop good physical and mental habits (proper breathing, quieting the mind, staying “present”) that can be invaluable during stressful situations on court. And even just a few minutes a day of meditation can yield big dividends: thanks to a fellow player Kirk (a 5.0), I recently started a “21-day meditation challenge” (only 12-15 minutes a day) that has already produced some powerful benefits both on-court and in daily life and work.