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Staying Focused/Relaxed During a Match

Q. While playing in USTA tournaments, I get very nervous and tight. This usually affects my game tremendously, and as hard as I try to control my nerves, nothing seems to work. What can I do to help calm myself down during a match?

A. Rely on the rituals you develop in practice. For example, take a deep breath, bounce the ball twice, and then cock your racquet before serving. Do it every time that you serve. Be sure to slow down when you are feeling anxious. Most players tend to rush when they are nervous, so do the opposite.

Try to breath out when you hit the ball. This exhale will relax your muscles. Players often hold their breath under pressure and this will prevent that from occurring.

Mostly, rely on positive self-talk. Stay focused on the present-tense, with little concern over what has happened or what will happen. Instead, concentrate on what you need to do to win the very next point. This is easier written than done, but with practice you will become more comfortable. Good luck, and be assured that every player gets nervous out on the court.

Q. I've only been playing tennis for 2 years and have made major progress. I won several tournaments and made my high school team. I practice everyday after school. I've been told I have a beautiful stroke and game, but recently I've begun to lose everything including my mind. I am losing 6-0 to people I beat two months ago 6-0. My attitude is horrible and my coaches see that and try to motivate me. Nothing has worked. I threatened to quit at least twice now but now I'm starting to really think I should if things don't turn around soon. Please help!

A. If you truly love tennis, but it is making you miserable, then you ought to see a sport psychologist. In the end, the most crucial aspect to playing our game is to have FUN. If you are not enjoying yourself, take a few days off until you regain the enthusiasm.

Becoming mentally stale (or physically injured) is common with players who over-train, so be sure to incorporate rest days into your schedule.

Q. Lately I've been having serious problems closing out a match. I would jump all over my opponent early in the match just to watch my lead fizzle away towards the end. Sometimes I get lucky and win and other times I lose a close one. What can I do to stay focused?

A. I heard Brad Gilbert offer a great explanation for how to deal with this on-court… Convince yourself that you are actually losing, and not on the verge of victory. Have you ever mounted a spirited charge after your back was forced against the wall? Well, this simulates that feeling. The next time you are ahead 5-3 and serving for the match, imagine that you are instead down 3-5 and serving to stay alive. You might play with a greater sense of urgency- like there is much to be gained and little to lose.

In the end, experience will help. No matter how experienced you are, however, squandering a lead can happen. This morning, I watched Rafael Nadal blow a 4-0 second set lead and then again while at 5-4 and serving for the set against James Blake during the ATP Masters in Shanghai. It happens.

Q. I play for fun against my friends and my dad a lot, but I'm going to enter my first USTA Sanctioned tournament on November 24th. I was just wondering if you had any advice for me. Also, I have a problem putting too much pressure on myself and getting mad at myself during matches, I was wondering if you could help me "control" myself a little bit.

A. Have fun. Competition should always be enjoyable. Tournament tennis can become- and feel- serious, but ultimately it must be a pleasure.

How to do this? Maintain perspective. Breathe out when you hit the ball. Smile. Enjoy the moment, instead of worrying about the results.

Q. I have a young junior who is a good player, very athletic. Began playing tournaments at age 7 and he is now 11. He started with much success due to his natural athleticism but struggles more now with tournament matches mostly due to "nerves". He will get himself very worked up and become physically ill, refuse to eat and almost impossible to reason with before a match. He has always been very competitive and takes a loss very hard. We have attempted to help him by trying to let him play through it which did not seem to help and also by holding him out of tournaments which did not help and he keeps expressing the desire to play. I feel he has a lot of potential to be a good player but we struggle so much with this emotional dilemma. What advice could you offer?

A. If you want me to tell you why this young player is struggling with nerves, then I cannot. There are too many factors that I am not in a position to know about for me to even speculate.

I would advise that you de-emphasize the results. Continue to assist him in entering and competing in tournaments. Treat him EXACTLY the same way whether he wins or loses. This is crucial. If he continues to struggle with emotional issues and/or nervousness, then please consult with a Sport Psychologist. This practice has become increasingly standard, and a good “Think Coach” might be exactly what this talented young player needs.

Q. I am having a problem with practice vs. play. When I practice with my friends it is a breeze, my forehands and backhands are smooth like caramel. However entering a USTA tournament is a whole different story. I feel pressured to win because I am traveling a distance away to play a best-of-three sets match and also using my parent’s money. Even when I am playing high school matches it’s not as bad as playing in USTA tourney. I feel uncomfortable with my shots and I don’t feel a swing flow like I do when I am hitting around. Do you have any recommendation on what I should do?

A. Your situation is common, so hang in there. This nervousness in sanctioned tournament play will lessen over time. Continue to gain experience by entering tournaments. Make sure to breathe out when you hit the ball. Early in the match, try to nail a few balls- even if you miss them badly. Sometimes a few aggressive attempts will help you to relax and loosen up.

Lastly, maintain perspective. Doing well in a tournament may seem crucially important to you, but it is certainly not a matter of life or death. Learning to “let it flow” during competition is elusive. Even Roger Federer struggles with this on occasion. Be forgiving of yourself when you do not play your best during a match. This will allow you to focus on how to win the next point, and not on the fact that you are playing below the level of your expectations.

Q. I recently played a guy in the US Public Parks Tournament in Flushing Meadows at the NTC. I had him up 3-0 in the second set, at which point he undertook his third shirt change. He then proceeded to take a long time on changeovers and then in-between first and second serves he was stopping to towel off and wipe his sunglasses. I felt that, overall, he was stalling. Is this illegal between serves (my recollection is that the rule is like 20 seconds) and, if not, is there anything from a mental standpoint I could have done to fight back, short of saying something to the effect of, "C'mon buddy, let's play tennis"? I realize now I should not let him dictate things, but he was more experienced in tournament play and I think he "gamed" me as I wound up losing.

A. He sure did “game” you, and that is a frustrating experience. Learn from it. Next time, you will have more poise.

When you enter a tournament, and are involved in a close, competitive match, you will eventually come to expect that your opponent will go to great lengths to beat you. Aside from fair play, this includes disrupting your concentration with some gamesmanship, making questionable line calls, etc. Thankfully, not every player uses these shameful tactics.

My best advice to cope with these annoying disturbances is to focus all of your energy on how to win the next point. Clear your mind of all the other negative thoughts, although this is not easy, and simply focus on… how to win the next point. In the end, your opponent can try to distract you, cheat you, annoy you, but if you can control your thoughts, then you will still be in the driver’s seat out there.

Q. I am having a severe problem with being confident in any tennis match. I play people who are a lot less experienced than me but I tend to blow it and lose miserably. Please Help!

A. Avoid the tendency to focus on results, and instead concentrate on the process. What does this mean? Try to win the very next point. After that is done, win or lose, focus on how to win the very next point. In other words, break it down to smaller bites.

In between points, keep your eyes from wandering. Instead, look at the strings of your racquet or down toward the court (like you are searching for lost pocket change). Hold your racquet, head up, in your dominant hand. Breathe! If you feel tense, take a deep breath and blow the air out through your mouth. Some people seem to be born with confidence, while others need to develop it (like any other specific skill). As your results continue to improve, then the confidence will come… and it will feel like magic when it does.

Q. I was wondering if you knew anything that could help my high school team? We have played a few teams in our region quite a few times and every time we play them we tend to lose close matches. They tend to call their lines pretty close and call a lot of bad calls to throw our mental game off. We should be beating these teams pretty badly but once they throw our mental game off the rest follows. Do you have any suggestions?

A. First suggestion: No excuses! Receiving bad line calls, whether intentional or not, is a part of the game. Deal with it. If you allow your players to become unhinged at this first sign of adversity, then that is not good.

Take some time to help train their coping skills. One popular exercise during practice sessions is to give every player three “free” bad line calls. At any point during the set(s), a player can simply call a ball out- no matter where it lands- and take the point. This becomes strategic. (Should I choose to “hook” at deuce or at the game point!?!?) It can get pretty funny. Players will get accustomed to bouncing back quickly from these minor disappointments.

The way that a player reacts- and responds- to getting a questionable line call is almost always more important than the one point that it represents.

Q. I currently play in the “Zat” level tournaments and have been playing in them for a very long time, but can't seem to qualify for “Champs.” Everybody I practice with tells me I should be in the higher division: the “Superchamps.” The only thing that makes me lose in these tournaments is my mental game. I can't seem to focus in the match like I do in the warm-up or practice. I get "scared" to hit the ball as well as I normally do and lose to a worse player or a pusher that I SHOULD beat!! My parents and coach tell me to be confident but I can't seem to do it. Can you please give me some advice or strategy to use? I NEED HELP!!

A. First of all, be patient. It sounds like you are a little too hard on yourself. I urge you to keep competing. Preparing to compete, traveling to tourneys, the nervousness before matches, the uncertainty of how you will fare… all of that is fun. Enjoy the experience.

You should realize that, as Martina Navratilova once famously said, our results tell us how good we are. You need to conquer your current level of competition- one match at a time- before you worry about the higher levels.

If you feel “scared” out there during a match, take a deep breath and focus all of your thoughts and energy on how to win the very next point. After that is (or is not) accomplished, then do it again. By staying “in the moment” you will get less carried away by those things you cannot completely control (like whether you win or lose). When you get nervous, it is easy to hold your breath and hope that you do not miss. Instead, breathe out when you make contact with the ball (many players choose to grunt to assure that they are doing this) and trust that you will execute the shots you have honed on the practice court.

Q. My daughter is 13 and plays in SR tournaments. She is an extremely strong player when it is recreational, but in a tournament she plays tentative and falls apart. She loses to girls that she should walk all over. How can she overcome this? Thanks for your help!!

A. As she gains more experience, she will likely demonstrate more poise in tense matches. Be patient with her, and make sure that she enjoys plenty of competitive opportunities. She will do most of the learning on her own through trial and error.

By the way, she is not alone. It has long been the (unfortunate) culture of our sport for players to learn how to “hit” first and then “play” later. When your daughter encounters an opponent who forces her to cope with balls that she is less comfortable with (such as moonballs, or hard, flat shots, or dinky slices, or whatever), then she will naturally get out of her comfort zone. A strong match player will learn how to make the necessary tactical or technical adjustments; someone who is only grooved to “hit” well may never adjust.

Emphasize match play and practice sets for your daughter’s training, and her learning curve will be more dramatic than if she simply takes lessons correcting her strokes.

Q. Why do people get nervous during a tight situation, for example you are in the 3rd set and it is 5-5 in the deciding tiebreaker?

A. Nervousness is normal. Everyone experiences certain anxieties, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It occurs because players care about the difference between winning and losing. Generally, the players who compete well learn to cope most effectively with these nerves. Develop some calming rituals between points to soothe your nerves, such as taking a deep breath, controlling what you look at between points, and go through the same relaxed preparation prior to every point.

It is normal to be uptight at the beginning of the match. These initial nerves tend to dissipate when you start to perspire and hit some good shots. If you are really nervous early, try to crack a few shots at the beginning to loosen up a little. You may aim these down the middle to assure that you make the shot, but nailing a few balls tends to relax you.

Near the end of the match, nerves are accompanied by fatigue. For spectators, it can feel unbearably tense to watch a close match, but the best competitors learn to channel their thoughts on how to win the next point. This directed focus replaces much of the nervousness.

Q. I play No. 1 singles for my high school and I do just fine hitting the ball hard, forehand or backhand, and I am confident. But, if the match comes down to a tie breaker I end up losing the tie breaker due to either a lack of confidence or the fear of losing the match. Do you have any suggestions on how to boost my attitude when it comes down to a tie breaker?

A. Experience will become your best teacher, so hang in there and endure some of those tough losses with maturity and perspective. As you approach a tiebreaker, always ask yourself: Who is doing what to whom? Also, understand your strengths AND your weaknesses. You are not likely to succeed, even in a short race such as a tiebreaker, when you need to produce the shots where you lack conviction.

You describe your game as a hard-hitting baseliner. Perhaps, you should play more shots toward the middle third of the court, at least until your pace of shot forces an error or a weak reply- at which time you can THEN go for a winning placement.

Lastly, fear of losing is common. Do not beat yourself up over this. To combat this tendency, focus ALL of your energy on how to win the next point. Not the game, the set or the match, but the very next point. This will help keep you “in the moment” and distract you from becoming worried about the result.

Q. Is it legal to look at written notes or reminders to yourself during changeovers; such as "Remember to keep your chin up during the serve" or "Slice approach to his backhand works best".

A. Yes, this is permissible. In fact, it is a good idea. It is not uncommon for your thoughts to become chaotic during the stresses of match play, and having some reminder notes can only help.

Q. My son is nine years old and has just started playing in some local tennis tournaments. My question involves how to teach my child to handle the disruptive behavior of a competitor. His most recent opponent was a classmate and friend of his who called him names, and sat down and/or dropped his racket every time my son had to go chase the balls down. This made the match drag on longer and wore my son down mentally. What can I do to teach him to be more mentally tough in such a situation? Any advice is truly appreciated.

A. Experience is usually the best way of learning in situations like this. The next time he encounters an unsettling occurrence like the one you described, he will maintain better poise.

The best advice that I could offer you for your son is to (gradually) teach him the most elusive “trick” of all when it comes to maintaining his concentration: Learn to focus all of his energy on how to win the very next point. This method helps players quickly regain focus after an error (or interruption), helps them to define the most immediate task, and- ultimately- to play the best tennis. Of course, this is easier to write then to execute!

Q. I just played a match this past week with a player I was expected to beat. I won the first set 6-1 convincingly, but in the second and third sets he made a full comeback. He played exactly the same through all three sets, but I changed my aggressive game to a more passive "pusher" type game. I was wondering what mental drills I could use to keep my aggressive style of play?

A. I do not view this as being a “mental drill,” but I would advise you to heed the old adage: Never change a wining game. It seems that you went from your strength (being aggressive and forcing the issue) to his strength (patiently retrieving balls and waiting for errors). This was a losing proposition and, evidently, will not work as well for you. Understand your strengths and then trust yourself.

Q. Tim Henman's most recent loss in Miami seems "usual"... Tim will get ahead, get sloppy and then have to gut it out in the deciding set. This reminds me that I usually play better when I'm playing from behind. Do you know of a good way (or more than one!) to turn this into playing well, period? (That is, other than continually lying to yourself about the score... it is funny how quickly you catch up to your own lies).

A. This is an interesting phenomenon. It is probably easier for many to relax as soon as it feels as though all is lost. Besides, maintaining a lead can feel stressful. What if I blow it? What if my opponent starts playing better? All those thoughts tend to weaken your winning mentality.

My best advice to cope with this recurring challenge is to learn how to concentrate entirely on the very next point. This is, naturally, an elusive task.

You SHOULD be aware of and learn from the past (especially the previous games) by asking yourself: who is doing what to whom? Do not permit your thoughts to drift too far into the future by asking yourself the “what if?” questions. Focusing entirely on the present got you into a winning lead, and is often necessary to get you victoriously through the match.

Q. I just don't understand why I can practice well and yet, when it comes to a match, I am unable to compose my shots, myself, and win. I am not new to tennis but I am new to tournaments. Is there any explanation for this? Are there any remedies to this problem?

A. Rest assured, this is common among most (if not all) players. Nerves play a major factor when competing, and managing anxiety is a skill set nearly as important as the technique for strokes.

Learn some relaxation methods that work for you. For example, pause for an extra moment to take a deep breath to compose yourself prior to every point (or, at least, when you are feeling uneasy). Another cue is to maintain control of your eyes. When your eyes wander all over the place (to neighboring courts or to the people watching your match), then you typically have less focus.

Finally, develop a consistent between-point ritual and then stick with it throughout a match.

Best of luck and hang in there… As you gain additional experience, then managing your emotions becomes easier (not easy, but easier).

Q. I have a problem with getting mad. If I lose one point I'll slap myself in the thigh. In the last tournament I played I popped some blood vessels. My mom got very angry at me, but I really don't care if I hurt myself. How do I stop myself from getting mad?

A. Maybe your parents can videotape one of your matches. I have a feeling that you do not exactly look too cool when you’re flogging yourself out in public. Perhaps seeing this for yourself will help you to gain some perspective.

Q. How do I handle an opponent who intimidates?

A. This is a tough one, because while success depends often on sound technique and superior court movement and fitness, there is ALWAYS a strong mental component to every match. If you begin to worry about things that are outside of your control, such as an opponent who is trying to get you off of your game, then usually your play will suffer.

Perhaps the best method to employ during stressful situations on-court is to spend ALL of your energy focusing on how to win the next point. As soon as one point ends, start concentrating on how to get the next point. This will eliminate concerns over an opponent who is trying to stare you down or one who is obnoxiously challenging line calls, etc. Granted, this advice is easier to offer than to carry out. Do your best to follow it and I am confident that your results will not suffer the next time you encounter an “intimidator.”

Q. Ok, when I play a tennis match sometimes I get mad at the smallest mistake I make. How do I overcome this?

A. Try saving your anger for really important things, like when you set your TiVo for “Entourage” and it malfunctions.

You might also consider utilizing some post-point rituals that tend to calm the nerves. In fact, an all-time master at anger management, John McEnroe, admits to counting to ten when he wants to keep his cool. If this works for Johnny Mac, then maybe it will work for you too.

Q. According to statistics, in a two-hour match on the men's pro tour on a hard court, the ball is only in play for 13 minutes. That means for 107 minutes, balls are not being hit. But how can I use those 107 minutes effectively?

A. First of all, I believe that this statistic will vary widely depending on the contrasting styles of play. Your point is a good one, however. What should you do during the “down time” between points?

I would urge all players to develop some simple- and personal- rituals, such as bouncing the ball a few times, or spinning the racquet in your hand, or moving your feet in a certain manner. By going through this ritual before or after each point, it will have a calming effect on your nerves. When you get nervous, go through your chosen ritual twice.

The best advice I have ever heard concerning what to think about on the court is how to win the next point. Always ask yourself, what should you try to do to win the next point? Do not concern yourself with those things that you cannot control. This mindset really helps you to stay focused on the task at hand.

Q. I practice at a much better level than what I compete at. So I play great in practices and scrimmages (about a 5.0 - 5.5), but my game breaks down in match play. So I know that this is a mental thing. What can better prepare my mind to be tournament tough?

A. Respectfully, I will submit that your problems are more likely those of a physical nature. If you develop very sound technique and hone your skills through enough practice, then your strokes are more likely to hold up under match pressure. Furthermore, tennis is very demanding and you had better be fit enough (strength, agility, stamina, coordination, balance) to reproduce the same effective shots time after time. It is not easy.

Two of the greatest players ever, Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, were both considered mentally suspect early in their careers. But both Navratilova and Lendl worked diligently, first on their games and then on their fitness levels. Before long they developed superior confidence in their shotmaking and they knew that they could handle the physical strain, so their “mental problems” went away.

You might be suffering from some mental blocks, or perhaps you are over-thinking every mistake that you make, but I’ll bet that an improvement in your physical skills would be more beneficial to your results than anything.

Good luck!

Q. Our daughter is 13, and tends to be a pretty good all around player. She hits hard, serves well, moves around the court, etc. However, when you steps on the court in a tournament match, she seems to be so nervous that she can barely hit the ball. It's hard to watch and sometimes I think it is better to stay away, thinking it might be me. To no avail, she is struggling with being calm and relaxed in matches. Any suggestions?

A. I believe that tennis, even more than most games, takes a lot of “trial and error” experiences until a measure of success is enjoyed. The fact that your daughter gets nervous and struggles to perform at her best in competition is not unique. In fact, this condition afflicts most young players as they start down the tournament trail. One positive is that her nervousness indicates that she cares and is fully invested in trying to do her best.

Try to be encouraging during this process. Your policy of giving her some space is admirable. Over time, she will likely find solutions that will help her to cope more effectively with the pressure she feels. When she asks for assistance, provide it. If a parent (or a coach) is always telling the daughter (or student) what to do in every situation, then the player often learns more slowly.

I am not a parent, but I can imagine that it must be excruciating to observe your daughter struggling. Maintain perspective. Even if she does not emerge as a tennis champion, she will certainly learn plenty of valuable life lessons.

Q. Do you know of any method to deal with stress before and during a match?

A. Realize that being nervous and feeling some stress prior to playing is normal. Every player feels it. It is good stress though, and once you get past it you will feel energized.

To overcome some pre-match nerves, get those feet moving. Once you break a sweat, you will start to relax a little. Work hard and really move to get your body going. You want to avoid “freezing up” out there on the court.

Also, make sure that you breathe. Exhale when you make contact with the ball. Often players hold their breath. This is NOT relaxing.

Q. Last week I suffered the worst choke of my life. My partner and I were up 6-2, 5-2, 40-love on my serve, and we ended up losing the match in 3 sets. We literally had a meltdown in the middle of the match. Since then, I've been in a slump, losing 3 of my last 4 matches that I've played. I've also noticed that when I'm in high-pressure situations (closing out a set, or being down on my serve), I tend to double-fault a lot more. My question is, how do you stop a downward spiral in the middle of a match? Are there any other mental game techniques I can practice so this doesn't happen again? Thanks! And hurry! I have another couple of matches in a week! ;-)

A. First of all, anyone who has played a lot of tennis will experience a “meltdown” match. Trust me, it has happened to everyone.

Develop pre- and post-point rituals that will help you return to your comfort zone after you’ve made some mistakes. On big points, get your first serve in, compromising some pace to do so. At most levels, it is better to hit an accurate first serve at ¾ pace then have to hit a second serve under intense pressure. Lastly, be positive. It is all too easy to start thinking about “what will happen” if you lose the point. Instead, stay in the moment by focusing all energies on how to win the next point. Not the game, the set, or the match, but the very next point. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.

Hang in there. Good luck for the remainder of your season.

Q. My 8 year old daughter is doing extremely well in the girls 12's open division, much to the chagrin of the other girls and their parents. Can you please give us some mental toughness advice when having to deal with all the talk and "cattiness" that goes on in junior tennis? Thanks so much.

A. Jealousy and “cattiness” in junior tennis! I have never heard of such a thing! Just kidding. There are people out there who are always resentful toward those who enjoy success. This rude behavior can be unsettling- but do not let it disrupt your daughter’s progress.

In terms of “mental toughness” advice, I would urge her to spend all her energies focusing on how to win the next point. If she learns to channel her thoughts this way (how to win the next point… how to win the next point…), then she will not even notice the nonsense that sometimes occurs during these tournaments.

Q. I played an opponent who has always been better than me and to my surprise it was a close set but I lost in the end. Then my coach asked me to play a set right after against a guy I've always been better than and I lost horribly. Is there any kind of logical reason why I couldn't play well?

A. Perhaps your expectations were altered by your strong performance against the better player. When you played the “weaker” player you might have, for the first time, felt the pressure of being a marked man. This happens. It is interesting to see how often players, especially juniors, falter when they are seeded first in a given tournament.

The other factor, of course, is your opponent. Perhaps this “weaker” player played the match of his life and was just too good that day. This sometimes happens. If you play enough tennis, then you will have some sensational wins and some losses that are hard to explain. A final possibility is that, living in Roswell, NM, perhaps your game was abducted by an alien and taken for observation. If so, then take this as a compliment from our friends from another galaxy.

Q. I know I don’t look at the ball at the moment of contact, and I know that is very important. Do you have any tips that would make me look at the ball at the moment of contact?

A. Research indicates that our eyes cannot actually see the tennis ball hit our strings. It is more crucial, from a balance standpoint, to learn to keep your head completely still during the contact phase of your swing.

During this week’s Masters Cup matches in Houston, notice how Roger Federer seems to keep his head completely still at impact. In fact, many photographs indicate that his eyes remain transfixed on where he made contact with the ball, even as he is completing his follow through. You might borrow this technique from Federer and see if it will work for you as well.

Good luck.

Q. What can I do to concentrate during my matches?

A. We all tend to lose concentration between points when we play matches. To combat this, try to establish a between-point ritual that suits your personality, and then stick with it… between EVERY point.

Also, a constant refrain that you hear from champions is that they think only about how to play the next point (and avoid fretting over the last point or the next set, etc.). See if this method helps you.

Q. As a 40-year-old playing for more than 30years, I have sound strokes and good conditioning, but my head is the problem. I determine a strategy to play against a particular player on a particular day based on my strengths and capabilities. The problem is my focus. Sometimes I “go away” for a point or two and lose a close set, or get nerves at 5-5 and throw in a double fault. I am getting better, but are there mental exercises or thoughts that pros use to play focused, smart and loose without getting tight (a fine line)?

A. I have heard experts remark that in tennis the mental part of the game is 80% and the physical merely 20%. I have never completely bought into this theory, but I hear what you are saying.

First of all, make every effort to assure that your game is technically sound. All-time great Martina Navratilova used to struggle mightily with her nerves until she improved her backhand, her forehand volley and her second serve. Once those strokes became championship-caliber, Martina never looked back. Next, be sure to be very fit. Fatigue makes cowards of us all, as Vince Lombardi (or Bart Simpson) once said. Ask Andre Agassi how he feels about his chances in close matches. There is no question that as AA devoted more effort to improving his fitness, he became much tougher mentally.

Now, to really answer your question… I would urge you to focus ALL of your energies on-court towards trying to win the next point. The next point is really the only one that ever matters. Do not become concerned with what may or may not happen in the next game or set or whatever, instead focus on developing a best plan to win the very next point. Also, understand what has occurred during the match, but don’t dwell on it. If you learn to always focus on the next point (not easy, I’ll admit), then you will be well on your way. Billie Jean King calls this “staying in the moment.” It enables you to relax and perform better in a stressful environment, and it also gives you a “North Star” to help navigate your way back if you “go away” temporarily.

Best of luck!

Q. Do you have a recommended way of dealing with nerves when playing? I have a really good practice game, but when I get to my league matches I tighten up and get tentative, and never seem to even remember how to play my shots correctly. Any advice?

A. Well… welcome to the club! If you care about your tennis, then you WILL eventually become nervous while you are playing matches. In fact, everyone does. How you cope with your nervousness and anxiety will go a long way in determining how effectively you compete.

Interestingly, when we play matches, about 75% of the time on court is spent waiting (or hopefully, preparing) for the next point. How you learn to manage your emotions during this time is crucial. Noted sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr developed an excellent pattern for coping with this time between points to help assure preparedness for the next point. His method is called “the 16 second cure.”

During the time between every point, Dr. Loehr recommends that every player should quickly visit four phases of awareness. The first step is to offer a positive physical response (walking confidently, for example) after the point is finished, followed by a few seconds of a relaxation process (a deep breath, for example), and then the preparation response (deciding what you need to do to win the next point), followed lastly by the personal ritual response (bouncing the ball a few times before serving, for example).

I hope that Dr. Loehr’s “cure” will help you and good luck in your league matches.

Q. I've been playing tennis for quite some time now. I've been making progress on my groundstrokes. There are days that all the instructions on proper technique are working perfectly. It's sweet, it's fun, and it feels like I'm ready to take on Wimbledon. But the next day where are my strokes? Nothing works! It seems like everything went south. All that's left is tennis depression. Any suggestions on how to help my brain hold on to those expensive tennis lessons I took?

A. Muscle memory, Ovidio, muscle memory! You need to continue to “rehearse” your perfect technique until it becomes so ingrained that you know no other way to hit the ball. Admittedly, this takes lots of time.

I suspect that when you get a little nervous (or feel tired on the court or rushed out there), your strokes break down. This is normal, and happens even to the best players in the world (although, admittedly, far less frequently). So… be patient.

The other thought on this subject is that players generally seem to improve in spurts. In fact, players usually get a little worse before they get a lot better. You need to ride out the rough patches so that you are prepared to take that big step forward. Good luck with this process.

Q. I play a lot of video games and feel I have fairly quick reflexes. However, when I'm in a fast doubles match, it seems I am always way behind the ball. Because of this, I tend to tighten up when I know a player is going to smack the ball.

What can I do to get my racquet in position and start to feel more relaxed?

A. I have absolutely no earthly idea how playing video games well correlates to being a good volleyer with quick reflexes on the tennis court. If you played more tennis, then you would likely become quicker on the court. If you want to improve you ability to play video games, play more video games. Next question…!

Q. My match nerves are killing me. My team was just in a playoff situation and my nerves were so bad that my legs were literally shaking. I couldn’t calm myself down and obviously my play suffered badly.

Do you have any good tips or techniques to suggest?

A. Nerves are pretty common, particularly at the beginning of a match. Nervousness is completely normal, by the way. There are two methods that might help you to relax a little from the beginning. Prior to the match, do some hard exercises. Once you get the blood really pumping then you will become less anxious once you walk on the court. You might skip rope and/or run a few wind sprints. (This will also assure that you are thoroughly warmed up for the beginning of the match). Another tip would be to really crack a few balls during the first couple games. Even if you miss some shots, taking some aggressive swings at the ball tends to soothe nerves.

If you find yourself becoming tense in the latter stages of a set or match, then try to slow down a little. Make sure to go through your pre-point ritual(s). If you are really nervous, go through them twice. Learn to concentrate your energies on the process and not the outcome. As soon as you start thinking too much about winning, and not about proper execution, then your game will inevitably suffer.

Q. I have a problem with wandering concentration during matches, especially when my partner is serving. I may start thinking more about whether I should poach, for instance, and miss the actual action because I'm too busy thinking. (I've been playing for four years, and I am 43 years old.) Is there a way to improve my focus between points? Specifically, I need to focus more on playing the ball and less on possibilities.

A. Hi Kristen and thanks for your question. Doubles has always been a challenge for players to stay focused. Unlike singles, minutes can go by at times between your opportunities to hit a ball. However you must do your best to stay alert and ready for action. Try standing a bit further back in the service box to allow for more reaction time for your crosses/poaches. Concentrate on your breathing to stay relaxed, but ready. Also avoid crouching at the net which slows down your reaction time. Stay upright and your first step will be quicker.

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