Staying Mentally Tough During the Big Points

Q. “I'm a junior in high school and have been playing for about three years now. Recently, I've been doing really well, except for one thing... every time I start to do well, I seem to choke. The score will be 40-love, and I'll still wind up losing that game. But my shots are pretty good and the girls I've been playing are at my level in the game. I don't feel like I'm choking, but it seems that I am. How do I prevent myself from choking, when I don't even know I'm doing it?”

From Tony S., Certified Instructor:

Dennis Van der Meer once gave me a good tip to help a team I was coaching that had the same kind of problem. His advice was, when ahead like that, mentally reverse the score in your mind and play as though you were behind, love-40, instead of ahead, and play harder as though to catch up.

The same advice works for the second set, after you have won the first one; mentally reverse the score in your mind and play as though you lost the first set and need to win this one. It works.

From Dave S., USPTA, Houston, TX

Here is my advice, and it usually fixes the problem -- which not only you but many have. In addition to having good strokes, strategy and conditioning, it is also necessary to "learn" how to close out a game, set, match or tournament.

I suggest that you mentally treat every point like it is a "make believe match point." It is a little trick to play with the "little Jamie" inside your head. When you do that, you become accustomed to playing every point at your best, like the match is on the line. After all, all points are structurally the same, right? The first and the last.

A short adder to that is "play the ball, not the score or the player." In tennis, it is the ball that will beat you, not the player, official, weather, etc.

With these two tidbits of info, you will be able to mentally play each point the same.

Good luck, and I would welcome to know how it works for you.

From LindyLou, Bensalem, PA

What you describe - choking - is a very common experience for tennis players. Did you know that every player has choked at one time or another from the pros on down? The ONLY difference is that the pros know how to control it; they have developed their own techniques over time, and you can, too.

The good thing is that you have recognized this, and that is the first step to overcoming it. Choking is fear -- fear that you will not be able to meet your goal -- your heart may beat faster, and you become frustrated. Your feet feel like lead.

Here are some things I want you to try:

1. Take deep breaths before playing a point.

2. Move your feet (this will be hard, but you must make yourself do it).

3. If you are serving, say to yourself, "First serve in." (Do NOT say, "I will not double fault.")

4. If you are serving and the score is 40-0, go for it. Don't be ridiculous, but you can make a very aggressive shot here.

5. Put yourself in pressure situations in practice. Play lots of tiebreakers.

6. Always play to win (do not start pushing the ball). Never play not to lose.

7. If this does not help, see a sports psychologist.

Choking means you care, the outcome is important to you, and you are in the competition. Try and work this through and develop emotional control. Good luck!

From Chuck White, Tucson, AZ

You are playing the score. Forget the score. Concentrate only on hitting the best shot within your comfort zone, each and every shot. Watch the ball until you see only empty space where it used to be, move your feet well, and you will never lose a match. Your opponent may win the match, but you will not lose it because you have played to your full potential. It is that simple. No more choke.

From Anonymous:

In that situation, everyone has the tendency to play tentative. Try hitting out like you did on all the previous points. I don't mean for you to over-swing and go for it all but to hit your normal stroke. By not hitting your normal stroke, you take a lot off the ball. Also, try to hit to a target you have been successful with during the match so you can cut the court area down and help your concentration on the point.

From Andrew C., Encinitas, CA:

Your mind is saying something to you that is impairing your performance, whether you are aware of it or not. It might be, "Wow, I'm up 40-love, I can just relax now." Or it might be, "OK, I just need to hit another winner, and I'll have this game." Or maybe it is, "Oh no, I'm up 40-love, I hope I don't choke!" These messages have the same result: they distract you from your goal, which is to simply play your best on every point.

The way to deal with them is to train yourself to not worry excessively about winning or losing. Try this: before each point, tell yourself, "It doesn't matter if I win or lose if I do my best. So on this point, I am just going to relax, watch the ball and play my game."

It will take some time, but eventually your brain will believe what you are telling it (because it is true), and you will play better and enjoy it more, as a result.

From Martin K., Niles, MI:

You’re not choking. I see the same thing in chess. You aren’t choking; your opponent is “stepping up” and focusing better.

It’s funny, but if you’re winning 40-love, you relax. It feels like you should win the game (and statistically, you should), but while you’re subconsciously relaxing, your opponent is trying harder. Your opponent is extra-focused because she knows she can’t afford to lose even one more point.

In chess, if you lose your queen (the most powerful piece), you try extra hard, while your opponent becomes a little over-confident. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to lose your queen on purpose in order to make your opponent over-confident because the odds are against you winning. Same for tennis – your opponents aren’t “letting” you get a 40-love lead on them, so they’ll focus and you’ll relax… So, what do you have to do?

Just realize that at 40-love, your opponent is NOT going to give you the final point. In fact, she will try even harder, and her focus will be better. So bear down and realize that the hardest thing to win is a “won” game. If you increase your focus, expecting her to play better now that she’s behind, you will meet her intensity and focus and start winning most of those games.

From James M., Ladysmith, B.C., Canada:

I completely understand what you mean by getting to 40-love and then choking. I used to do the same. I find one of the most important parts of tennis is going into a game with a 'plan.' You have to, as quickly as possible, learn your opponent’s weaknesses and then play to them.

Also, you can't think way ahead and play to win each game at a time; rather you have to play to win each point at a time. It’s like taking it a step at a time rather then a staircase at a time, so to speak.

And don't get too over-confident when you are ahead because one thing I find and teach to my students is that many times winning one point at 40-love can be harder than winning four points from love-love. It depends so much on what you can get over in your mind by keeping positive and not slacking off. Play the game like you mean to play it.

So have a plan, and concentrate on winning each point at a time, rather then each game.

From Dick B., Morrisville, VT:

You need to ask yourself what happens during that down time. Do you change your game from hitting what were winning shots to a different shot? Do you let up and play tentative shots, allowing your opponent to take advantage? Your coach should be able to help you out by watching your matches and seeing what areas need to change. Remember, you have only been playing for three years. Opponents may have more experience playing matches. Just look for what is causing the down time, and you can make the changes and move on to better results.

From Karen, Buford, GA:

I recommend that you just think one point at a time. Do NOT look at the big picture – only think about winning the next point.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

In singles, you are alone out there – your skill, mind and body fighting to win the battle. You have been playing for three years and now are facing some tough competition from players who probably have a lot more match experience than you. So you are slowly gaining match toughness as you play your matches.

Winning isn't everything. You are growing as a player, and soon you will make that breakthrough to the next level. You will not have to think much about how to hit the ball – the basics are there. Focus is somehow being lost. Some advice would be to look at the strings of your racquet between points. Also, concentrate on your breathing, and lose yourself on the court.

Mental toughness can be gained by never giving up. Don't throw your racquet, scream or question close calls. Find balance, and let your racquet do the talking. You have the game, you have the desire to be a winner, now you must not lose focus or be distracted. There might be people watching, dogs barking, babies crying, but you still have to have an even temper and play your game.

Good luck to you, and all the tennis players heading to their high school tournaments. May you find the next key to becoming a better player – mental toughness.

From Ram P., Manhasset, NY:

Consider the following: If you are thinking negatively while you are ahead of your opponent, stop that chain of thought. Tell yourself that you are going to win the next point, and keep repeating the same ritual.

From Phil, Briarcliff Manor, NY:

I had the same problem and still sometimes do now. When you're up 40-love and are about to win your game, you think too much about "not losing," and your strokes go off. You have to block out the score and keep doing what you did to get there. You might even play a bit more conservatively. Keep the ball in play, and let the opponent make the error. Don't take chances and play "high percentage tennis."

From David, Forest Hills, NY:

Obviously, you are doing certain things differently in building leads than when blowing leads. Keep in mind that the ball does not know the score. I am guessing you tend to get careless, thinking you have a margin of safety. Then, when the cushion goes away, you get tight and can't execute your shots to reassert yourself. I suggest you focus on closing out these games and, if you want to play a loose point or two, save it for when your opponent is ahead 30-0, 40-0 or 40-15. Those are games you would likely lose, anyway.

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