Paul has been an enthusiastic amateur tennis player for over 35 years. In 2013, he competed in the USTA tennis nationals in Arizona.
Many tennis players do well in practice when they are relaxed, but suffer from nerves when they play a match, and consequently, their game suffers.
Mastering the mental part of the game can be as difficult as learning the physical and technical aspects for many players.
This article lists ten tips on how to calm nerves, relax, and reach your full potential when playing a tennis match.
1. The Ideal State of Mind
Everybody's different, of course, but generally speaking your goal on the court is to be both physically relaxed and mentally focused at the same time.
- Physically relaxed enough so that you can swing through your shots in a natural way. (If you are too tight, you will mess up your shots.)
- Mentally focused so that you can concentrate on the job in hand. (If you are too casual, distracted, or lack concentration, you will make needless mistakes.)
It can be useful to think of this state of mind and body as a "place" which you have to return to at the start of each point in a game (no matter what has happened previously.)
In order to do this, you may have to consciously train your brain initially, until the process becomes second nature.
2. Rituals and Repetition
Rituals can be useful for resetting your mind and slowing yourself down so that you are not rushing, which is a common consequence of nerves. By ritual, I don't mean in this case something religious or superstitious; I mean adopting a little routine that you do to restore your mental kilter.
For instance, when serving, a player has a great opportunity to regain their equilibrium and focus; after all, the server is in control of the game as nothing happens until they play the ball. A nervous player will often rush their serve before they are settled, or launch themselves into the next point still thinking about the previous point they played.
It is often a good idea therefore to develop your own little ritual before serving. Something as simple as bouncing the ball three times might be all that it takes. Anything that makes you slow yourself down and reset your mental state is beneficial.
Often you have to do something consciously when you are learning, but later the process becomes subconscious. Tennis shots are no different.
Generally speaking, the more that you can play your shots without thinking consciously about them, the better they will be. That usually means the more that you've practiced them, the more chance you can perform without overthinking. The shot practicing takes place over weeks and months, not in the days or hours before the match.
3. Be in the Moment
When points are happening, you need to be focused on what's happening on the court right now and maybe anticipate what might happen in the next 5 or so seconds.
- If you are still thinking over what happened in the last point, game, or set, you aren't focused on what's happening now.
- If you are thinking ahead to what might, or might not happen in the future, again, you are not focusing.
- If you are thinking about things that are happening off the court, then you are not properly focused.
What is gone is gone, what is to be will be, in between every point you need to go back to your "place of relaxed focus."
If and when you lose focus, use the space between points to recover your mental balance. (You can use the longer down times between changeovers of end, or between sets, to adjust your overall strategy.)
4. Play Matches Regularly
I used to play in a rock band. When we were playing gigs every few months, I used to get nervous every time. When we started playing music venues once or twice a week, performing gigs became normal to me, and most of the nerves disappeared.
Tennis matches are the same: the more regularly you play them, the more they become part of your everyday life and the less nervous you will tend to be.
Don't be put off if you suffer from beginner's nerves; if you persevere and play more matches, the nerves will gradually go away of their own accord in most cases.
5. Be Prepared
Make sure that you have gathered together everything that you need in advance of the match. Suddenly discovering during the match that you lack something that you need can throw you off kilter and undermine your focus.
Write out a list on paper, if that helps. Examples of things on the list might be:
- Spare shirt, hat, or other clothing
- Drinks and snacks
- Hand grip
- Bug repellent
Once you are out on the court, make sure that you use your pre-match warm-up to loosen up physically and begin to focus mentally. Physical exercise is often a great way to work off tension and nervousness.
Don't obsess about playing amazing shots in the warms up and put unnecessary pressure on yourself, think more about getting your body and mind in the right place for playing.
6. Don't Overdo Your Warm Up
There is an appropriate amount of warm up to do. Ideally, you want to loosen up and stretch your muscles, especially arms and legs; play a range of shots and serves, and get your heart pumping a little.
When you're nervous, however, there is a tendency to overdo it. This can take the form of playing too much earlier in the day or the day before. Issues like fitness and shot skills are decided in the weeks and months leading up to match, not in final hours before a match.
If the match is important to you, you should practice intensively in the weeks beforehand, by all means, but generally speaking, it is best to ease off for a day or two right before your match and keep it light. You want to be fresh for your match.
7. Go Conservative if You're Going Through a Rough Patch
If your nerves are making you error prone, it can be easy to get into a negative loop.
You try too hard to play a winning shot with the hope that a spectacular winner will ease your frayed mind, but instead you hit the ball into the net, or it lands out. That makes you more nervous.
So the next time you try even harder to play a spectacular shot, but the same thing happens. Before you know it, you are trying harder and harder, hitting almost everything into the net or out of court, and your nerves are worse than ever.
Often the solution in this situation is to just roll back your game and go back to basics. Focus on hitting a solid shot, often a deep forehand or backhand that lands three or four feet from your opponent's baseline. Your opponent can maybe get it back to you, but they can't do much with it.
Remember that you don't need to go for a winner every shot. If you can keep a rally going, you can get your rhythm going and then maybe try something more adventurous shots again later when you have recovered some of your confidence.
It should also be remembered that the more that you get the ball back, the more shots that your opponent has to play, and the more chances for them to make a mistake. That can take the pressure off you and put it on them.
8. Strategize During Downtime
I touched on this earlier. When you are about to serve or receive is often not the best time to work out a new major strategy, if you want to change up the play. Rather you need to be focused mainly on your shots, positioning, and the rally at this time.
Use the downtime between end changes and sets to think about what you may wish to change.
9. Slow Down
Nervous or anxious players will often try to rush everything. Your mind is speeding, and your heart is pounding, so it is not surprising when you start making errors because you are rushing things.
When you are in this state, it is often constructive to find ways of yourself slowing down, so that you can focus your mind better, and hopefully begin to relax a little.
As I mentioned earlier, small rituals such as bouncing the ball a set number of times before serving can help when you are on the court. But there are also things that you can do off the court too.
10. Adopt a Positive Frame of Mind
It is easy to fall into a negative frame of mind when you are nervous. You can become overly self-critical, which just makes things worse, and go into a downward spiral.
It is constructive therefore to think about psychological strategies for lifting yourself if and when your anxiety takes control and morale starts to drift downwards.
Singles and Doubles
This list focuses on what an individual can do to ease their nerves. On the singles court, you are pretty much on your own.
If you're playing doubles, however, then the way that you and your partner communicate can help soothe nerves. Through being encouraging and offering constructive advice, a player can help their partner to deal with nerves.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do you get rid of the pressure before playing a tennis match?
Answer: One idea is find a reason to separate yourself from others. Maybe hit the ball against a wall on your own, or go off and do stretching exercises.
You can only ever do your best, win or lose, if someone pressurizes you, then tell them this. You may also just want to be straight and explain that pressurizing comments are unhelpful for you, explain this to your team captain if they are approachable.
Generally speaking, the more that you play matches, the less nerve-wracking it becomes.
© 2015 Paul Goodman
Riju on November 15, 2019:
These awesome things really helped me to get focused. Thank you, thank you so much for such instructions. Loved it very much. Will apply whenever playing a match