Tennis & Nerves – My Perspective from Playing & Coaching Part 1

Mental Tennis

Tennis being an individual sport with minimal to no in-competition coaching has always put pressure on a player’s mental fortitude.  Anyone who has played tennis also knows that at times one’s mental fortitude falters.  Singles is particularly tricky because a loss means either the opponent was better or one failed to play well.  Neither of those are fun prospects to confront.  The same is often true in team sports, but if one is playing poorly he/she can be taken out of the game.  While not an ideal practice in team sports, a  loss can and often is rationalized as the fault of teammates or coaches or both.  In tennis, a player is alone.

25 years ago Michael Chang improbably toppled Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and others to take his lone Grand Slam title.  This occurred right as I was beginning to play tournaments.  I remember keeping the Louisville Courier-Journal write-up of Chang’s win over Lendl in my racquet bag as I embarked on tournament play and league play in 1989.  I joined my first tennis clinic in 1985 and have been coaching tennis off and on at the high school level since 2003.  I want to share some of the at times quirky things I have found to help a player’s mental toughness on court.

My 1st Real Singles Win

Prior to playing tournaments I played two guys who were classmates, neighbors and friends with great regularity in 5th and 6th grade.  We’d meet at a local park, and I lost.  Once in awhile I might split sets and we’d run out of time, but they were both more coordinated than I was at the time, and I never really won for what seemed like a very long time.  I did keep working on my game though.  I played the better of my two nemeses and raced through the 1st set, tightened up and lost the 2nd set and built a 5-2 lead in the 3rd set.  I held and lost multiple match points before finally losing 7-6 in the 3rd set.  I was so nervous when I was one point away because it represented a crystalizing of a great deal of effort I had put into improving.  I don’t remember a lot about matches I played more than 25 years ago, but I do recall choking.  It was devastating at the time.  I did not get to play him again for one whole week.   The entire week I kept telling myself, “You are playing better than him when you are not nervous.”  I won the next week in straight sets and generally took over both rivalries in 7th & 8th grade.

Approach 1 – Focus on the Positive

USTA Events – Staying Loose

My first two USTA singles matches helped me to carb up as I got double bageled. USTA tournament play is different from Team Tennis, leagues or playing around with friends at the park.  It took a new level of mental toughness that I lacked.  My 3rd USTA match featured an acquaintance who I knew I could beat.  I started poorly at 1-4, but hey I won a game right (!) so I felt decent.  The first thing I did was think about what I would have to do to win the 1st set.  The second thing I did was try to find a way to stay calm about the whole process.  I kept thinking of the lyrics to the song “Always look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python and the Life of Bryan between points.  Soon enough I won the first set 6-4 and rolled through the second set 6-1.

Approach 2 – Reduce Tension with Humor or Whatever Else Works


Continued in Part 2


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven White says:

    Nice piece Dan. I would like to add that it makes no difference if your player dished out a couple of bagels or was taken to the woodshed by a better player, I found it helpful to focus my commentary on individual shotmaking. For example…”Your backhand was really clicking today.” etc. Most players enjoy hearing that their hard work during practice pays dividends even if they didn’post a “W” in the win column.

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