Tennis is a tough sport. Players have to not only train every day to achieve advanced level but they also have to deal with ups and downs through many years of playing career. Adding technical difficulty to these reasons we can clearly confirm that tennis is one of the toughest sports to participate in. It doesn’t matter at which level you play you will have to cope with many uncomfortable situations. And one of them is choking.
This term is especially popular among juniors but we can meet it also at other levels of performance. Choking is a description of someone playing significantly below own potential. If we have a scale from 1 to 10 and 10 means being in the zone, choking will be around numbers 1 to 3. There are many different opinions related to this experience but there is definitely one common factor that is repeated over and over again. These are mental skills.
Tennis puts a lot of pressure on player’s mind. Players compete for only 20-30% of the total time so away from the point there is a lot of spare time to think. If players are disciplined and mentally strong they know how to use this time effectively by performing specific positive routines. Of course there are always down times when even the strongest athletes have problems with but the difference between top tennis players and less advanced ones is the response.
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer are able to recognize choking symptoms and take proper actions to change this negative momentum as soon as possible. Players at lower levels don’t have these abilities so that is why they lose much more points in a row when they choke. Adding fact that tennis is an individual sport and players have to deal with all kind of situations by themselves we can understand how important it is to equip them with effective strategies to fight with choking syndrome.
In team sports it is much easier to compensate for teammate’s weak ability. In soccer, if right defender can’t deal with opponent on his side, another player can double up to make chances bigger for getting the ball back. In basketball, if one player doesn’t have his day from behind the 3-points line coach can make a substition and put other guy who can convert possessions into points.
In tennis, players don’t have this possibility to be changed or to get help. If they miss backhand into the net they know and the whole audience know that it was an easy mistake. If they have a set ball but they are not able to convert it and finally the opponent wins the first part of the match all the negative thoughts are in one player’s mind. If the strategy is not working as it should player is the only one who can change it – coach can’t. So these several examples show how mentally brutal tennis is and let’s remember that this pressure is available right from the first lesson on the court.
That is why it should be not surprising that syndrome of choking happens from time to time. If we recognize it and we know how to answer it won’t have any big impact on our performance. On the other hand if choking is a situation where our hands are tied our tennis is in real danger.
Why do tennis players choke? Let’s find out the four most common reasons:
1. Lack of skills
If you don’t possess solid abilities you are going to have doubts while using them in competitive environment. Imagine that you have worked on your kick serve just for the last 4 days before the competition. The new habit is not automatic yet so your body and mind are not ready to use this skill while fighting for the win. That is why every time you will try to use kick serve during the match you will feel pressure and your performance will definitely drop.
Solution: Have enough practice sessions between tournaments and make sure that you work on new skills with quality. During the match use the shots that you are good at – not the ones you will be good at in the future.
2. Lack of self-belief
Self-belief. Is it ingrained or can it be learned? Definitely the second option. Experiences and your reactions shape your belief system. If you are not aware of your hard work, you don’t use positive motivational words and you don’t celebrate great achievements there is a big chance that you will choke more often than not. Choking is your body response for your thoughts and because tennis is a fast sport you have a lot of thoughts during each rally. That is why it is so crucial to know own value and stick with it every time you hit the ball to avoid choking moments.
Solution: Give yourself positive comments and be aware of your hard work. The more you repeat these actions the harder it will be to destruct your solid self-belief.
3. Others more important than you
You can start choking simply by focusing on others. If you play against one of the top players in your country you can significantly underperform if your thoughts will be focused on the level of your opponent. If you compete against lower-ranked player choking can happen if you will think about what others will tell you after losing to much weaker opponent. Focusing on others is the thing that you can’t control so there is no reason to worry about that.
Solution: Focus on yourself. You have to be happy with your game and results. If you are – congratulations. If you are not – learn and improve.
4. Past or Future
Top players play great only if they are focused on here and now. During each point there are a lot of variables so player has to constantly adapt. If he is focused on the past or on the future he will definitely won’t achieve optimal performance. Thinking about lost points in the first set or about benefits of beating the highest seeded player in the tournament are first steps to start choking. Your body will react negatively to thoughts about uncontrollable areas.
Solution: Focus on here and now. Have ready routines to help you refocus every time your mind starts to wander.
These are the four common reasons why tennis players choke at different levels. The good information is that you can control ALL of these reasons. It is not easy but with proper amount of work you will definitely reduce the numbers of situations when your hands shake and your legs are extremely heavy.