BEYOND THE SCORE
By Lisa Thomas
Chrissie Evert once said that, “Feeling pressure means you are human.” The seasoned player was commenting on the apparent nerves being displayed by Angelique Kerber as she battled through some tough service games at the Australian Open, ultimately falling to Southern California’s Coco Vandeweghe. Nerves are a real part of tennis and they can show up at any time, in any setting.
Being nervous is a very natural thing as suggested by Evert. As players and sufferers of nerves we have a choice to look at it as a good thing or a negative thing. Nervousness is the same physiologically as adrenaline and to play well we need adrenaline. Without it our games might be flat and uninspired, so it actually helps us. However, as we can all appreciate, there are times when our nerves get the better of us, like in Angie’s case of double faults and ineffective, pushed serves.
So what can we do when our nerves show up and our performance goes down?
I garnered a lot from Roger Federer when he spoke after his five-set win against Kei Nishikori, also at this year’s Australian Open. Roger was down significantly in the first set and managed a remarkable Federer style rebound to get himself back in the set and to ultimately take the match. When asked how he pulled it off he went straight to sharing what his self-talk looked like. He said things like, “You are the fittest you have been. Look for opportunities on his serve. He is not the biggest server in the game so find your chances on the return. Keep up your serve. You can win points on your serve. He is a tough customer so just focus on your movement.”
What I appreciated about what he shared was that his self-talk, while positive, looked more productive than overhyped and unrealistic. He was saying things to himself that helped him to focus on what was good and what was realistic. Anything over negative self-talk is going to be preferable however more productive self-talk might be more actionable and believable and hence more effective. What I took away from this was that the man who is arguably the best tennis player of a generation, isn’t telling himself, “I am the best, no one can beat me.” He is instead encouraging himself with reliable, productive self-talk.
Another thing to help with managing the nerves is to breathe properly. When we are nervous we tend to breathe with short, shallow breaths. As players that can’t be a good thing. Not only will we be deprived of essential oxygen to bolster sustained movement and strength we are also limiting the oxygen to our brains which can effect memory and logic. Limiting memory and logic will in turn effect strategy and shot selection. So breathe those deep belly breaths, especially between serves and at changeovers.
A good friend of mine who has been an Olympic trainer and college coach shared an acronym with me that he likes to use. It’s SOAP. The idea is that SOAP can wash away the nerves. The S stands for having a strategy. He recommends having a good idea of your game plan and knowing how to capitalize on your opponent’s weaknesses and making sure you can bring out your strengths. The O is for oxygen with the encouragement to be mindful of your breathing. The A is for active, keep moving and use the energy you have well. And lastly the P is for positive to remind us to keep our focus positive and refrain from any negative self-talk that can bring our games down.
I would like to be more like Federer and adjust my self-talk to be more real and actionable. I really don’t believe I am a great player, I am a good player. I don’t have the most winning serve but I can place my serves well. So from here on in I am going to make the talk work for me. Just like Federer and maybe then I too can pull through some long sets with tough customers.