Beyond the Score: Staying Focused Under Pressure

By Kamala Nellen

We are heading into the 2016 Southern California Junior Sectional Tennis Championships in June. Perhaps you want to garner a scholarship for college or you aspire to be the next great professional player. Each of the competitors playing in Sectionals has tournament experience; some more than others. You are strong and fast, and versatile. You know your drills. You are ready to go. But how you do perform under pressure?


It is what you do in the game that separates those who go to the next level or get the scholarship from those who do not. If you do not have self-control, and the ability to stay focused during high stress events, you will be gone before the dust from your first season settles. Here are four tips to build your ability to stay focused and in control of yourself under pressure:

  1. Learn to concentrate. Work out in silence. Turn off the radio. Shut the TV down. Turn your cell phone off. Check your conversations at the door. When you practice, focus all your senses on execution of your drills and exercises. Pay attention to the space around you and to the equipment you are working with. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. When you are focused on the present, you can make adjustments, pull back from something that is not working or stop pushing overtired muscles before the onset of injury. You are also learning the invaluable skill of efficient use of energy.
  2. Set an intention, a purpose, for a practice or for a match. For example, pick one technique you want to refine. Or set an intention to hold a particular attitude. For example, to remain light-hearted no matter what happens during the game. Once you have set your intention, hold it lightly in mind as you go to the court. Then let go and play tennis. Afterwards, write in your journal how the practice or game went for you. Setting intentions is a powerful focusing practice that can help you override distractions during tournaments.
  3. Build self-control. Words are powerful. Use positive words deliberately, like a yogi uses a mantra, to focus the mind. Then you can use your energy to play the game instead of following your thoughts and emotions on a wild ride. When you are in competition, say, “Thank you” when someone tries to derail you. Say it before you hit the ball. Say it to those who beat you in competition. Every obstacle is pushing you to play better and go beyond what you think you can do. Without these people and situations, you won’t grow as a tennis player. Olympic athletes win gold with this attitude. “Thank you” will take you beyond the pack when coaches and scouts from the universities are watching your ability to handle stress on and off the court. You will be the athlete they want on the tennis squad.
  4. Post these facts on your mirror, on your notebooks, on your arm, or on your i-pad; wherever you can see them often and easily: I am great. I am important. I am smart. I am lovable. No one can take these truths away from you. How you perform will not alter them. What others do or say will not affect them. Yet, remembering these powerful words may change how you perform under pressure.

Kamala Nellen is a performance enhancement specialist for elite athletes and high achievers. She was a professional dancer and has over 40 years experience and teaching the art and science of yoga. Her latest book is titled: Working IN: The Elite Athlete’s Guide to Working Out from the Inside, available on For questions or inquiries, send her an email at: or visit

NOTE: The SCTA Junior Championships will be held from June 18 through June 27 at various sites in Orange County. For information about junior tennis in Southern California, please visit


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