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I’m a 3.5 player, baseliner, lots of topspin. I’m comfortable in practice, but playing a USTA match has always been a challenge. I usually start relatively strong, but my play fizzles at the tail ends of matches. Because of this, I have trouble closing out opponents. It’s like I get slightly tighter and out of sync as the match progresses. Any insight into how to stop this trend?—Bill S.
Without a doubt, Bill, learning how to adjust mental and emotional states during the heat of battle is no simple matter. Not only does mental-skill development require practice; it requires strategies. In past columns, I’ve offered two different tacks to improving match focus: One, on the performance benefits of journaling regularly, and another detailing on how mental imagery practice can help curb on-court anxiety. Consider these approaches.
But for the sake of interest, let me offer a third, and perhaps more apt, approach to your late-match nerves: Physiological awareness.
In Mental Training for Peak Performance, author Steven Ungerleider, through a chapter on tennis, interviews Dr. Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist who’s coached Pete Sampras, Gabriella Sabatini, and a slew of other touring pros. One of Dr. Loehr’s major points is that, to maintain a positive mental and emotional approach over the course of a match—and by extension, high-level play—a player must allow his or her mind and body to recover not just during changeovers, but between each and every point. Intuitively enough, the primary marker for this recovery is heart rate. As Ungerleider explains,
Dr. Loehr says that if the heart rate stays high between points (during the resting and recovery zone), then the player is overstressed and headed for early burnout in the match. “The optimal condition between points is a stress/recovery balance, such that the heart rate is typically falling between points, the player is relaxed biomechanically, and breathing returns to normalcy,” he says. “Otherwise, if the EKG is up, the body will be tense, and that translates into tight muscle-reflex action and some bad tennis.”
Indeed, Bill, this kind of stress may be at the root of the problem: By remaining “hyped-up” between points and not getting adequate intervals of rest, you may be tiring mentally, emotionally, and physically as the match progresses, worsening your play.
Which raises the obvious question: How to relax? How to allow yourself a proper between-point recovery? The first step is simple awareness. When the point ends, notice your heart rate, and take deep breaths with the intent of slowing it. Additionally, re-instill belief in your abilities through positive self-talk and relaxed, confident body language. Between points, “[if] you hold the [racquet] too tightly or your jaw is clenched and you are ruminating about the last point that you messed up,” as Ungerleider notes, “then your muscles and emotional memory will contaminate the next series of points,” preventing your heart rate from dropping into that critical resting zone.
(One cool idea: To increase awareness of your match behavior, have someone video tape your actions between points. Says Dr. Loehr, “I want my young, old, amateur, and pro tennis players to see this sequence so that they can experience firsthand their emotions during this in-between-point period…If we can get them to rid themselves of those 3 1/2 seconds of negativity, hold their heads high, achieve new self-confidence, and prepare for the next point with a clean physiological and emotional slate, then we have done good work in our training.”)
All that said, as you put this training into practice, don’t neglect to exert yourself during points. Achieving this balance is tricky, but relaxing when the point ends doesn’t preclude playing hard when it begins. Good luck.