If you want to perform well under pressure, look at how you relate to it.
Do you swing a racket? Then surely you’ve had the fantasy - imagined yourself playing on the biggest stage, with thousands of people watching live (and millions more on TV) and holding their breath as you battle through an extended rally on match point, winning a grand slam in dramatic fashion.
It’s the stuff of dreams, and in your dreams the pressure of the moment is part of the appeal. Winning would be ideal, but even if you lose, wouldn’t it be great to play a leading role in such exciting drama?
Certainly, tennis provides great theatre. Yet for many of us, competing feels less like starring in a movie and more like standing trial. And in this “trial by tennis match,” the prospect of losing hangs like a guilty verdict over your head, and you’re left to perform while awaiting punishment for your misdeeds.
How does this happen? How is it that, in your daydreams, you view the intensity and pressure of a match as part of the appeal, yet in an actual match, the pressure leads to anguish and anxiety? The answer has to do with our perceptions. Anxiety stems from perceiving ourselves as threatened. That is, when we believe we’re in danger, we tend to get scared. If this sounds obvious, it’s because it is. Yet we so rarely stop to look at what’s scaring us and evaluate whether we’re actually in danger.
When the intensity is turned up and we feel safe, the pressure tends to make things more fun. If you like roller coasters or haunted houses or tough practice matches, then you know the feeling. These things add excitement to your life and break up the boredom. If you’ve willingly strapped yourself into a thrill ride, then you’re in what psychologists call a “paratelic” state, in which you’re craving action and seeking out pleasure. In contrast, if you’re in a car that suddenly slides across the ice, you’re likely in a “telic” state, when you want nothing more than calmness and stability. The same dichotomy holds true in a haunted house, where your paratelic state has you enjoying the mystery of not knowing what monster lurks around the corner, versus the telic state that arises in a home invasion. Similarly, for many players, a knock-down-drag-out rally in practice is paratelic-thrilling, whereas in a tournament it’s telic-scary.
If you find yourself fearing competition, the key to overcoming the problem may lie not in reducing the pressure you feel, but rather in changing how you interpret it. Said differently, you can overcome performance anxiety by making a reversal from a telic to a paratelic state. This is the primary premise of Reversal Theory, originally developed by Michael Apter and Ken Smith in the 1970’s. As the examples above suggest, we can make this type of shift by realizing that we’re not in danger.
On a tennis court, you are, in fact, safe (notwithstanding the risk of a sprained ankle and other such injuries). Your life is not at risk. If you feel otherwise, then let’s look at why you’re afraid. When we face our biggest fears, we often find that the danger is more imagined than real.
Perhaps you’re afraid of losing. Nobody likes to lose, but to be afraid of it? That only makes sense if you think a loss would define you. If you believe you have a set maximum ability, then a loss would reveal your ultimate status as a player, and that would be scary. Yet if you believe, as all the evidence shows, that athletes can improve through deliberate practice and good coaching, then a loss simply reveals what to work on next. (And actually, a win reveals the same thing, as you can always learn something about your strengths and weaknesses, regardless of the match outcome.)
Maybe you play with fear because you think the result of the current point will determine the outcome of not only the match at hand, but also your entire athletic career and, by extension, your overall success in life. If this describes you, then a healthy dose of perspective is in order. In reality, our success and happiness are the result of an infinite number of events and, in turn, our responses to them, rather than being determined by the unforced error you may or may not make at five-four, or even at Championship Point.
Perhaps your anxiety on the court is like the fear that arises when you’re about to get in trouble. Maybe you’re worried that your coaches – or perhaps your parents – will yell at you or will like you less if you mess up. Typically, when a coach gives you feedback, they’re trying to help you get better. The best coaches critique your technique and strategy and effort, but not you as a person. If you’re afraid of getting corrective feedback, you may be taking it too personally. And if the threat is coming from your parents - or you perceive it to be - then it’s worth having a conversation about it. I encourage families not to let an on-court performance, good or bad, determine how they get along. If you’re planning to go out for pizza after a tournament as a family, then you ought to do so (and to enjoy it, best you can) regardless of how well the tournament goes. A player should only get “in trouble” after a tennis match if they showed poor sportsmanship or otherwise behaved badly.
These are just a few reasons a player may feel threatened by a tennis match. Whatever the basis of your fear, I encourage you to look at it with a critical eye – to examine not only how to reduce your anxiety, but also to question why you’re anxious in the first place. If we can figure that out, then we can address the problem at the source, and a pressure-filled match will feel less like a trial and more like an adventure.