How to Overcome Adversity When the Pressure is On
There are many critical moments in a tennis match where you will feel pressure to succeed. Ironically, because of this pressure, it can be difficult for you to perform your best.
I know because I’ve competed for over 2 decades in tournaments against national and world-class competition. And I’ve failed so many times that I’d need extra hands to count them all.
But, these failures, along with my successes, have helped me learn what it takes to flourish in the big moments of a match.
Let’s examine the most pressure packed points during your matches and how you should approach them. By identifying these moments and implementing the advice that follows, you will be more prepared to succeed when the going gets tough.
1. The Beginning of the Match
There is a lot of uncertainty at the start of a match. You don’t know how you or your opponent are going to perform. You may not know how you need to play against your opponent to be successful. Nervous energy sets in because of all the unknowns.
Unfortunately, you can’t afford a slow start. It can be all the difference between a well-fought victory and a slow long climb up the 0-5 deficit mountain.
Uncertainty breeds discomfort and potential for suboptimal play. Luckily, if you develop a gameplan based on you and your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, much of this uncertainty will be replaced with confidence from the moment you step out on the court.
A little planning goes a long way. Formulate strategies for the match to keep you focused on executing the right plays before the first ball is struck.
2. You Lose Several Points in a Row
This can be a big confidence buster. You make a string of errors or your opponent comes up with big shot after big shot and starts going on a hot streak. Is it time to panic?
Nope. Time to go back to the basics.
Reset your mind and your game, and remember the solid strategic fundamentals that you’ve heard time and time again from coaches.
Deep cross-court balls, as many as you can in a row. Attack the short ball, usually down the line, and come to net. Nothing fancy. Just good, clean basic tennis.
If you play the percentages, run for every ball, compete with grit and determination, and still lose, then you deserve props for giving it your all and that bag of cheese puffs you’ve been craving since Nixon became president.
Remember, when you are in trouble, do what my college tennis coach Keith Puryear used to always tell me: go back to the basics.
3. Your Serve Has Just Been Broken
Holding serve is expected for intermediate and advanced players. The serve is the most important stroke in tennis. You start the point hitting your serve half the time, which gives you the opportunity to begin the point on your terms.
This is why practicing your serve is so critical to reaching your tennis potential. But even with all the practice in the world, your serve will get broken during matches.
If you lose your service game, take a deep breath and plan how you will break right back. Breaking your opponent’s serve right after you’ve been broken is the best time to do so for a couple reasons.
First, there is often increased pressure on the opponent to consolidate the break (i.e. hold serve). Second, if you can break right back, you can make your opponent feel like breaking your serve was somewhat of a fluke and a non-issue, since he or she was broken immediately. Third, it stops the momentum and evens the score as quickly as possible.
And sometimes your opponent will become too overconfident or lose focus after breaking your serve. Time to pounce on these weaknesses like a cat who just spotted a box of organic kitty litter from Whole Foods.
Instead of being discouraged at losing serve, look for ways to get back on track. Commit to having as strong a return game as possible. Get your returns in play, be gritty, and apply controlled aggression to put the pressure back on your serving opponent.
Momentum is huge, and the quicker you stop your opponent’s advantage, the quicker you can swing things to your advantage.
4. When You’ve Broken Serve
This is the other side of the coin. When you break your opponent’s serve, depending on your personality, you may either become too relaxed, be preoccupied with needing to consolidate the break, or get too excited and lose concentration.
The key is to have a gameplan in place that you can keep implementing against your opponent. Understand what point patterns will enable you to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses while utilizing your strengths.
Then focus on sticking with what works through the entire match.
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to win your service game after breaking, think about the strategies you need to implement to win the match. Then execute these strategies.
Focus on the task at hand (winning each point) rather than on accomplishing something that hasn’t happened yet (i.e. winning the match) and your won’t create openings for your opponent to get back on track.
5. In the Late Stages of the Set
We often feel the pressure during the latter part of a set. Most players will settle into the match and play their game after a while, but staying mentally tough late into the match takes a lot of focus and experience.
A common scenario is when you are serving at 4-4 or 4-5. A break of serve on your end can spell doom for the set or the match.
Not to worry, because you have a couple things to fall back on: your gameplan and high-percentage play.
Your gameplan got you this far, so keep executing the point patterns that have helped you get to this point. Set up the points so you can use your strengths in your game as much as possible.
By definition, your strength is something you excel at, so going to it as much as you can during tough situations will give you the best chance of winning.
And if you feel the pressure, play the percentages. Once again, hit deep, solid groundstrokes until you get a short ball you can approach to the net with. Use your grit and determination to take the set from your opponent.
When things get tight, it is critical that you not let your opponent dictate the match (unless you know they “dictate” for a couple shots and then will make an error). If you do, he or she will gain confidence and you will expend way more energy retrieving balls all day instead of controlling the rallies.
6. During The Tiebreak
The pressure in a match peaks during tiebreakers. Both sides have battled to a stalemate, and the tiebreaker hastens the revelation of who will win the set and/or the match.
To help you succeed during tiebreaks, keep your opponent’s weaknesses in mind. Any part of your adversary’s game that you can put pressure on during the tiebreaker that may break down will give you a huge advantage.
Remember your game plan and keep sticking to what has been winning you points. Keep calm and relaxed during the tiebreak and focus on executing strategies and point patterns, rather than getting caught up in the situation.
Why do you think players who are in the zone are so successful? They are not thinking about the outcome, but executing and enjoying the process of playing the match.
7. The Start of The Set
This juncture of the match is quite different from the beginning. At this point, you’ve either won or lost the previous set, and need to start strong to build momentum for the next one.
The big mistake here that I have made many times myself, is to actually focus too much on the concept of “starting strong.” So many times in my junior and adult career, I have overemphasized the strong start in my mind and even verbally to myself. Unfortunately, the opposite usually happens when I have done this.
Once again, the reason for this issue is focusing on the results (bad!) instead of the process (good!). When it comes time to perform, think about what you need to do to get to win each point and make it happen.
Don’t get me wrong; positive thinking certainly can help your performance. But don’t stop there. Think more deeply about strategy and you will increase your chances of playing optimally. This way, you will start a set off strong without stressing out over it.
8. Closing Out the Match
As tennis players like to say, “there is no shot clock in tennis.” We can’t wait for time to expire or a referee to blow the whistle.
What you can’t do is think about winning the match. When you do this, you will forget what go you in the lead. You’ll start thinking about how you need to win, or how much the win means to you. Then nerves will set in, and you won’t be able to perform your best when it matters the most.
Instead, you must seize victory when the opportunity arises. Stick to the gameplan and you will be victorious.
It is normal to struggle during the above moments when playing a match. I hope that by identifying them and how to approach each one, you will perform more confidently and persevere when it counts the most.
You may not magically start winning every single match after reading this post. But through practice and experience in these competitive situations, you will get better at managing the pressure and will win more matches.
Formulate and execute your gameplan, go back to the basics when you start to struggle, and everything else will take care of itself.
To learn how to formulate a rock solid gameplan to help you win more tennis matches, download a free copy of my strategy guide by filling out the short form below!