Fearless Tennis: Train yourself to be loose

Fearless Tennis

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Most of us don’t have a simple and effective way to decrease tension under pressure. We usually know it doesn’t feel good when we’re tense, but, of course, this doesn’t change anything. We get tense and use too many muscles when we hit the ball. Though pre-shot routines, increasing the depth of your breathing, and playing aggressively regardless of your nerves can all help, sometimes players need to experience the true difference between tension and relaxation and train it to get the upper hand on their nerves.

With practice, you can learn to reduce muscle tension and lower your heart rate. Through years of reliable research studies, world renowned doctor Herbert Benson, in his groundbreaking book The Relaxation Response, has proven that we are capable of learning how to relax ourselves deeply through awareness of our bodies and a systematic process known as progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation, also known as PMR, has been widely received in hospitals worldwide as the single most effective technique to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Its application in sports settings has also grown over the years and is a popular intervention used to reduce performance anxiety. Through Benson’s research, it has been proven that people who practice this technique can significantly shift the way their bodies respond to stress in just six weeks. Instead of commanding yourself to relax or worrying about how you feel, you need to simply begin noticing where the tension is—most of the time the biggest culprits are shoulders and arms or legs.

I view this as another tool to help you access your optimal performance state on a consistent basis. Th e steps below will help guide you through progressive muscle relaxation.

  1. * Find a place where you will not be disturbed for at least ten to fifteen minutes.
  2. * Lie down on the floor or on a bed.
  3. * Begin by tensing your arms and hands, holding for seven seconds, and then relaxing for fifteen seconds. When you relax your muscles, continue taking deep breaths (in through your nose, out through your mouth) during the fifteen-second break as you observe the difference between the tension you felt and your relaxed muscles now. You will repeat this same process for the remaining body parts.
  4. * Tense your stomach (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).
  5. * Shrug your shoulders to your ears (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).
  6. * Bite down and tense your jaw (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).
  7. * Tense your entire face (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).
  8. * Tense your quads (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).
  9. * Tense your calves (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).
  10. * Tense your entire body (same time count as above). Repeat (optional).

As you see above, repeating each muscle group is optional. If you prefer the shorter version, you will not repeat each muscle group through this process.

In addition, you can also pair the feeling you have in your body with a word (for example, loose, calm, let go, etc.) as you exhale during the fifteen-second relaxation period to create a “cue” word you can use to help you recall this feeling when you feel overly tense or nervous.

To use this on the court, you will simply use the same technique of tensing and releasing your muscles on the changeovers as necessary. However, you will probably find the cue word most helpful between points to help you recall the feeling you have been training. Also, remember that simply practicing this exercise approximately four days per week will automatically improve your response to stress and reduce the activity of your autonomic nervous system. You should notice that your anxiety decreases within four to six weeks.

Some players don’t like the idea of doing a technique like this because it makes them feel like there is something wrong with them. They believe that being loose should happen automatically.

While some players do play looser than others under pressure for a variety of reasons, every player has figured out a way to access this performance state. Training your mind and body as you would your forehand or backhand only makes sense. Progressive muscle relaxation is one effective way to do this. Don’t let your ego or insecurity get in the way of you finding a strategy that could make your body respond even better when that important situation arrives. You’ll be glad you did when just one word relaxes your body just enough to rip that return down the line for the win.