Fearless Tennis: Loosen up when it counts

hang loose

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

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

If you’d like to learn more about Jeff’s new online course click here: http://www.norcal.usta.com/competitiveedge/focusunleashed/

Given the pressure to win, expectations we create in our minds, and self-doubt that we all experience from time to time, it is not surprising that staying “loose” in competition continues to be our greatest challenge. I use the word loose because playing relaxed is not only unrealistic, it is counterproductive. This is because you actually need a certain amount of arousal or adrenaline to play your best. Rather, the goal is to learn how to drop into a looser physical state even when adrenaline is surging through your body. When you learn how to access this state and can release tension more effectively, you will be a whole lot looser to execute your shots with confidence.

Unfortunately, in 1988 when I was a senior at the University of California Santa Barbara, I didn’t have this tool. I remember that I was playing the number-one player from the University of California Los Angeles in his stadium court—he was also ranked number one in the United States at the time. If I won the match, I would likely go to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) competition, given my record that year. I was playing aggressively and remember taking the lead 6–4, 4–1. All of a sudden, while I was waiting to return serve, I was hit by the thought, If I win this match, I’m going to the NCAAs. Within seconds, a surge of adrenaline rushed through my body, and my arm tightened up. I remember being self-conscious about the rush of nerves, and I began playing tentatively and backing off the ball. I told myself to relax, but it didn’t help. It actually made it worse. I became fearful of missing. The high level of tennis I was accessing a moment before disappeared in an instant. I became a victim of my nerves. And, to no surprise, I ended up losing the match—a painful blow, I must admit.

In my experience, getting the body loose when the nervous system is ramping up is a worthy pursuit, and achievable. The benefits are numerous: self-confidence, greater enjoyment, more passion, and, ultimately, results. However, most players don’t have a reliable way to maintain this ideal level of looseness when their nerves or negative thoughts kick in.

Once you become better at “dropping” into a looser physical state, the nerves will no longer be so destructive to your performance. What happens is that many players recognize that they are overly tight, and their brains immediately tell them, This is not good. You have to relax.  Of course, as most of us know, this command-and-control style simply doesn’t work. As Patrick Rafter told InsideTennis after he lost in the semifinals of Wimbledon years ago, “I told myself to relax, and I got tighter. Next year, I think I’ll tell myself to get tight and see what happens.” Getting into a looser state, however, doesn’t need to be such a mystery.

Even the best players struggle with physical tension from time to time. The key is to become aware of your body so that you can literally “call up” the feeling of looseness when your body tightens up. One way to do this is to shift your attention into your arms and shoulders (called a “body scan”) and check for any excess tension before you serve or return. The simple act of acknowledging the tension, accepting it, and releasing it with a deep breath can make a huge difference when executing your shots. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life, he remarks how being tuned into the body in this way can help greatly. “The more attention we invest in the body and its performance, the less is left over to ruminate about saving face or impressing others. In a paradoxical way, it is often by paying attention to your body that you get to forget the ego.” Remembering to tune into your body on the court and checking your tension levels from time to time, acknowledging the tension, and then breathing it out by saying, “Let go,” can be enormously helpful. Getting out of your head like this and into your body will make a huge difference.

Remember, getting loose when you are tense is an act of acceptance and awareness rather than self-consciousness and desire to “get rid” of the tension. Using the other relaxation techniques in chapters forty-two and forty-three will also help you train this feeling.

If you don’t train yourself to become more familiar with what loose feels like off the court, it will be very difficult to re-create that loose state when you need it. By training this on and off the court, you will be better able to literally “hop” into a looser physical state, even in pressure situations. Of course, once you release the tension, you must commit to your shots and swing through the ball. This commitment is critical and will further loosen you up as you train your mind and body to do what they already know how to do.