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  • Dr. Lillian Nejad

Thrive Under Pressure: 10 Tips from the Tennis Court

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

It's my favourite time of year in Melbourne-the Australian Open! I have so much admiration for the dedication, passion, discipline and mental and physical prowess it takes to succeed as a professional tennis player or elite athlete of any sport. I've learned a thing or two watching these athletes live and up close over the past 25 years...

All photos by Lillian Nejad
Dimitrov at The Australian Open All photos by Lillian Nejad

The world’s top tennis players are vying for top spot in the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open in Melbourne over the next two weeks. Sport is the ultimate in reality television, unscripted, often unpredictable, and particularly in an individual sport like tennis, success is driven not just by physical prowess but by the mental strength and skills of the athlete. Every year, tennis fans gather to witness who will triumph and who will crumble under the pressure, or ‘choke’ as they often (and unfortunately) refer to it in sport.

“Pressure – changes everything, pressure. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold.”

In film ‘The Devil’s Advocate’

Although most of us will not experience this kind of pressure on such a public stage, everyone can relate to the stress caused by the pressure that we put on ourselves to achieve our goals or that is demanded from us by our family or work or the unexpected challenges that life often brings. Let’s face it, even having to parallel park can be a high pressure situation for some of us!

Experiencing pressure is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, we need some stress and pressure to perform at our best. But how do we perform at our best when the pressure is mounting?

Top Ten Tips from the Tennis Court (and I saved the best for last!):

1. Pay attention to your thoughts. Whether you succeed or fail often comes down to how you talk to yourself. Self-defeating thoughts include beliefs about yourself (“I can’t do this!”, “I suck!”), your perspective on the situation (“I have to succeed or else!”, “It has to be perfect!”), and how you perceive others’ expectations of you (“Everybody is counting on me!”, “Everyone is laughing at me!”). Monitor your own thoughts in high pressure situations. Are you motivating yourself or putting yourself down? If you tend towards the latter, work on changing and practicing more effective ways of thinking ("I can do this." "Everything I have done has prepared me for this moment.") and consciously use them in different pressure situations until they becomes habit.

2. Practice makes perfect. Become accustomed to high-pressure situations. Avoidance breeds fear, whereas practice fosters confidence, so face pressure head-on. Expose yourself regularly to a variety of pressure situations at home, work, or in sport.

3. Take a moment. Notice how tennis players take a few breaths before serving. Relaxation and breathing techniques can ease the tension in your body before, during and after exposure to high-pressure situations.

4. Prevention is key. Even if you have the talent, knowledge and ability to deal with high demands of work, life, or sport, sometimes the pressure can still get to you. If you have a balanced lifestyle that includes social support, a healthy diet, physical activity, and time to relax, you will be putting yourself in the best position to have the mental, emotional, and physical strength and energy to cope with stressful situations.

5. Stay in the present. Don’t think too much about the outcome. Stay focussed on the task so you can respond effectively to whatever happens in the moment. Being mindful in the moment creates what athletes call, "flow" or "being in the zone"--a state of being completely absorbed in an activity that achieves optimal performance.

6. Develop a ritual for facing pressure situations. Tennis players often have rituals before each serve: wiping their face, bouncing the ball a certain number of times or doing a particular movement or gesture. Nadal is well known for his precise and long-winded pre-serve routine but the recommendation for most is to keep your ritual simple and practical. Some ideas are to take a few breaths, read an inspirational quote, listen to a particular song, or do a short mindfulness exercise.

7. Watch and learn. How do people around you deal with pressure, expectations, public scrutiny or professional pitfalls? You can learn a great deal from others’ successes and mistakes.

8. Reflect on your previous experiences. Athletes are always reviewing their previous performances to ascertain what will make them more effective in their next match. Study yourself: what were the conditions, both internally (in your own mind and body) and externally (in the environment) when you were successful and when you were not. What would you do differently to improve the outcome next time?

9. Imagine coping with the situation. One of the best ways to prepare for high pressure situations is to visualise success. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed and go through the whole scenario in detail with you successfully completing the task. Visualising success by going through the motions in your mind is a powerful tool and is effectively used to prepare elite athletes for their match-ups.

10. Is it worth it?. Why are you in this situation? Is this the path you want to take? Is this an expression of your values? Are you passionate about what you do? The meaning you attach to what you do in your life has a major impact on how you approach it, and ultimately can be the difference between failure and success. In Andre Agassi's autobiography, "Open", he is very clear that tennis gave him no joy for the majority of his career. It wasn't until he was able to use his tennis skills for the purpose of funding his foundation for education that he felt at peace with being a professional tennis player; it was "meaning" that led him on the path of great success, both personally and professionally, in the latter part of his career.

Over his career, Nick Kyrgios has reported that he has struggled with motivation as a tennis player, and we've certainly witnessed his struggles with his emotions and self-doubt on the court. Why is such a talented person struggling so much in his chosen field? It may have been because he wasn't convinced it was worth it. He had recently reflected that he wished he had known earlier that he valued being part of a team (e.g. The Davis Cup). Even more recently, he started the campaign to raise money for bushfire recovery, pledging $200 per Ace served in Australia which led to a tennis-wide campaign, "Rally for Relief", that raised $5 million dollars and motivated many of his colleagues to pledge further funds. Meaning has led to a more fulfilled and motivated player, and person. Meaning is what gets you out of bed, it's what fosters passion, and it's what brings about joy and fulfilment. So when you're under pressure, you know it's worth it.

Now get out there and enjoy some tennis!

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