In my first book, Tennis Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions, I wrote a chapter entitled, “OMG, I’m Nervous …What Do I Do?” At the time I wrote that chapter, that was the top question tennis players brought to me. But there is another question tennis players experience and grapple with that is equally important. These players will say, “I was so tight, I couldn’t hit a ball!” or “I’m so tight, why? I’m going to lose!” and “How can I loosen up?”
When a player is noticing tightness, it is most often about anxiety, nervousness or fear. The description “tight” usually means the player is experiencing one or all of these symptoms: Shortness of breath, tingling, a lack of energy, clammy skin, overall impatience and rushing.
So what’s a player to do? How do we get back to a more relaxed place so the match feels more like practice?
Here are five ways a player can loosen up…
1. Stop fighting
Rather than fighting your thoughts and feelings and trying to get rid of them, try turning towards them and accepting how you feel right now. Simple acceptance eliminates the struggle and allows you the freedom to make adjustments and find your rhythm. You can talk to the feeling and say, “I’m noticing something inside of me is tight.” Then say, “I’m going to say hello to it because it’s clearly worried.”
This strategy helps you see that your thoughts are not you, nor is the tightness. Rather, it’s something you are simply aware off and notice.
Remember, your thoughts are not truths and your feelings are not fatal. They are like a movie you are watching. No need to fuse together with them and feel like they control you and highjack the moment, point, game or match.
2. Shift the focus
The anxiety a player is experiencing is most likely a result of focusing on something you cannot control. Maybe you are trying to control the outcome or what the coach thinks, or how you “think” you should be playing. But all of these things are beyond your control. Change your focus to something you can control. You might focus on committing to your game and using strategies that set you apart. Maybe you want to try breaking up the match or the game into smaller pieces, focusing on one point and one shot at a time.
3. Shake it off
Notice where you are feeling the tightness in your body. If it is in your arm, shake the arm. If it is in your feet, shake your feet. Your shoulders? Shake them! Shaking can help the body to release tension and feel connected.
You might even ask yourself, “How would I feel if I was loose and relaxed?” Or you can ask this question about a stroke: “How would it feel if my serve was relaxed?” Rather than answering this, allow your body to feel, relax and release it. Right now, ask yourself, “How would my jaw feel if it was loose?” If you are like most people, you will realize you have been clenching or holding your jaw tight. Just the awareness alone will prompt you to let go and settle.
Bringing your attention to your breath and breathing patterns is a secret of so many pros. This allows the player to bring oxygen into the body to replenish and reset. A little known fact is that by inhaling, you are activating the sympathetic nervous system that provides you with energy. Exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for calm and relaxation. Breathing in and out serves to ground, balance and help loosen you up so you can get out of your mind. It also helps to shift the focus away from the outcome and tightness. Between points, before your serve or prior to returns, bring your attention to your breath and breathe. You won’t be sorry.
Shift your attention to your feet. Whether it’s a serve or a return of a serve, notice both of your feet touching the ground. If you are bouncing on your toes or just feeling the balls of your feet, notice the contact with the ground. By doing this, you will become aware that you are stable, balanced and centered. Being centered will help the nervous system settle.
These five centering tips can be used separately or can be combined into a between-point or between-game ritual. Be creative. It’s important to remember as you are doing any of these tips to be present while doing them. The object, for example, is not to do the breathing exercise so you can loosen up. This conditional type of thinking will only make you tighter. The idea is to breathe, and to “be the breath.” Be present to the breath or shaking or noticing your feet contacting the ground. By doing this, you have a better chance of settling down. If by chance you don’t settle in, don’t get upset that you don’t feel how you want. Stick to this process, the real game is creating the discipline to be present to the little things. Soon this will translate to bigger things. This will allow you the best chance to play the next shot, point, game and match from a centered place.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder and director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, his focus is on the athlete as a person first and recognizes the strength of being “More” than an Athlete. Through this lens, he is able to help athletes be their best version of themselves both on and off the field. His best selling book Tennis Inside the Zone- 32 mental training workouts for champions is sold nationally and internationally. He has spoken at USTA, USPTA, ITA conferences, and has conducted workshops India, Israel and the Omega Institute. His work has been highlighted in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Sports Illustrated , NY Times and other media. Additionally Polishook is an adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University. He may be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.insidethezone.com.