The biggest fear of many tournament players that I have encountered is of “choking” or performing poorly due to the emotional and mental strain of a match. Indisputably, there is a strong psychological component to breaking down and choking, and while so-called mental weakness is a contributing factor to this problem, I would like to address the often overlooked non-psychological solutions to choking.
I would define the foundation of sound mechanics as the ability to keep the racket face in the path of the ball for as long as practically possible, using the biggest and most stable muscles possible. This mechanical paradigm will reduce choking tremendously. The reasoning here is that as the timing of the hit becomes more critical and precise, more errors unavoidably occur. Moreover, small muscles with less stability and a greater nerve to muscle-mass ratio are less reliable and are more prone to breaking down, especially under stress. The player with poor mechanics who fears missing at inopportune times might simply be realistic and perceptive, rather than emotionally vulnerable. Chris Evert was the winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, and was often called “The Ice Maiden” early in her career because she played with a cold resolve as if she had ice water in her veins. It is no coincidence, in my mind, that her strokes were as synchronized into a single unit, as perhaps any player before or since. Conversely, when a player complains to me that they have a fear of double faulting, I cannot avoid thinking that “if I had produced my second serve like yours, I’d be nervous too.”
I used to play a little schoolyard basketball and I was pretty good for a non-basketball player. Sometimes, I would go the basketball court and shoot foul shots. I would consistently make 65-70 percent of my shots, which is better than the NCAA Division I average of 62 percent and just below the NBA average of 71 percent. How could I shoot almost as well as the pros? Simple … I did it slowly and walked. My heart rate rarely exceeded 60 beats per minute. The pros are consistently above 160 beats per minute and at that heart rate, I would be lucky to make two out of 10 shots. Note that as your heart rate approaches its maximum, your coordination drops precipitously. Reggie Miller, a member of the 1992 Olympic basketball “Dream Team,” was renowned for his clutch outside shooting (Knicks fans still have nightmares!). When tested at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs before the games, Miller had the highest VO2 max scores of any of his teammates. Since he used oxygen more efficiently, his heart beat slower, so that he retained more of his coordination, and therefore, made more shots. As a tennis player, the better your aerobic conditioning, the less you will choke.
Under conditions of external stress, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in with adrenaline. The response is that your heartbeat is more rapid, your respiration rises and blood goes from your digestive system to your brain. Additionally, your pupils dilate and you perspire to regulate temperature. You are ready for action or “fight or flight.” The cause of this response—whether physical, mental or emotional—is, in many ways, irrelevant. This is important because it means that if your heart rate is high because you are running hard or because the score is 5-5 in the third set, the body’s physical reaction is the same. Therefore, the way to overcome this problem is the same, train under stress and you will respond to stress. For example, to double fault less, do some sprints and then serve.
By learning sound mechanics, you are less affected by stress. By improving fitness, you raise the threshold of what your body perceives as stressful. Finally, by training under stressful conditions, you learn to adapt favorably to conditions of stress and therefore, you will choke less.