Looking to play college tennis
Five ways to work through pre-match jitters
  | By Rob Polishook

BZZZZ, BZZZZZ. It’s usually a weekend in my world. I may have just stepped off a court after an enjoyable morning hitting session, or finished reading the New York Times over eggs and coffee. All is relaxed and status quo. Yet for the athlete on the other end of my buzzing cell phone, his or her world is anything but placid. Butterflies are fluttering through their stomach, their head is spinning with possible performance outcomes, and self-doubt is creeping in. The concerned athlete wonders what is happening to them. Perhaps they are preparing to step onto the court to play someone seeded higher, or even way lower in a regional, sectional or national tournament. Or maybe the young player feels they need a big victory to change a recent string of bad results. No matter the situation, it can cause a level of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimately a feeling of not having full control. It’s at this very moment our paths connect with a BZZZZ on the cell phone or a short, but direct, text message. It’s always the same as I listen intently or scroll down my phone: I hear/read “OMG … I’m nervous, What do I do?”

As a sports psychology and performance coach, this is probably the most commonly asked and texted question I receive. As many players who have experienced such jitters can attest to, it’s usually not the nervousness which presents a problem, but all the accompanying thoughts, such as “Why am I nervous?” or “What happens if I’m still this nervous during the match?” or even, “If I play tight, I’m going to lose.” This, in turns, sets off another negative spiral downward, and the player’s natural nervousness turns into a far more debilitating anxiety.

In light of this, I want to share five ideas in which the nervous player can gain some perspective over what’s happening and be able to better manage and work through excessive nervousness.

1. It’s okay to be nervous … it’s perfectly normal and natural. In fact, even the top players in the world admit to some degree of nervousness. This self-acceptance of their nerves is actually the way they manage the situation. They don’t fight the tension, rather they accept it as “something inside of them is nervous.” How many of you have tried to resist a feeling or a thought? What happens? It usually gets bigger and bigger, and instead, looms in your mind. Remember … what you resist persists! Roger Federer said the following about nervousness: “I get nervous quite often on big occasions, especially at Grand Slams. You wait around, you hope to get to the finals … It’s really hard, it works you. You start asking yourself questions … the more you win, the more questions you ask.” Tiger Woods said, “I always feel pressure. If you don’t feel nervous, you don’t care about how you play. I care about how I perform. The day I’m not nervous playing is the day I quit.”

2. Nervousness is a sign you care. Nervousness isn’t bad, nervousness isn’t good, it simply exists. It’s your way of reacting to a situation. There are always two sides to everything, but when you are nervous, you usually only focus on the negative aspects of how you feel. However, what’s the other side? Aren’t you also excited, challenged and have a great opportunity in front of you? The great Billie Jean King wrote a book titled Pressure Is a Privilege. This was an acknowledgement that if you are feeling pressure, you have often put yourself in a privileged situation, such as the finals of a tournament. Similarly, if you are feeling nerves, you are usually feeling challenged. Remember to be proud of the fact that you have embraced this challenge and are attempting to succeed, and that your nerves are a simple byproduct of these positive choices.

3. If you are nervous, who else is? When a player is nervous, their focus is usually entirely on themselves. In other words, they are not seeing the entire picture, rather just a small piece of it. Don’t forget about your opponent! He or she accounts for 50 percent of the puzzle. In fact, that seemingly challenging figure across the net from you is very likely just as nervous as you are, perhaps even more so! He or she is trying to manage their nerves and play a good match, just like you. By being aware of this point, a player can reframe their focus away from themselves and onto the entire picture.

4. What’s the worst that can happen? Alan Goldberg, a nationally-known sport psychologist and mentor of mine, tells the story of Greg Louganis, a famous diver who competed in the 1988 Olympics. Louganis climbed the ladder for his last dive. Knowing he needed a 10 to win the Gold Medal, Louganis thought to himself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” His answer was “Well, my parents will still love me, and I’ll still have my friends.” With this refreshing moment of perspective, he leapt off the board and nailed a perfect 10!

5. Why am I nervous? When I ask this question to players, they usually say it’s because “I want to win” or “I don’t know how I’m going to do” or “I’m not sure how good my opponent is.” Most of us have heard these responses so much that we accept them as routine. However, what’s important to understand is that the player’s focus is distracted or compromised before they walk on the court. Their focus is on something which they cannot control, which is winning (the result). More so, they are focusing on another uncontrollable … their opponent. With a focus on these things, there is little time to focus on what they need to do to perform their best. It’s normal to be nervous, but the player falls into a trap if they become results-oriented before play has even begun.

Playing any sport requires the ability to accept and manage nerves and emotions. All great performers understand this is a part of their process and fighting it only makes things worse. John McEnroe said, “It’s not if you will choke, it’s how you handle it when it happens.” Nervousness is a natural emotion, the problem is not the nervousness that a player experiences. The issue becomes the negative reaction and fear derived from these nerves, which often leads to a downward spiral and a “frozen” player. The next time you are nervous or anxious, refer to the five techniques above to help you play your best game.

Rob Polishook

Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology  and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail rob@insidethezone.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.