During my playing days, I had the opportunity to play for a National Singles Championship. After a great streak of matches, I reached the finals. The night before the match, I was extremely nervous. I had beaten my opponent three times already during the year, but I was not sure of myself. All three matches had been very close (7-6, 6-4 … 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 … 6-4, 4-6, 7-6). In each of these matches, I had experienced moments when the match could have easily gone the other way. I’m sure my opponent had felt the same way.
All night, my mind was consumed by fear. A horrible scenario was playing through my head where I was going to lose the match … after I had beaten him three times! The last match was as recent as a week prior. Even though all these matches were important to me, I would gladly trade them in for this one upcoming match. This is the one I really wanted.
The thought of losing was unbearable. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, my mind was racing. Only in hindsight did I learn that uncertainty creates that type of anxiety. Uncertainty can be both exciting and frightening. They are two sides of the same coin. Clearly, I was in “Camp Fear.”
The morning of the match, I was exhausted. I had slept poorly and I was not looking forward to the match. I thought to myself, “How can I look forward to something that I am afraid of?” After a light breakfast, I went back to my hotel room to pack up and get ready for the match. My energy level was low. I wanted to win this match so badly, yet I was paralyzed by my fear of losing. As a last resort, I made myself look at the ‘unthinkable,’ losing the match. I asked myself what would happen if I indeed lost the match, and how I would feel. Well, I thought, that depends. It depends on “How.”
I came to the conclusion that if I could still be proud of myself after the match, even after losing, that I would live; I would be alright. Losing can sometimes feel like dying. It all changed for me at that point. I decided at that moment that I was going to work hard on the court and that I was going to remain calm. That would give me the best chance to play within myself, as my coach always preached, and I would be able to problem-solve. With this commitment to myself, my energy level picked up immediately. I then started to look forward to the match.
In hindsight, what I had done was take my focus off the outcome, and placed it on maintaining my self-confidence, working hard and staying calm. Those behaviors were in my control. The uncertainty of the match was still there, but the uncertainty of my “survival” was not. I was going to represent myself the best way I could.
Years later, I have been able to use this match preparation several times with top junior players overcome by nerves. By carefully looking at the worst case scenario and by holding onto what you can control, you will be able to find some solid footing and turn some of the nerves into excitement. The uncertainty of tennis matches may drive you nuts, but it is also the reason we love the competition so much.
Oh, in case you were wondering about my National Championship final …
I lost the first set, 3-6. One break of serve.
I stayed calm.
I won the second set, 6-4. One break of serve.
At 4-3 in the third set, I hit a brilliant running topspin lob to break serve and go up 5-3. I still remember the hair on my neck and the goosebumps!
Somehow, I managed to serve it out for the Championship … it was a good day.
Tonny van de Pieterman
Tonny van de Pieterman is director of tennis at Point Set Indoor Racquet Club. He was recently named USTA Tennis Professional of the Year for the USTA/Eastern-Long Island Region and helped the Eastern Section win this year’s Talbert Cup. He may be reached by phone at (516) 536-2323 or e-mail Tonny@PointSetTennis.com.