Column: Dealing with pressure and trying to avoid the choke

'My Point'

This weekend the Southwest Sectionals were held in El Paso, Texas, represented by each area (Phoenix, Tucson, New Mexico & Western Texas) with the 55 and over division regional winners. All converged to see who would be going on to Nationals in the Orlando, Florida area in November.

Many levels of doubles take place, 6.0, 7.0, 8.0 and 9.0. Both men’s and women’s teams determine in a round-robin format, over three days, at different tennis sites in El Paso to see who will represent our section nationally. It’s exciting, nerve-wracking, fun, social and a tennis player’s paradise of competition.

This column will give some thought to what takes place when players are put under additional pressure, the effects and how to come to better terms of those conditions.

It just so happens I was watching two of my teammates playing in our first match against Albuquerque and they split sets in what consisted to that moment of really great points, long rallies and solid strategy from both teams. The third set consisted of a 10 point tie-break, first to 10 points, win by two. It went back and forth, staying within one point of each other and then at 10-11 with our team serving, our player double-faulted match point. Sad and disappointing because the match had been so good - not the way you want to end it even if you lose.

The next day I watched another third set tie-break and once again a couple of the players double-faulted because they got tight in the clutch.

So, the question is: Why, and how can break-downs in play due to pressure be avoided as much as possible?

You have to like the title of Billie Jean King’s most recent book, “Pressure is a Privilege.”

Nerves, over-thinking, getting negative and worried, lack of confidence to perform when things get tough, tightening up - all compromise the most basic mechanics in high-pressure situations. It’s painful, but there isn’t an athlete that hasn’t had to pay the piper is learning how to come to better terms with the term “choking.”

Some would say it’s all mental, but it’s more than that - it’s a multidimensional set of skills that create positive habits that become rituals.

First you have to have the physical biomechanics in place to where you can count on them. That certainly means stroke-wise, but also with nutrition, hydration and fitness. The emotional aspect of self-awareness, regulation, mistake management, breathing and positive body language play a major role here as well.

Most importantly you want to goal set, visualize and prepare what is going to take place in your mind and that what comes out of your mouth is positive.

These habits have to be worked on over and over again, in hypothetical situations, practice matches and then regular match play.

If you know you’re in good physical condition that’s a real plus. Are you hydrated, cooled down and ready to play each point the best you can. Breathe - cool down, reset and recover after each point.

Emotionally staying in tune with what’s taking place takes training. This game of tennis has it’s up’s and down’s - can you keep yourself together and regulate possible arousal responses and mistake breakdowns? There are many situations that trigger anger, rage, fear, and even tanking. You have to stay focused, confident and in self-control which takes discipline.

It’s tough to let mistakes go - but you have to. Think positive, breath, reset your mind to what needs to take place, visualize and look forward to it.

Think tactically, not technically in match situations - trust and believe in what you know you’re capable of doing now, not what you did on your best day two years ago.

Present a strong image - a positive image, good body language which not only makes you ready for battle it creates a picture your opponents see as well.

Match pressure is a constant aspect of sports, especially individual sports like tennis - which can be taxing, fun and exciting.

Even the best players in the world fold at times, guess that’s why playing never gets old because you’re always trying to get the best out of yourself.

Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or choward4541@gmail.com.