Tennis is emotionally tough, both physically and mentally. From my 17 years of experience as a player, coach and fan of the game, I would argue that it is one of the most demanding sports there is. Olympic Decathlon Champion Ashton Eaton vouches for this too:
I personally believe tennis is the next most athletic sport… Just because of certain things required. Those matches are three or four hours long. There’s the technical aspect, the agility, the mind-body awareness. Not to mention the game itself is a little bit like a chess match.
Unlike playing a team sport, there is nowhere to hide, especially in singles, and this exerts immense pressures on participants.
Over the last two decades, Serena Williams and Roger Federer have been the dominant forces of the Wimbledon Championships, having won 15 singles titles between them. At the crucial moments of a match where pressure reaches a pinnacle, many players crumble. However, the best performers in the world can thrive in the face of adversity and rise to the occasion during the moments that matter. We call this resilience.
Resilience is the ability to recover following setbacks, demonstrate composure under pressure and maintain high levels of performance over sustained periods of time. Serena William’s career exemplifies this. The legend won her first Wimbledon Championship in 2002 and 16 years later became a Wimbledon finalist once again. What makes the 2018 achievement even more remarkable is that Williams had given birth a mere 11 months prior.
In this year without Wimbledon, I’ve been reflecting on my tennis career. Below are my 4 top tips that are most transferable from my experience to any performance environment.
1. Become familiar with your natural response to pressure
Butterflies in the stomach, sluggish footwork and a reluctance to play aggressive tennis were the tell-tale signs that I was feeling the pressure. To perform at my best in these moments, I adopted the use of breathing techniques between points and would tell myself to, “breathe in energy and breathe out negativity”. To combat the sluggish footwork, I reminded myself that it was a good thing to be feeling nervous as this meant that there was an opportunity to be had and gave me the energy to have an extra spring in my step.
TIP: Develop techniques and coping mechanisms that work for you and your natural stress response.
2. Be brave
My first match as team captain was the highlight of my collegiate tennis career. With a 5-4 lead in the final set my coach approached me at change of ends, “go after it Char, hit every return as hard as you can”. I could feel the nervous tension building and hear my conflicting thoughts about this risky tactic at such a crucial moment of the match. However, I put trust my coach and instead of waiting & hoping that my opponent made an error, I embraced this tactic. Playing some of the best tennis of my life, I won the deciding match for us to beat a rival team.
TIP: Commit to your intentions, embrace the challenge, back yourself and you will be successful.
3. Focus on what you can control
Interferences are inevitable within any performance environment. In tennis, the weather is a common interference and can inhibit performance (if we let it) but is beyond the realms of our control. I can remember an easy victory of mine one blustery day in Indianapolis (my opponent self-destructed). I accepted the less than ideal playing conditions and focused my attention on the things that were in my control such as my footwork & serve placement as I watched my opponent become more and more frustrated by the wind.
TIP: Ask yourself, “is this in my control”? If the answer is yes, then put your energy into it. If not, divert your attention onto something that you can control.
4. Surround yourself with a supportive team
My best tennis has been played at times where I’ve been surrounded by a support network. It’s easy to feel alone when you encounter a setback, and as if it is you against the world. After losing the first set to a higher-ranked opponent in the dry heat of Long Beach California, I started to feel helpless and nothing seemed to be working. My coach came beside me at the change of ends with words of encouragement, “We’re going to win this together, I’m right here with you, one point at a time” he said, and we did.
TIP: During setbacks and times of stress, surround yourself with supportive people, it helps!
Over the next couple of weeks as the French Open unfolds, I’m looking forward to seeing how each player’s resilience plays out on the courts.
From a psychological perspective, I will be interested to see which of the most sought-after players can hold their first-round nerves against their lower-ranked opponents.