Dealing with Choking in Tennis

You might not have heard of the expression "tennis choking," but if you've been playing tennis for a while you definitely know the feeling of tension and so-called "short arm."

That's when you experience choking, which is a physical response to the mental state you are in.

So what mental states cause this tension, and how does this mind-body connection work?

An excellent article by Karlene Sugarman explains in detail how choking works, so I invite you to read it and then return here for three suggested ways to deal with tennis choking.

1. Prevention

As you have learned in Karlene's article, choking can originate from negative thinking (self-talk) and fear. In order to counter these, you need to control your thoughts. You need to become aware of your thinking and counter all the negative thoughts with positive ones. This process is not easy and is like a battle in your mind.

Ana Ivanovic encouraging and being positive
Those negative thoughts can keep appearing, so you have to keep battling them.

Many players actually develop a habit of constantly encouraging themselves in order to keep negative thoughts from appearing in the first place.

You can see this often from Nadal, Hewitt, Sharapova and Ivanovic.

There's one more way to prevent tension before the match: warm up really well.

When your muscles are warmed up to the point at which you are sweating, they will be very elastic and unlikely to become tense even if your mind keeps signaling the fight or flight response to them.

2. Dealing with Choking

If you happen to experience choking in a match, don't panic. Every tennis player who has played competitively has experienced choking and, if the situation is tense, such as like 5:5 in the final set, then there's a good chance that your opponent is choking, too!

When the tension already is affecting your body, you can't do much by dealing with your thoughts the way you did in point #1 above.

It's much more effective in these situations to work with your body. Your body is in a state of tension and your goal is to release this tension and become more relaxed.

You can simply try to relax in the most natural way during points and changeovers. Just shake your arms and legs and try to loosen them up. Another way to relax is to contract your muscles as hard as you can for a few seconds, and then let go.

Choking also affects your breathing, which becomes very shallow. Consciously take deep breaths between points and changeovers, and remind yourself to exhale when you hit the ball.

You also can adjust tactically!

Most players make the mistake of trying to play their best tennis when they are affected by choking. It's impossible; your body is tense, you don't have the feel for the ball and you don't perceive the situations around you clearly.

You need to play safe tennis; hit with more topspin than usual, aim to safe targets away from the lines and avoid going for fancy winners. Play high percentage tennis until you feel your body become more relaxed and your movements more fluid.

3. Acceptance

One of the reasons you choke is that you don't want something to happen which is realistically possible. This means you don't accept a certain event that might happen - meaning, you are unrealistic.

The problem is that you don't have control over the match's score or outcome, but you still want to control it. This leads to anxiety and, eventually, choking.

Acceptance means that you also accept the possibility of losing. The way to achieve this is to imagine the worst case scenario before the match.

What if you lose 6:0, 6:0? What are the consequences of that?

Think of all the negative consequences of losing a match: what people will think about you, what you will think about yourself, how that will affect your rankings and how that will affect your future in tennis.

Add as many negative consequences as you can, and imagine them vividly in your mind's eye.

Now ask yourself: In case this happens, can I handle it?

Will you make it without injuries and terrible trauma?

Also, are there more horrible things in life than losing a tennis match, such as being paralyzed in an accident, losing your dearest or having a limb amputated?

Put this loss in the right perspective in life, and then think of all the troubles people have overcome in their lives and whether you can overcome your potential tennis loss.

Once you have done that, you'll realize that you most likely can handle a tennis loss with dignity and with no big problems whatsoever.

This will prepare your mind to accept the possibility of loss, and then you are ready to accept that event in case it happens.

And then you will no longer be afraid.

You'll know that losing is just a possibility that you do not like, but that you will have no problems dealing with it, perhaps in the same way you have to deal with unwanted traffic when you drive to work: you just accept it as a part of life.

A tennis loss is part of your tennis journey, and if you accept it 100% as part of the game, then there's little chance that you'll experience choking ever again.

Perhaps you then can translate acceptance from sports into life, and see if it works there, too.



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

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