How to Play Under Pressure: Learning From The Pros

Serena Williams backhand at Wimbledon 2010
Serena Williams knows how to adjust her game in pressure situations
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
While your ultimate goal when working on your mental tennis game is to not feel any pressure or to use certain sports psychology techniques to get rid of pressure, you'll inevitably end up playing some matches where you will still feel the pressure.

If you watch the best pros like Nadal, Federer or Serena Williams who have mastered their mental game, you'll still see them feel the pressure and get tight in key situations.

But, what these players have learned is how to play under pressure.

The not so experienced tennis players play really well when they don't feel any pressure—meaning they are not anxious, they're not afraid, and they are in the zone.

Everything works fine, and they accept those rare mistakes as part of the game. They have their game plan and they stick to it.

But, once they reach a critical point in the match like serving for the set, facing a break point, or playing a tiebreak, their game falls apart.

The most common reason that I see, and the biggest difference compared to the real masters of the game, is that these inexperienced players do not adapt their game to the pressure situation.

And by that, I mean that they keep hitting their big shots close to the lines and stick to their game plan. What they don't realize is that if they do not manage to control the pressure and get rid of it, their mind and body do not function at peak performance!

It's like a radio that suddenly loses its clear connection with the radio station, and there's a noise present with the transmission.

The same thing happens in our mind when we're anxious. The clear signals of the mind of which tactic to play, and the clear signals to the muscles of the body, now become more distorted.

We're unable to make clean contact with the ball and time it well. Our limbs feel heavier, and we cannot move in the same effortless way as before.

As a result of all this, we now play less accurate tennis and our shots are not as fast.

Roger Federer saves 4 match points by staying cool under pressure

Most players are not even aware of the consequences of the pressure that you just have read about above. They do not understand that under pressure they cannot play as well, no matter how hard they try. They might get lucky on a few shots but in general, their performance drops.

Most players believe that they need to play the same type of tennis all the time and that there is no solution to experiencing pressure and playing well.

The really experienced players think differently. They are aware of the pressure, and they are aware of its effects.

If they are unable to get rid of the pressure and the tension they feel through their mental routines, they ACCEPT the situation and try to make the best of it.

Since an experienced player KNOWS that now he cannot play fast and accurate tennis, he adapts his game.

He plays high percentage tennis and avoids taking risks. His game is still good enough not to offer any easy balls to his opponent; the main difference is that the player just avoids taking any big chances.

In most cases, the pressure situation affects both players. A tiebreak or serving for the set is crucial for both players, and both will probably experience some extra tension.

The more experienced player will play high percentage tennis, and unless the other player plays his best game during those moments and is unaffected by the pressure, the high percentage game will win in most cases.

That's because the less experienced player, who feels the pressure too, will not adapt his game and will keep going for his shots; but, because tension affects his movement and strokes, he will miss many more than usual.

And those seemingly unforced errors will win the game for the more experienced player who plays a smarter game.

I have seen countless examples of this. The most recent one was when Serena Williams played Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, 2010.

Serena Williams played high percentage tennis to minimize mistakes in the tie-break.

Serena did nothing at all in that tiebreak and just kept the ball in play. Petra Kvitova, on the other hand, kept going for her shots and made four unforced errors with her forehand.

Both players felt the pressure, and Serena just accepted it and focused on playing high percentage tennis. Kvitova was probably not aware of that extra tension in her arms and kept playing the same aggressive tennis that brought her to six games all.

That difference in experience eventually decided the first set. Serena did not win that tiebreak by hitting more winners and forcing more mistakes. She won it by accepting the pressure, adapting her play by being less aggressive, and looking to see what happened with Kvitova.

If by some chance Kvitova could have gotten 4:1 ahead, then Serena would probably have started going for her shots despite the pressure she felt. She would have had no other option.

Learning to Play Under Pressure

1. Your first goal in every tennis match is to try to play point by point, focus on your tactics and never dwell on the outcome.

The outcome is out of your control, and if you do focus on it, you'll experience anxiety and feel the pressure. So, your main goal is to avoid getting into this state in the first place.

2. If you do experience pressure, your next goal is to get rid of it.

You do that by focusing on each point, taking extra time to breathe, and performing your rituals before you serve and return. When you get rid of the tension and clear your mind, you'll be able to play at your best again.

3. But, if you're doing the exercises mentioned above and the pressure persists, you need to accept it and ADAPT your game.

Realize that the extra tension you feel in your body will affect the coordination of your muscles, and your brain will feel like it is experiencing some extra noise. You won't see the ball that well, and you'll often mistime it. You are now unable to play your best tennis.

But, that doesn't mean that you will lose! Your opponent is most likely feeling the pressure too, so it's now a matter of who makes the best of this difficult situation.

Start playing high percentage tennis by keeping the same rhythm of shots (do not slow down your arm!) but aim further away from the lines, and add more height to the ball above the net.

Win the match by hard work and not by flashy winners. Don't panic if you feel the pressure, just accept it, find a way to play solid tennis without making many mistakes, and see how that affects your opponent's game.

You'll see that in most cases you'll edge ahead. If not, you'll have to start going for your shots despite feeling the pressure. Staying in the high percentage tennis approach when it's not working is, of course, a bad idea.

Become more aware of how the pros adapt their game if they happen to feel the pressure, and work on becoming more aware of how the pressure affects you.

Know that all is not lost if you happen to feel the pressure in key situations of the match, and experiment with adapting your game in a way that still allows you to play solid tennis and challenge your opponent to win the match by playing fantastic shots.

Your mindset at these moments doesn't have to be “How can I win this match?” but should be “How is he/she going to beat me if I play solid, consistent, quality tennis?”

You'll realize that it's very unlikely that your opponent will hit four winners per game to beat you, and that will boost your confidence and start your recovery from the tension and feelings of anxiety.



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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