Just like Pablo Cuevas, who missed two match points before losing against Pablo Carreno Busta in the quarter final of the BNP Paribas Indian Wells Open, many tennis players seem to be having trouble keeping their nerves during this tensed moment. Why ? And how can you improve in this very specific area of the game ?
It’s very often the same old story. While we’re getting close to what should be the end of the match, in the last or one of the last points, the last set, a little bit of stress comes in to replace the appetite for effort, in the mind of the player who’s about to end the match. The arm is shaking, the legs are trembling, the heart rate goes up and the brain is thinking way too much. As a result : the shot is forced and the yellow ball doesn’t land where it should. Here you go, one more match point has been missed, and has joined the graveyard of wrongly approached points. Because the fear of concluding is a form of sickness which affects an awful lot of tennis players, whether they are professionals or amateurs, old or young, talented or not.
« Thoughts alternate between the past, the present and the future »
« The difficulty of sport, is ending the point. Ending the game. Ending the set. Ending the match. In any case, it’ s ending something, says Gilbert Sochet, a tennis coach who also has a diploma in sports psychology and mental preparation. Emotions don’t show up at the beginning of a match, but when the result is close. That’s when the mental aspect becomes super important. » Ok, but why ? If it appears to be logical, why do the muscles answer less precisely when the objective is getting closer ? Why is the stress taking over when the harder part has been done ? Simply because it’s the moment chosen by parasite thoughts to trouble the champion’s brain. « Thoughts alternate between the past, the present and the future. Naturally, a player who’s got a match point will project himself in the future. However, when he does that, he’s already lost. The same goes if he remains in the past after having missed his match point, analyses Gilbert Sochet. Mentally, the best tennis players are the ones who are able to chase away their thoughts involving the past and the future. »
Sébastien Tholozan, a French federal physical coach with a diploma in positive psychology, who also had to deal with negative pressure when it came to handling match points along his career, confirms : « That point is different than others because it’s very difficult to remain focused on the present moment. The trick is not to focus on the result of your action, but on the action itself, and detach yourself from the stakes, to remain focused on the game. » Focusing on the point itself without thinking about any positive consequences (a win, a trophy to lift) or negative consequences to protect yourself from the fear. Rafael Nadal, for instance, has already explained that the biggest obstacle in his career was to be able to remain in that present moment without projecting himself towards the victory, or on the contrary, to forget the frustration linked with a lost point.
Understand that you have the right to lose
Therefore, how do you deal with this issue ? The first thing to do is to remain clear-headed, in order to identify the enemy, before fighting it. In other words, admitting your fear. « Being conscious of that is essential, and it’s not easy. Some players refuse to admit their troubles », says Sébastien Tholozan, while his colleague has noted that things are tending to evolve : « Having discussions about this has become very common. And it’s relatively new. Fifteen years ago, it was almost a taboo, you weren’t allowed to feel fear. » When everything is said out loud, the work can start. The goal is to be the master of your emotions when the match point comes. And try to play it like any other point, if possible. In order to do that, understanding that you have the right to lose this point is essential. Knowing that the result depends as much on us than on the opponent, who can very well strike you with an amazing return, or an outstanding serve.
Only then, it’s up to each and everyone of us to learn a personal trick to remain focused and avoid falling apart mentally when the match point comes. With a single aim : keeping your calm and your nerves. « The notion of calmness is closely associated with the notion of performance, which barely exists when it’s associated with anger, anxiety or any other emotion which can be linked to the result. However, calmness has been mentioned by all the great champions and plays a vital role », says Sébastien. Different methods have been mentioned by the two specialists, to try to detach yourself from the final result : breathing, hitting an early ball, focusing on your grip…Players who are often disturbed by these tensed moments can also learn from other profiles. Such as…children, or players from the new generation, according to Gilbert : « Adults have a lot of trouble not overthinking after a match point. There is a lot of post-match work to do with them. While children cry for one hour and forget very quickly. As for Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, or Dominic Thiem…do you see how emotionally detached they look ? It looks like they are boosted by match points. Because they understand that tennis is just a game. » And that a match point can even be enjoyable.