You know the feeling, it’s the big match, you’ve been playing great and you see the finish line just ahead. Then it happens, you start to “choke.” Maybe it was the last two great shots your opponent made, maybe it was an easy shot you just missed, whatever it is that caused you to become a little tense, it just found itself in your head and in your game. Before you know it the match starts to slip away from you. The more it slips the more you choke. What are you going to do? Can you save the match? Everyone tells you it’s all in your head, so just clear your head and think positive. Wrong, choking isn’t only in your head it’s in your game, it is a physical response to a mental state.
Clearing your head and thinking positively as well as accepting the fact that you cannot control the outcome of the match (only how you play) is the first step of getting back in the match. Next you have to look at how your nerves have affected your game. Often when you become nervous you start to lose confidence in your ground strokes and you start throwing in a lot of slice. The slice is a more defensive shot and gives your opponent an opportunity to begin to control the points. Think about the last time you lost control of a point, did you use slice instead of a driving ground stroke?
When we become nervous we tend to take a little off our shots. The problem with this is that the decreased racquet head speed changes the angle of the shot. So all those shots that had previously gone down the line are suddenly going wide. My first suggestion is to focus on speeding up your racquet head speed, but if that isn’t working, try aiming toward the center of the court more to prevent the balls from going wide.
When your game is on you can take the ball earlier and pressure your opponent by taking away his/her time to react. But when you start to choke you tend to hesitate and take the ball a little late. One of two things will happen. Either your ball will start to fly long or if it lands in your opponent will stop feeling the pressure and have the time he/she needs to make the shot they want. Focus on where that contact point is supposed to be. Feel your body and know if you are forward when contacting the ball.
Another stroke that tends to change with nerves is your serve. Rather than going after the ball with confidence you begin to toss the ball lower, you stay down and keep your weight static rather than shifting it into the court. This takes the pace off your serve and allows your opponent to put the pressure on you with an aggressive serve return. When you begin your serve don’t over think it, relax and remember the three primary components to the serve, ball toss, full extension, and head up. Then go for it!
The next time you feel yourself starting to choke, check and see if you have changed the way you are playing the game. Have you started slicing rather than driving the ball? Have you taken the pace off your strokes? Are you hitting the ball late? Have you taken the pace off your serve?
If you cannot control your nerves you may be able to control the parts of your game that are being affected by your nerves.