Nerves: Just Passengers on the Bus

There’s nothing like being in the middle of a tournament to help you get up close and personal with nerves. Thankfully I still play this great game so I can relate to all of you who get tight out there. Well, I’m playing the Finals of the 45 World Championship singles today as some of you already know. I won yesterday in straight sets but I was tight in the first set–really tight. I squeaked it out 6-4 for only one reason–I had tools and I kept working with them.

I talk a lot about accepting nerves when they hit, which means simply not panicking when it happens to you. It hits all players. Of course, there is a lot you can do before matches that can keep the nerves at bay–no doubt about it–but once you feel tight in your arm or the heartbeat increases when you are trying to close it out–it’s ALL about managing the feeling. There are lots of strategies that can work. Here’s what I did yesterday in the semi-final match.

Even though I lost 6 break points in the first game and felt pressed by my opponent (he serve and volleyed every point which I haven’t seen for a long time), and three more break points at 1-1 I didn’t panic. Part of me was thinking, “wow this is going to be tough.” I didn’t like not getting those break points. Then, at 3-2 down I started reminding myself to enjoy the match. I looked around. It was a beautiful day and I took it all in. This gave me perspective (wide angle lens, remember). It really shifted my experience of the moment. And I kept reminding myself to enjoy it. It’s so easy to get lost in the score, the tension, the stress….

I also imagined that I was playing a practice set at my local club. This memory also helped remind me what I feel like when I am loose and playing my best. This also loosened me up. I broke at 3-3 and held for 5-3. The nerves increased again at 5-4. I felt myself wanting to play it safe partly hoping he would hand it to me. But I remained stubborn. I did not want to win playing safely. This would not bode well in the finals if I were to win and I wasn’t going to allow myself to get sucked into this abyss.

I also realized at this late stage in the first set where I was simply trying too hard to get loose. It reached a point where the strategies I had been using were helpful but now it was time to just trust the darn body. So, I pulled out a lyric (Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run). The song just came to me one day in the middle of a big match when I felt overwhelmed. I like the tempo. So, at 5-4 I used the lyric to keep my mind from jumping around and away from my internal focus on the nerves. This helped quiet my mind. I served it out.

I don’t always play second sets better than the first. In fact, I would say I do better in the first. But, I stayed committed to hitting the shots I wanted to hit (regardless of the score). I trusted my body more and my commitment to my shots served as a further reminder that I was in charge of how I would approach my points, not my nerves.

There was a moment in my quarter-final match where the nerves hit really hard (it was at 6-3, 4-2 serving) and I just said to myself, “Passengers on the bus.” This is a strategy that basically says any negative thoughts or nervousness can come along for the ride–I am going to play my game and hit the shots I want regardless of what my body feels. That was a very powerful moment. I decided that I was driving the “bus” not my brain!

The bottom line is that once nerves strike you in the match don’t let them dominate you. Keep working with the energy out there. The nerves don’t just disappear immediately. But you can reduce their impact if you stick at it. Utilize some of the strategies I’ve suggested here (I have many more) or develop your own. And, remember, getting out of your head and shifting your focus onto the ball and your surroundings can keep you from getting overly caught up in the web of tension.

Send me some positive thoughts for the finals today and the mental control to keep all thoughts to a minimum while I try to play loose and fearless in one of the biggest matches of my life. To win a final you cannot expect the other guy to hand it to you. You have to play to win. Well, who doesn’t like a challenge?