How to Reduce the Stress of Competition

Serious tennis matches involve fears of failure and are often stressful. This stress gives rise to powerful counterproductive emotions that can hurt your performance.

Emotions can be controlled, but the greater the stress, the more difficult this task becomes. Therefore, part of the emotional control process involves reducing the underlying stress. Players can do this by changing their perspectives on the competitive situation itself.

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I've noted over the years that tennis players of all levels, ranging from touring professionals to beginning recreational players, experience stress because they very much want to win, but are uncertain as to whether they will.

This is often amplified by a number of other factors, all of which involve inaccurate perceptions or evaluations of reality.

One way to reduce stress is to understand the process of competition more accurately and realistically. To do this, let's look at an example that can illuminate the differences between accurate and inaccurate perspectives.

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Concern about what others will think is stressful. One of the most common amplifiers of stress is concern over what other people will think or say if they lose. I saw this in my consulting with "Julie," (we'll call her) a world-ranked young lady on the WTA tour, who was getting excessively nervous during matches.

She said the stress of the tour was getting to her, and my first question was, "What is it, specifically, that worries you most?" One might ordinarily think it would be the money or ranking, but she said it was what other people would think if she lost.

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As a teenager Julie had been a promising star, quickly rising to a top 100 world-ranking, and the press was touting her as the "next big thing in U.S. women's tennis."

During those heady and exciting times, she had experienced little in the way of shaky nerves. Injuries and personal issues had sidelined her for the better part of several years. At the time we worked together she was just 21, physically fit and well-practiced, but unable to perform up to her pre-injury level because of her shaky nerves.

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Julie confided she desperately wanted to prove to the other players, her managers, her equipment sponsors and her friends that she again belonged in the higher levels of the game and that she was worthy of notice and respect. She was haunted by the feeling that when she lost these people were thinking, "Poor Julie. She used to be a great prospect. Too bad she fizzled." Dogged by thoughts like these, it's no small wonder she was excessively stressed and found competition unpleasant.

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