The best athletes in the world can raise their game when the stakes are highest. As competitors, we romanticize and yearn for the opportunity to play at the peak of our ability against a worthy opponent. Federer and Nadal’s 2008 Wimbledon final is arguably the greatest match ever for this reason. While a worthy adversary and an incredible amount of hype are necessary to produce a match of this magnitude, we can prepare ourselves so that we are ready to perform our best when presented the opportunity. This article will look at five ways we increase the probability of a great on-court performance when it matters.
1) IMPROVE YOUR PHYSICAL CONDITIONING
The best players have outstanding engines, allowing them to maintain a high level of play over the course of a match. As you get tired, you begin to break down technically. Because tennis is a fine motorsport, fatigue-induced impediments and limitations have large repercussions on what the tennis ball does and can drastically affect your performance. If your physical state is compromised, you are more likely to experience weakened mental capabilities. This can lead to poor shot selection, emotional outburst, and other expressions of mental weakness detracting from your performance.
2) HAVE ROUTINES AND FAVORITE PATTERNS
Each point on a tennis court is different based on the personal and situational pressure associated with it. Converting a break-point at 2-1 is not as important as converting one at 5-4, and both these situations pale in comparison to the pressure involved in closing out the first set against your rival in the final of a regional tournament. Routines are calming and provide a sense of normalcy to the fluctuating value of points throughout a match. Pre-point routines like playing with your strings or toweling off allow you to compose yourself before you attempt to implement your strategy. Routines are powerful because they are repeatedly used and should not be improvised in important moments.
Based on inherent ability and match strategy, players must execute tactics to defeat their opponent. You want to use your favorite patterns of play on the important points in an unpredictable manner. This will give you the best odds of winning the big points.
3) SET GOALS
To raise your level when it counts, you must aspire to aptitudes you are currently incapable of but believe you can achieve. Also, one needs to expect these highly competitive matches as an integral part of the journey to getting better and commit to the challenge of winning them.
4) PRACTICE UNDER PRESSURE
Unmanaged pressure has seen our sports best squander seemingly unassailable leads. The opposite of fatigue, pressure is spawned and experienced psychologically with the ability to manifest itself physically. Familiarizing oneself with pressure in practice is an important means of overcoming the pressure inherent in a tournament match. Starting sets at 4-4 increases the frequency in which players incur critical moments giving them more opportunities to acquaint themselves with pressure in a short time span. Another way to simulate pressure is by adding stakes such as push-ups or running to practice points. Point play after fitness can mimic the physiological response to pressure. We naturally tighten-up when ineffectively dealing with pressure, which is similar to the reduced responsiveness of tired muscles. Again, controlled exposure to pressure in practice is critical in handling it on match day.
5) POSITIVE RECALL
Up until now, we have looked at isolated aspects of improving the probability of success in big moments. We must put the previous four ideas together to win highly competitive, unadulterated matches in practice. Think of these practice matches as the dress rehearsal before the tournament. The more comfortable you are at problem-solving and executing your strategy in practice matches, the more likely you will win your highly contested tournament matches. The key is to win multiple difficult practice matches in a short time span, so you can internalize the process of winning and are able to recall these experiences in a tournament match. The more successive difficult tournament matches you win the higher your likelihood of continued success until you compete with higher caliber players.