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Under Pressure: Tips to Deal With On-Court Nerves

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By Luke Jensen, French Open Doubles Champion

As we roll into the heat of summer, I thought I would address what separates all of us on the court: How we deal with the heat of pressure. From the first time we compete, we realize we could lose.

It is with that uneasy realization when pressure enters our lives. I have always believed how we deal with pressure is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. We all walk on the court with the same goal: to win the match, and only one player or team comes back victorious. It’s the player/team that copes with the pressure (and perhaps even gets to the point where they thrive in it) that comes out on top.

I feel very fortunate to have been taught at a very young age by my parents and coaches to love pressure, to lean into it and take my best winning cuts at defining points in matches. It was this approach that helped me and my siblings love big pressure moments. It was this approach that separated us from our opponents on the other side of the net.

I don’t recall any of the four Jensen kids who played Grand Slam tournaments ever saying we were nervous. These days, I do a lot of tennis evaluations, and it astonishes me the number of players who freak out under pressure.

I use a few approaches to help players with nerves. If you are a competitive player at any level, you must first identify your goal. Most players I speak to say, “Easy question. My goal is to win.” With that reasoning, they only focus on the result and pass over the process. Whenever the goal of winning is in doubt, the pressure builds and can feel insurmountable.

Instead, I train players to change the goal from winning to competing. My goal is to compete better than my opponents, to have a better attitude than my opponents and to play smarter than my opponents. When I focus on the competitive process to reach my ultimate goal of winning the match, this mindset helps me win the battles within the match and puts me in control. Yeah, I know, that’s heavy. If you’re a Jensen Zone fan, you know I rarely drill this deep into an emotional part of the game, but it’s important to embrace this mindset even before you set foot on the court.

My second approach is to have a well-thought-out game plan. I have always found a tennis journal or playbook was helpful to track matches, to keep a practice log and to record my tennis post-match notes. When I competed regularly, I wrote down what I needed to do first and then jotted a quick breakdown of my opponent, which changed as the match went along. Keep in mind: good players never finish a match the way they start. A match is a road full of twists and turns. I typically made a point to make note of turns of tactics on changeovers. This kept me focused on the here and now of the match instead of worried about the final outcome.

I was coached to be an all-court player. From age 16 on, my tennis playbook covered four key areas of my attack:

  • Serve and volley
  • Long rallies
  • Drop shots
  • Smash and crash (in other words, attack and come in on opponent’s second serve)

Depending on the opponent, I honed in on even more details on the other player’s strengths and weaknesses, but I always kept to these fundamentals. I would read my match notes on every changeover — that kept me locked into the match and not afraid of losing while the battle was raging.

Finally, focus on breathing control, both while playing points and in between points. I see many players hold their breath while hitting a ball. There is a ton of tension in that approach. I like to breathe out when going for a hit — this keeps my flow going into each shot instead of fighting against it.

Also, I try to give myself at least 15 seconds between points. So from the point just finished to the point about to be played, I close my eyes while I am walking to pick up a ball or to my next position and take in a breath through my nose and out through my mouth. Ahhh, yes, yoga tennis. I have never been a yoga guy, but good breathing has always helped me quickly lower my heart rate between points and maintain my focus. Let’s face it, we all play better when we are relaxed. I know I think with more clarity when I’m purposefully performing good breathing techniques between points. For extreme cases of players with restless nerves or bad ball tosses under pressure, I advise sound-focused breathing, which involves silently repeating a word or phrase to regain focus and a sense of mental calmness.

While I could go on and on about pressure and what I’ve learned through my many years of competing with it, I hope these tips help you manage the pressure you’re feeling — and how you respond to those feelings — on the court. I felt my ability to understand and apply pressure was a huge part of my success.

Make it yours!

Until next time, be a rock n’ roll tennis player!