Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Dec 1, 1995 – Dr. John F. Murray – Competition breeds pressure. This is especially true in the unpredictable tennis environment where emergencies are often the rule rather than the exception. Some players feed off competitive pressure, improving their focus and raising their game to a higher level, while others allow themselves to be overwhelmed by pressure, choke, and fold. How can individuals respond so very differently to the same demands? Enter Sports Psychology.

Athletes at all levels experience increased physiological arousal (e.g., butterflies, nervousness, perspiration) as a result of competitive pressure. These natural responses increase as the match becomes more meaningful to the individual and the ability levels of the players become more similar. They are the normal results of sincere effort rather than pathological anxiety states. Evidence that competitive pressure can enhance performance is seen in the fact that most Olympic track records are broken in front of massive crowds, when the pressure is greatest, rather than in practice.

Although performance is often improved following normal increases in arousal, recall from the September article that the complexity of fine motor skills required in tennis dictates a guard against over-arousal. As such, responding to competitive pressure with additional increases in arousal due to cognitive anxiety (e.g.,worry, concern, self-doubt), inevitably destroys performance! It also steals attention away from what is important, wasting it on irrelevant fears.

It is unrealistic, and perhaps fruitless, to try to eliminate natural competitive pressure. However, studies suggest that the way an individual appraises stressful events determines whether the experienced emotion will be positive or negative. In other words, differences in the way individuals evaluate competitive pressure situations, rather than the situations themselves, explain why some athletes thrive while others wilt!

Competitive pressure appraised as negative will inevitably lead to unhealthy anxiety and less proficient tennis performance. In contrast, pressure welcomed as a necessary challenge of the thrill of competition guards against over-arousal caused by needless worries, increases attention to the task at hand and improves overall performance.

Here are some guidelines to help you manage competitive pressure more effectively:

Play out points in practice. Training sessions should be as realistic as possible, with lots of competitive opportunities.

Never allow your coach or practice partner to stand in one place too long and feed balls. This will only ensure that you become a great practice player.

Enter as many tournaments as you can to gain necessary experience in a competitive environment.

Believe in yourself when the going gets rough. Nervous energy is a natural part of the game. Trust your preparation, stay focused, and hang in there to win the internal battle.

Welcome the uncertainty of competition as one of the most exciting parts of the game. It never gets boring when you have a good struggle on your hands!

In summary, competitive pressure is a natural component of match play which should be accepted and eagerly embraced in order to crush the demons of self doubt and anxiety (as well as your opponent).