Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Jul 1, 1997 – Dr. John F. Murray – Although tennis and other physical activities are usually considered excellent forms of stress relief, the serious competitive athlete often experiences stress similar to an ambitious corporate executive or overworked waitress. Too much stress can wreak havok on your mind and body. The bottom line is a less pleasant experience, impaired performance, or even potential health problems. This month, the spotlight is on learning to cope with stress through relaxation.

Players who shine in practice often crumble in tournaments because they manage stress poorly. Although an optimal arousal level must be maintained for peak performance (See my September 1995 article on Optimizing Arousal in Tennis), prolonged and excessive arousal is rarely positive. Failing to prepare for stress is as unacceptable as forgetting to bring spare rackets to the match! Still, many players never invest in stress busting tools.

There are as many relaxation programs on the market as there are diets. Most involve some combination of deep breathing, pleasant imagery, and muscular movements. I’ll touch briefly on Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), the “gold standard” of relaxation techniques, developed in the 1930’s and aptly used to defeat a variety of physical and psychological ailments. PMR, and its many varients, is used to help athletes prepare for competition as well as to relax during play.

PMR trains the individual to identify the relative contrast between muscular tension and the opposite sensation of complete calmness. By progressively tensing various muscles and muscle groups for several seconds and completely releasing and relaxing, the individual gradually learns to induce relaxation on demand in periods of high stress. Recognition of the contrast between tension and calmness is fundamental to the success of PMR.

There are two basic spinoffs of PMR that I’ll recommend for tennis players. The first involves a pre-match relaxation routine whereas the second helps in coping with stress in the heat of battle. A warning … these methods will only work if regularly practiced and perfected. I’ll outline them briefly, but remember there is no substitute for the guidance of a qualified sport psychologist in helping meet your individual needs.

10 Minute Pre-Match Routine

Minute 1

O.K., the big match is upon you. Before the warm-up, find a quiet place and comfortable sitting position. Relax totally with eyes slightly closed.

Minute 2

Inhale for about 6 seconds deeply and slowly, then exhale for about 10 seconds. Continue this breathing pattern throughout the routine.

Minutes 3-8

While inhaling, tense a muscle group and hold it tight for the duration of the inhalation. Totally relase all tension upon exhalation. Study, interpret, and examine the contrast between these two sensations (tension and relaxation). Spend about two minutes for muscle groups in each major region of the body (upper, middle, and lower). Vary the exact muscles used as you see fit … but focus on the difference between unpleasant and tight tension, and its opposite, total calmness.

Minutes 8-10

Now that your awareness of relaxing sensations is heightened, visualize yourself performing to perfection (For help with this, see my August 1995 article on The Essence of Imagery in Tennis). After you are finished, stretch out and fire yourself up for a great perfomance.

On Court Routine

Now you are deep in the heat of a match and feel that stress is intruding:

Accept that you are “stressed” but re-interpret the sensations as normal and exciting consequences of caring.

In between points, breath deeply and slowly while tensing those muscles that have been most affected by the stress (often shoulder muscles). As before, release the tension immediately upon slow exhalation.

Recall your pre-match routine (the pleasant sensations elicited by the procedure) and image your next point to perfection.
Now your mental equipment includes two very simple means of coping with stress in tennis (and other situations as well). Remember to practice these techniques often for them to work. There are countless programs for managing stress … are you using only one?