Breaking point: Dealing with on-court pressure

Published by David Hall

Novak Djokovic is a master at dealing with pressure. Photo: Getty Images
Successfully dealing with pressure is the key to racking up match wins. David Hall explores what separates the top players from the rest of the field, what makes players crack under the strain and how other high-pressure professions deal with the stress.

Successfully dealing with pressure is the key to racking up match wins. David Hall explores what separates the top players from the rest of the field, what makes players crack under the strain and how other high-pressure professions deal with the stress.

Everyone has felt pressure at some point in their lives. It spreads across society without regard for where it lands or whom it affects. It can make the situation you’re in seem unbearable if you’re not prepared. You can’t remember your lines in a speech, you are feeling pressure. That report is due on your boss’s desk, you are feeling pressure or you are break point down in the final set of a Grand Slam final, you are feeling pressure.

On a tennis court or not, nobody is immune to this unseen force. The dictionary defines pressure as “an oppressive condition of physical, mental, social or economic distress”. It comes in many forms and manifests itself in such a debilitating way that you feel handcuffed, unable to perform.

Tennis players know all too well the effect this ‘distress’ can have on the outcome of a match. The pressure of expectation, closing out a match, being the favourite or winning an event you’ve never won before. Pressure comes in many forms and is only increased when more is at stake.

History is littered with matches where players just could not deal with the moment.

Perhaps the most famous example came in the Wimbledon women’s final in 1993. Jana Novotna led Steffi Graf 4-1 in the third set, had won 10 of the last 12 games and was leading 40-30 on her serve. A double fault followed and Novotna collapsed, didn’t win another game and cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent at the trophy presentation.

The pressure simply got to her.

Paul Penna a sports psychologist who worked with the Australian Olympic team at the 2008 Beijing Games, thinks part of the reason players buckle under pressure is “too much thinking”. As he explains: “Playing good tennis is about performing on instinct, in the moment, developed through preparation and experience.”

Novotna seemed to learn from her experience. Five years after the 1993 meltdown she went on to win Wimbledon over Nathalie Tauziat and cried tears of joy instead of sorrow. The weight of expectation of playing at home can also be a heavy burden for the tennis player as well.

During the 2012 summer of Australian tournaments Sam Stosur played three events, Brisbane, Sydney and the Australian Open. Expectations were high for the Aussie superstar, largely because of her win at the US Open. In her first match of the season in Brisbane she defeated Anastasiya Yakimova of Belarus 6-2, 6-3. That was her last victory of the summer. The public and Stosur’s own expectation seemed to weigh heavily on the popular Gold Coast resident.

After losing in the first round to Sorana Cirstea at this years’ Australian Open she commented. “There’s probably nothing more than my own expectation, I really really wanted to do well here and over the summer.”

Learning how to deal with pressure isn’t exclusive to tennis players though. In a world off the tennis court professions such as airline pilots and surgeons have to perform in stressful situations, albeit with a very different outcome if failure occurs.

Jeremy van Asperen, an Unaccredited Surgical Registrar who deals with trauma patients at a major Sydney Hospital says, “I think no matter what profession you are in the ‘feeling’ of pressure is very similar, the main difference is what the end result of succumbing to the pressure can mean. In sport it’s a lost match or championship, whereas in medicine or surgery it’s life and death.”

According to Dr Noel Blundell, a sports psychologist who has worked with Jason Stoltenberg and golfer Karrie Webb, there are some similarities in how the actual pressure is handled between these professions. “There are many common aspects in principal, in that fast accurate information processing and decision making is vital,” he says.

Dealing with such stressful situations through training is another link that combines these high stress jobs. Just as tennis players visit a sports psychologist to learn stress-reducing techniques and improve these skills over time all commercial pilots will undergo initial and recurrent training.

During this training they will be put in pressure situations throughout, as Mike Malherbe, a ‘Check Captain’ who pilots an Airbus for Virgin Australia explains: “Stress forms a major part of the courses, and pilots are taught the psychology of understanding themselves … the theory is put into practice in the simulator and the aircraft when pilots are trained. Then over the years pilots will hone these skills and refine their own techniques and tactics in dealing with ‘non-normal’ situations that occur in everyday flying.”

Junior tournaments and Challenger events may be the ‘simulators’ for the professional player. By constantly learning about themselves, what they’re capable of and understanding why the pressure is affecting their performance, players can make a ‘leap’ in dealing with their own ‘non-normal’ situations.

But only, according to Dr Blundell, if they seek out assistance. “Generally players are highly coached technically but receive little to no quality assistance to understand how performance anxiety affects their on court performance.”

Players that seem to mask their ‘performance anxiety’ and deal with the moment are the champions whose names are engraved on the Grand Slam trophies.

The top players who have made the ‘mental leap’ and have discovered unwavering self-belief are players such as Novak Djokovic. The world No. 1 recently became the first man to hold all four Slams in one go since Rod Laver in 1969, and is dominating the men’s game. Recently when talking about this incredible run on the eve of this years’ Australian Open he commented, “When I step on the court right now it’s a different feeling from what I had in the past, I have more self-belief.”

This statement according to Dr Blundell, is connected to the improved fitness of the Serbian. “He has become much better prepared physically which has enhanced his confidence and self-belief,” he says.

These traits are common among the elite players that are winning tournaments, competing for Grand Slams and chasing the top ranking.

They are the players that seem to deal with pressure better than most. “They have experience in terms of being in these situations more frequently,” explains Dr Blundell. “They have higher levels of talent, athleticism, and ball striking capacities which gives them a foundation that holds up better under pressure.”

You may be searching for your own foundation to deal with pressure in your profession or everyday life. The stress a world-class tennis player is under may be unique in its own way and not many of us will ever understand the demands of elite sport.

However, after dealing with the weight of pressure in remembering those lines in the speech or getting the report to the boss on time, you may feel like you’ve won your own Grand Slam final.

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