Choking under pressure

We all have done it. In Rafael Nadal’s post-Wimbledon press conference, he said that although he won, he did “choke” when he double faulted during the fourth set tie breaker.  But what really is the definition of “choking” in a tennis match?

So, we all have faced the tense situation in a “big match” and not performed up to our own standards. But I think there is a difference between choking and letting the pressure affect your play.

My working definition of tennis choking would be: Not being able to physically make your normal stroke under a pressure-point situation.

During the French Open, one of the announcers said that the French term is “having short arms” on the serve. Or over here, we say “cement in the elbows” or he “short-armed that serve.”

Choking, I think, is allowing the pressure to inhibit the movement of your muscles. Different from that would be making bad choices due to the pressure. How often have you hit a drop shot and pointed to your own head to point out how stupid the shot was? Or going for a blaster of a shot when the time is not right?

Similar to choking, those are actions that are influenced by the situation; but are much more controllable. You can more easily train yourself to be patient and play the right shot, than you can make yourself swing freely and loosely on match point against, second serve.

One great trick I picked up years back is forcing yourself to smile in tense situations. The physical act of smiling sends important, positive signals to the rest of your body – and besides, your opponent will think you are nuts!

What do you do?

5 thoughts on “Choking under pressure

  1. Like many, I believe that the worst situation for choking is second serve on match point. I feel that you just cannot go for broke, so to speak, but instead just get the ball over the net and take your chances on the return. It is just too easy to hit the serve long or into the net. I like your smile technique George.

  2. Dick – it doesnt even have to be match point second serve; it could just be the critical game at 4-4, 5-5, etc. And the cement starts to set in. I think the answer there, is the get the FIRST serve in; so you don’t even have to think about the second.

  3. Good question george.

    “Choking” is a charged word that still (at least with some) carries the connotation of weakness, almost like a character defect. To be known as a “choker” may suggest someone who could be counted on to fold, like a lawn chair, under pressure. I try to stay away from applying this term because it can easily be perceived as an insult.

    On the other hand, as Cliff Drysdale has said, everyone can choke or has choked at one time or another. The trick is how you respond and come back from it. In tennis it has also been known as “the steel elbow”. It is a mental-emotional condition that leads to physical tightness. Rod Laver used to respond by hitting the ball harder, and with more topspin down the middle. I believe there is a character in the Chinese language for CRISIS which signifies both danger and opportunity. Hopefully we would motivated to respond on the positive rather than the negative side.

    What do we do? Some moves which may be helpful are to breath deeply and keep bouncing on the balls of your feet. Also, if possible, to be focused somewhat less on “winning” which is not completely in our control and more on performing with our best effort.

    At both the Masters golf tournament and also at the French Open I heard commentators say that in tense moments the big muscles (like the shoulders and hips) tend to slow down and the small muscles (like the wrist) tend to speed up , which lead to problems.

  4. Hey Dag – Great observations! Yes, we all choke on some point; but as you say, what do you do AFTER that? Do you shake it off and play your game, or totally collapse?

  5. What I try to do when serving on pressure points, especially on 2nd serve, is to avoid rushing it . I take a few extra seconds by looking at the name and number on the ball and that has helped me. It’s not an original idea — probably picked it up from one of the tennis mags.

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