Playing Under Pressure

Lt. Wachtel, Korea 1968

All of us senior hackers feel it sometime – even the top touring pros feel it – PRESSURE can impact your performance; so what can you do about it?

Billie Jean King Says…

“Pressure is a privilege” says all-time great Billie Jean King.  I think what she means by that is … if you are a tennis player (especially us seniors) and can find yourself in a “pressure situation,” that means you are doing something good!  You are out there trying.  You are out there succeeding well enough to put yourself in a challenging situation.

So, enjoy your success.

And if you don’t, remember what Truman Capote said: “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

Hero vs. Deserter

When I was a young lieutenant in the army and stationed in Korea in 1968, I had a veteran master sergeant “working for me.”  He was close to retirement and wasn’t working too hard; so I didn’t think too much of him… until one day when we had to put on our dress uniforms with all our service medals.

I looked at his chest full of combat medals and said, “Sergeant, you are a hero!”  He looked up at me and said, “Sir, the only difference between me and the guy they put in the brig for desertion was the way we were facing on the hill when we panicked.  I was facing UP, so I ran up the hill.”

Our lesson: your reaction to pressure on the tennis court is what you do with it.  Use it to your advantage.


“Fearless Tennis” guru Jeff Greenwald suggests: when you are in a tight situation on the tennis court do two things… breathe deeply to relax and SMILE.  Both actions will help relax you (and perhaps drive your opponent a little crazy!).

What are your techniques for handling pressure?

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8 thoughts on “Playing Under Pressure

  1. Pressure, or stress as it is referred to medically, was defined by the Austrian endocrinologist, Hans Selye as being of two types. There is good stress (eustress) which prods us into completing a task at hand. Without good stress, we wouldn’t do much of anything. Then there is bad stress (distress) which when it becomes chronic is responsible for a host of illnesses and general body dysfunction.
    The bottom line for us as tennis players is that some level of stress is necessary to be competitive. When the stress becomes overwhelming, it adversely affects our performance and it is time for some relaxation techniques and to put things in proper perspective. After all, for most of us it is a game which should be enjoyed and not feared.

    Doc, i agree… if you are not having fun, don’t do it! thanks, george

  2. I always try to handle pressure with a little humor. I may crack a joke or just say something funny to my opponent between points or changing ends. (After all, no matter what, it IS just a game and I believe that people are put here to respect each other – or at least try.) Some opponents will joke right back, and these are the people that I always like and respect and, ultimately, never mind losing to if that happens to be the outcome. However, occasionally I will encounter some grouch (or more precisely, a$$hat) who takes himself way too seriously and never cracks a smile or, worse still, is just arrogant and rude in response. If that happens, then I kind of relish realizing I have that kind of opponent because it motivates me to make sure my forehands and overheads just “accidentally” find their target right at his head or private parts whenever I have a chance. In either case, the pressure to win or lose is off, and it all starts with attempting a little humor.

    Marty, while your motivation are pure (!), some use that technique to distract the opponent. george

  3. Pressure is sometimes accompanied by “head trash” or negative thoughts on the court, so when and if this happens, my focus goes to the ball. I basically follow Gallway’s (Inner Game of Tennis)concentration exercises to shift the focus to the ball and away from the pressure/stress. I specifically use a technique he calls “follow the trajectory” …page 49 of ‘Inner Game of Tennis, Playing the Game!”

    Jim, i just read that section! Yes, he also says “follow the rotation of the ball.” thanks, george

  4. There are all levels of pressure, imo. when playing with your friends to win, you
    have moments of pressure (maybe a couple of points). then play in match with
    players (at your level) who you dont know, it’s a little different pressure. then
    play in local tournament, then play in national tournament, etc., etc.
    the more the match is judged by winning or losing, that’s when
    strategies on how to handle pressure are so important.
    in doubles, the secret is to get a partner like spike gonzales, who makes you
    think youre the best player in the world!

    Joe, the challenge is to treat the “big moments” like they are the small moments. thanks, george

  5. Hi George, since I also have some Chinese Martial Arts background, controlling situation pressure among other things, comes easy. In my Masters Tennis clinics, and regular clinics, I have incorporated–” why Tai Chi and its related benefits can help your on court play”. Art (Dick) Richards, USTA Florida M.T. Ambassador

    Dick, i would be interested in hearing more… thanks, george

  6. Despite his modesty, Joe IS the best player in the world!! At least when he’s playing with me.
    I love the picture of George. It looks like a character in a TV comedy! George, did you ever do MASH?

    Spike, only Army mashed potatoes! george

  7. George, you focused on one of my favorite sayings. I am a captain of a couple tennis teams, and I close my emails to the teams with “Thanks for all that you do for the sport of a lifetime, play tennis, have fun, and remember champions take chances and pressure is a privilege”.

    Ron, “Great minds…” thanks, george

  8. About pressure, I think Jimmy Connors or some other icon, termed it a “crisis” situation which had two elements – danger and opportunity – and focused on the latter.
    Fred Farzanegan, interviewed about sports psychology, said that success was coupled with focusing on performance rather than results.

    Dag, i agree… you can only control what YOU do and the rest will come as it will. thanks, george

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