Today, I played 20 points with a student, and during those 20 points, he missed eight feeds. Eight. That means that, 40% of the time, he didn’t even start the point.
During the other 12 points, he missed four shots total. For some reason, he was much, much worse at receiving the feed than at receiving a live ball. Given that the feed is an easy ball to receive, what explains this alarmingly poor performance?
Anxiety, but maybe not quite how you think.
Chronic vs Episodic Anxiety
Anxiety is a naturally occurring, highly useful human emotion. In the modern world, anxiety gets a bad rap, because many experience anxiety as chronic anxiety, rather than as episodic anxiety. They are inappropriately anxious, all the time, as opposed to appropriately anxious, for a fixed amount of time.
Chronic anxiety is almost always maladaptive, but episodic, transient anxiety is quite healthy, and it’s extremely useful in athletics. A finely tuned level of episodic anxiety is the cure for both choking, and for losing focus at 1-0 in the first set. If you can control your level of anxiety on court, your performance will drastically improve.
The Anxiety Curve
Athletes perform best at mid-level anxiety: not too high, not too low. Almost everyone has experienced, or heard referenced, the “not too high” part of that spectrum. “He’s so calm under pressure,” is a compliment that implies the player is able to successfully dial back his anxiety in a situation (like match point), that would naturally call for too much anxiety to achieve optimal performance.
What’s less familiar is the “not too low” side of the curve. I explained the concept to my student (the one who missed 8 feeds) and then asked him:
“Before the point starts, when you’re waiting for the feed, are you more anxious or less anxious than during the point?”
“Less, way less.”
After that, we played another 20 points, and he didn’t miss a single feed.
Failure due to low anxiety is extremely common in tennis, especially on serve return. As you prepare for the return, you take a deep breath, try to forget about the score, and relax. The ball is hit… and you barely move, lose the ball visually, and mishit it. In this situation, you’ve actually modulated your anxiety down too low for optimal performance.
Every athlete has their own optimal level of anxiety, and that optimal level can vary from task to task. You need to find this level for yourself. The same way you learn what it feels like to swing a forehand, you need to learn what it feels like to be in the proper mental state to perform, for example, a return serve.
Naturally High Anxiety
If you tend to be a high anxiety person, most of this learning process will constitute intentionally lowering your anxiety. You’ll be routinely calming yourself down, and on important points, you’ll be calming yourself down a lot.
Typical calming strategies are:
- Deep nasal breathing
- Clearing your mind (meditation is good practice for this)
- Affirmations like “it’s just like any another point” or “one point at a time.”
If you fail to sufficiently calm yourself, you’ll be highly prone to typical high anxiety errors, such as:
- Physical tension leading to mishits
- Physical tension preventing explosive movement
- Verbal thoughts distracting from visual tracking
As you learn to dial down your anxiety, these kinds of misses will go away.
Naturally Low Anxiety
Tennis, like all sports, hijacks your visual perception and motor control systems, which are mostly designed for prey/predator relationships, and uses them for fun competition. Because these systems are designed for:
- Hunting food
- Not becoming food
They don’t function very well in a super low anxiety state; they’re designed to be at their height in stressful, life altering situations.
Naturally low anxiety people, in order to play their best tennis, need to hype themselves up, especially during practice. They need to raise their baseline level of anxiety in order to succeed. Common low anxiety misses are:
- Losing track of slow balls
- Not getting off the spot quickly enough (especially against drop shots)
- Getting lax on the final shot of an offensive combination
To raise your physical anxiety, hop around or take a few shadow swings. This will elevate your heart rate. To raise your mental anxiety, use anxiety-inducing self-talk:
- “You have to make this return.”
- “There’s no way I’m missing this one.”
- “This is a huge moment in the match.”
This kind of self-talk will significantly improve the performance of a player whose anxiety level is below optimal, resulting in fewer low anxiety misses, but keep in mind that it will also severely impair the performance of a player who is too anxious, causing high anxiety misses.
As you gain proficiency at modulating your anxiety, you’ll almost certainly, on occasion, overshoot or undershoot your optimal anxiety level.
A high anxiety person, who becomes skilled at calming themselves, will eventually start to notice low anxiety misses creeping into their game. At that point, they need to fine tune their response, occasionally allowing their natural anxiety to take over, to bring them back up to optimal.
A low anxiety person can overdo it with the anxiety inducing self-talk, to the point where they tighten up and miss due to high anxiety. Here, again, the player must lean into their natural, non-anxious nature, in order to dial the anxiety back down to optimal levels.
Anxiety Level Suggestions
Different shots require different levels of anxiety, just like they require different swing paths, movement patterns, and tracking. Your mental preparation when hitting a shot is equally important to your physical preparation.
Serves (and overheads) – Low Anxiety
I suggest you play your serves, and to a lesser extent, your overheads, from as low an anxiety state as you can manage. The serve isn’t nearly as visual as the other strokes, so pinpoint tracking isn’t as useful. Most importantly, tension hurts the overhead motion more than it hurts any other stroke. That shoulder needs to be loose in order to smack the ball without hurting yourself, and even a small amount of anxiety can significantly impede the whip.
Take a long, deep breath through your nose before you serve, and visualize the ball flight you’re going to produce. If you’re Daniil Medvedev, and you’re natural anxiety is so low you can just walk up to the line, bounce the ball once, and hit an ace, of course this isn’t necessary, but for a player with a typical anxiety level, a calming visualization routine before every serve will be extremely helpful.
Serve Return – Medium Anxiety
Return, a highly visual task, requires a higher anxiety level than serve. Not high, anxiety, higher. Since most players’ natural anxiety is too high for any tennis task, I still recommend taking a long deep breath through the nose before you return, but what comes after is a little different.
Feel your own mental state, and do a quick check whether it matches what you want. If it’s too high (break point?), keep breathing, and practice meditation to clear the anxiety inducing verbal thoughts from your mind.
Additionally, catch yourself if your anxiety is too low. If you routinely get beat by things like slow wide serves, or, heaven forbid, underhand serves, it’s likely you aren’t quite intense enough before the point starts.
Singles Volleys – Higher Anxiety Than You Think
I see so, so many low anxiety mistakes on “easy” balls at net. That slow, floating ball, does not appear threatening, but it is. If you are not laser focused on that ball mid-air, if your legs are not engaged, and if your body is not explosive, you will miss your finishing shot.
I tell my players that the floating ball at net, the finishing shot, requires more focus than ground-strokes from the baseline, not less. The fact that the shot is “easy,” leads people to believe their level of focus can drop – it can’t, and if it does, you’re going to miss.
Double’s Volleys – Medium Anxiety
In doubles, the action happens extremely quickly, and as such, tension is heavily punished. When you’re at net in doubles, imagine you’re standing in a field, scanning the surrounding forest for threats. You’re not really scared – there’s probably nothing – you’re just staring at the forest waiting to see if a moving shadow catches your eye.
This kind of slightly anxious, alert, but not fearful mental state is what allows quick reactions at net. Laxer than this, and you won’t react with enough urgency to succeed. More anxious than this, and your eyes won’t be able to pick up the movement of the ball, and then command the body accurately, quickly enough.
Correct Anxiety is Subjective
Anxiety modulation is individual. If a high anxiety person tells themselves “It’s break point. I have to make this return,” that will impair performance. If a low anxiety person recites the exact same mantra, it will improve performance. I’m not telling you to “calm down,” and I’m not telling you to “get hyped.” Find your own level of perfect anxiety. Learn what that level feels like and modulate to it before the point starts.
It may be different for serve and return. It may be different at the baseline and at the net. Just like everything else in tennis, experiment. Learn what it feels like when it’s correct, and then practice accordingly.