Relaxing in tennis
Relaxing is a key element of performance for every tennis player, whether he is a beginner, advanced or professional. Whether you are putting too much pressure on yourself, you doubt everytime you hit the ball, you are afraid of losing or disappointing someone, you don’t feel confident about the technical gestures (striking plan behind, lack of amplitude in preparation …) or if you simply have too much natural muscular tone (natural stiffness), all these reasons could make you less efficient at a technical, tactical, physical or mental level. Thus, managing your emotions, knowing yourself well, implementing specific processes are major assets that will help you feel relaxed, or unfortunately for some, just a little less tense!
Every player has already been in a situation where he feels at “ease” when he is performing an action. The movement is fluid, he doesn’t have to force it, the ball “comes out of the racket”, everything works. On the other hand, who has never been in a situation, where you just want to scream because you don’t get to do an “acceptable” shot, where everything is forced, uncoordinated, you feel clumsy when you do these same tasks. Of course, there are several factors that could be causing this under performance, but the lack of relaxation could be affecting you.
Impact on the motor, cognitive and emotional aspects
The motor aspect
When we can not relax, our coordination is impacted:
● There is a dissociation of the upper/lower body (ex: a forward stroke that requires a take-off, an alleviation, a hand/racket opening for a volley).
● The rhythm (ex: I prepare too fast and can no longer accelerate during impact).
● The muscular elasticity, whether it is the rotation of the shoulders or the relaxation of the arm and hand. Reconditioning becomes impossible because of that stiffness of the body segment. The player who is lacking muscular relaxation could not even be able to lift the ball or only slightly, despite a perfect lower body flexion.
Movement speed is defined as: “The speed related to the speed of execution of a simple or complex movement, a motor task, and to the perceptual-organizing component of it, the reaction. This main physical principle concerns short and very high intensity efforts which are often decisive in an action. » Mechanically, it is known that the speed of a movement depends on the muscular contraction which allows you to move the part of the body concerned, the operation is controlled by the nervous system. Thus, the tennis player in search of power will use force and speed (P=V*F). If the player only uses force (with the arm), this extra stress on the arm will lead to muscular tension and a loss of efficiency of the movement desired. Overall muscular relaxation will allow the player to obtain maximum movement speed. Playing by using the leg thrust to put less effort on the arm and reach more arm speed is key.
Energy saving and better injury management
In order to be able to finish a long match on a clay court in the middle of August, the player needs to be mentally, and physically relaxed and have a proper biomechanical technique, in order to spend less energy. On the other hand, players who force their way through technical compensation or lack of transfer put greater effort on certain body parts, such as the arm. We see this a lot with beginners and advanced players. A tense player is more prone to injuries. The muscular tension generated by stress puts more strain on the muscles, tendons, ligaments and can create inflammation, tendonitis, contractures or tearings. Take for example Roger Federer, who has undeniable relaxation qualities and extraordinary fluidity of movement, he has almost never suffered any major injuries and is still one of the best players on the court even at 38 years of age. Taking care of this aspect is even more important for him now because he needs to preserve himself physically. Since body and mind are obviously connected, his mental approach to the game is also different than when he was younger. When he wanted to have fun when he played, as we can perceive in his interviews, the stress of the game was something secondary back then and he was looking for something much less “stressful”, to have freedom on the court.
Cognitive and emotional aspects: lucidity and perception of situations
Managing emotions in tennis is something that every player has to take seriously. In fact, many experts today have proven that this is the key to high level performance, that it is more important than the technical factors, which have long been perceived as having priority over the rest. Thus, any emotion, if badly “managed” by the player will have consequences on his mind, on his stress and therefore on his performance. Euphoria, excitement, anger, demotivation, disappointment, frustration, and so on, each of these can be a vector of performance or counter-performance. In fact, stress is perceived as an aggression. According to Brigitte Simon, mental coach, “our cognitive functions are disturbed by stress. It becomes more difficult to concentrate and to find in our memory the useful information that we have trained and mechanized our brains to do with hours of practice. The tension caused by stress prevents us from relaxing and blocks our automatism system as if we had to fight a force inside us that prevents us from reaching our level of performance”. Jim Taylor, an American sports psychologist, confirmed this and added that, “Emotions are necessary to achieve optimal performance.” He talks about emotional intelligence to explain how the very best have the ability to control their emotions, and achieve the physical and mental relaxation necessary to meet the demands of sport and how they make a difference.
What techniques should we use to relax?
Self-awareness and our approach of the game
In order to approach a match relaxed, it is essential to be in good mental condition to express yourself fully and enjoy “playing”. This means taking the pressure off by putting the upcoming match into perspective and setting attitude and tennis skills goals, rather than just looking for a victory at all costs. Playing well should be your main goal, and you must get rid of all the negative thoughts that could affect all the innate or acquired confidence that you could have. For example, among young people, the public is often a cause of stress, if they are playing in front of people who are important to them (family, friends, coach). So, thinking only about the game or about what is essential will help you to stay focused and be in the action.
In order to play well, there is another essential factor, which is enjoying yourself on the court, and thus playing the way that you like, whatever your level. To develop a game tactic that corresponds to your technical level trying of course to build intelligently. Some people like long rallies and feel good when they “wear out the opponent”, others are more offensive and will seek to end the rally quickly. Coaches, parents, relatives must insist on this point, which is a source of mental optimization.
Among the most used modern approaches, visualization or mental imagery are tools that are used at a high level to reduce stress and relax before a sporting event, or to manage psychological stress outside of sport. In sport, it is a matter of “mentally visualizing your practice as if you were really playing a match, imagining positive scenarios, living the situation as if you were there.” For example, we have all imagined a final before playing it, but without necessarily focusing our thoughts on a positive impact on the performance. On the other hand, imagining positive scenarios when facing an opponent, seeing oneself play a certain way, will allow the brain to save the movements imagined, to activate the body before the competition, to have the impression of having already played the match. You can also imagine your mental state at certain decisive moments to anticipate the phases of tension and to relax, to feel in control and achieve inner calm.
Breathing is obviously fundamental to relax your muscles when making an effort, and to manage your emotions during a competition or a moment of stress. It is essential for the physiological, psychic, mental and emotional balance of the individual. Good conscious breathing reduces your heart rate, allows you to relax your muscles and force your shots less, it is one of the pillars of relaxation, helping you reduce nervous tensions. Thus, during a fast physiological action, it acts on your mind and helps reduce stress and regain self-control. Finally, breathing when you are making an effort, i.e. exhaling when a shot is triggered, more precisely when accelerating the racket’s head, will promote optimal movement speed and a fluid gesture.
There are some reflexes, practitioner’s tricks to relax physically that can greatly help players during a match. Relaxing the upper part of your body between each shot during the replay phase and the return to the attention position is very useful to begin the next movement being less tense. Among the parts of your body that are important to relax, we can mention the wrist, the fingers on the handle (turning your racket for example), the neck and the shoulders. The longer the exchange, the longer the match will last, and the more important it is to save energy by making the least effort possible.
Finally, the end of a gesture is also a marker of muscular relaxation. When doing a forehand, a backhand or a serve, letting the racket “go”, letting it “die” after the follow through is a way to relax, or even an effective educational tool when it comes to teaching.