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Take Aways From Stan Wawrinka's U.S. Open Win

Stan Wawrinka beat the world’s number one player Novak Djokovic this year at the U.S. Open. During his post match interview he said, “I was shaking in the locker room. When we start five minutes before the match talking last few things with Magnus Norman (his coach), I start to cry. I was completely shaking. But the only thing I was convinced with myself was that my game was there. I didn’t want to come to the court to lose a final. I need to be ready I need to be focused and go for it.”

One of the take aways for the competitive junior and social recreational player is that even the best player’s in the world get scared before a match. They also become nervous and experience self-doubt during the course of a match.

When a junior player is playing out of his/her age division or a U.S.T.A. 3.0 plays a 3.5 or higher level player these are low stress situations and are less likely to produce the nerves and anxiety that accompany the expectations of a high pressure match situation. When a player is playing someone they expect to beat or if the player isn’t playing as well as they expect to play and begin to lose, it’s not uncommon to experience feelings of frustration and even a sense of panic and self-critical thoughts as the opponent catches up or pulls ahead. It can be helpful to look at this from a brain perspective.  The brain interprets this type of high stakes emotion in matches as a survival situation. Under these conditions the brain and the central nervous system shifts into “fight or flight” reactivity which can inhibit optimal focusing and the ability to adapt to the challenges of the match.

Regardless of how many times coaches, parents, team-mates say, “Don’t be nervous. Just play and have fun”. Or, “Just think positive thoughts.” Neither of these techniques have been shown to alleviate a player’s nerves. Negative thoughts and feelings are going to pop up in situations that matter to a player. Roger Federer sums up this state of anxiousness by saying, “Your mind is always wondering what if, what if I win, what will that mean? You can’t help it, you tell yourself not to think about these things but they keep coming back.” (Roger Federer quoted on his mental state during his 2009 French Open win).

Serena Williams also talks about this, “At that point I was just so nervous, and as you could see, I wasn’t able to hit a forehand, a backhand, or any other shot for that matter.” (Serena Williams quoted during 2013 French Open win).

So how do the professionals manage to muddle through their self-doubt and nerves? They do two things: They embrace the moment and regulate their physiological reaction of stress in their bodies through breath.

Novak Djokovic talks about embracing the moment in his book, “Serve to Win” that instead of trying to control unintentional difficult thoughts, feelings and reactions during matches he acknowledges them and allows them to be present. “Instead of trying to silence your mind and find inner peace you allow and accept your thoughts as they come without judging them. Your job is to let them come and go. So now when I blow or shank a backhand I still get those flashes of self-doubt but I know how to handle them. I acknowledge the negative thoughts and let them slide by focusing on the moment.”

The second step that the professionals take to manage their nerves is to pair being in the moment with diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the relaxation response by supplying an excess of oxygen to the blood. This creates a reserve of oxygen rich fuel for the body and contributes to balancing your emotions. Managing your breath turns off the “fight or flight” circuit of the brain.

Being in the moment and diaphragmatic breathing are two simple but important techniques the pro’s use to help them through the challenges they face on the court. These techniques are deceptively simple but incredibly powerful mental tools that need practice. Competitive juniors and social recreational league players can practice these skills on a regular basis through their practice matches. Once or twice a week organize a practice match where the outcome matters to you. Play two sets and if you split sets play a tie breaker for the third set if you don’t have time to play a third. Finish the match. This will give you a safe environment to allow yourself to be in a potentially uncomfortable position and work on the skill of staying in the moment and working through the challenges.  This practice will carry over into the matches you play competitively in tournaments and league. You may win you may lose but at least you will have the tools to go into the match mentally competitive.

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