What Happens When Tennis Players Choke?
What does it mean to choke in tennis?
The term “choke” comes from the concept that you feel like you can’t breathe, or someone is strangling you, when under pressure; a lack of oxygen. But choking has a wider meaning in sports…
Choking is when an tennis player, who is talented and motivated to achieve their goals, suffers from a decrease in physical performance due to mental stress or worry.
Fear of failure is a big reason why tennis players choke in competition. They worry too much about losing and what it means to them.
But what really happens to a tennis player when they choke?
The body’s nervous system recognizes choking as sense of internal threat; it causes the body to go into fight or flight mode.
Fight or flight is the body’s physiological response to fear or anxiety that prepares an athlete’s body for drastic physical action.
Although fight or flight is meant to keep people safe from physical harm, when the threat is mental, the fight or flight response hurts an athlete’s performance rather than help.
In most choking cases, tennis players experience physical changes, such as:
The adrenaline athletes feel, if not used, causes them to become jittery and anxious.
When breathing becomes harder, athletes receive less oxygen to the brain
The athletes’ blood redirects from the fingers, toes and skin to major muscle groups. When this happens, it hinders their movement by making legs feel heavy and slow.
Athletes become nauseous and experience dry mouth due to lack of saliva.
Athletes become tense and tighten up. That, along with the lack of blood flow in the fingers, affects their ability to complete their plays.
To help prepare the body for fight or flight, the bowels and bladder loosen. This may cause the athlete to feel the need to urinate… or worse…
When choking, tennis players will change their game and often perform more tentatively. They will push the ball or short-stroke their strokes unable to swing with freedom.
Some tennis players may feel more relaxed or comfortable in their practice routines because they don’t feel the anxiety and pressure that comes with game time.
The first step to overcome choking in tennis to understand what you fear about playing, such as:
- Fear of embarrassment
- Fear of letting down a coach or parent
- Fear of not playing to your potential
- Fear of putting in the effort and not getting the pay off
Once you identify the fear that leads to choking you are in a better position to address this head on.