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Mental Toughness to Avoid Choking and Finish a Match
Wednesday, 09/16/2009
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“It’s not about who chokes first, it’s about who chokes last.”  

Harris Rosenblatt

USTA 5.5 League Champion, 2006; USPTR Certified Pro

Choking is something common in tennis competition with most of us being able to recall at least one instance where we have done it.

In this article, we will explore both the causes of choking, so you know what to avoid and what it takes to finish a match. 

This article is focused towards tennis, however the same principles and ideas apply to any sport, whether you are a competitor or coach. 

Here Are Some of the Most Common Causes of Choking:

1) Momentum and Coasting:

We often think that there is such thing as momentum in a match that will carry us to win more, without us doing much or applying ourselves. This is distinct from match momentum, where one player is hot and the other is not. What we are talking about here, which is a notorious cause of choking, is the idea that there is some wind at out back, that if we stop putting in effort, it will carry us to victory.  

Oftentimes it comes with this idea that you have worked so hard up until now, that all that work will carry you through to victory, and you can coast or relax until the end. Wrong. Finishing takes as much or more effort as it took to get you the lead in the first place. But we will get more into that later.  

This may sound silly now, but there is a point in a match where this is a very real and valid thought in our minds, so we buy into, get lazy and choke. 

Here is an analogy.  We often get caught thinking finishing a match is like bike racing. We think that since we are so close to the finish line and have worked so hard that we can stop peddling and coast to victory.  We allow this mindset to set in and then we choke. It is more like a footrace. You have run hard until you see the finish line, and you have to keep running. If you stop running, then you will be standing still and others will pass you. 

In tennis, you are either causing winning or causing losing. You are either expanding your lead or blowing it.

2) “This Is Handled”

When close to winning, we often think that the match is “in the bag,” “handled,” “done already,” or a similar notion pops up that has us start to think that we have won before the match is actually over.  This goes hand in hand with the idea, thought or notion that the rest is going to be easy. It is not going to be easy. 

You know you are in this trap when you are still on the court thinking about holding up the trophy, who you are going to tell that you won first or already planning the victory party. 

If you are doing this, your focus is not on what it is going to take to win more points.  

When you allow yourself to get in this mindset, you are likely to choke.  

It is always the case that all that is left between you and victory is the rest of the match. 

3) Being Nice

Some people are just nice people on and off the court. Unfortunately, all of a sudden the urge to be nice can kick in and cause you to choke.  This often happens for all of us nice people when we realize that we are about to crush our opponent and we do not want him or her to feel bad. Then we start to get worried, feel guilty and choke to spare their feelings.  This is not as common of a cause of choking as the first two, but very gripping for those nice people out there. 

What starts off as a little kindness can have a snowball effect and you can get stuck in nice-mode. Instead of winning 1 and 0, it ends up going for 3 sets.

It is easy to forget that being nice has no place on the tennis court and will actually make your opponent feel worst than being crushed.

4) “Oh My Gosh, I’m Going To Win” 

One of the most dangerous causes of choking is thinking this when you are up against a player who you previously decided that you could not beat.  It is also especially common when playing against someone who you think is better than you. 

If you indulge in these sentiments, it is highly likely that you will not win.  You will just about never prove yourself wrong. If you decided that you cannot beat someone, then chances are, you will make it true.  

Have you ever lost to someone that you thought you were better than and should have beaten?  Then you can beat someone that thinks they are better than you and should beat you. NEVER honor the thought that you cannot or will not beat someone. 

How To Close:

First thing is to notice yourself getting into these traps.  Now that we have discussed them some, you can recognize them when they come up.  Avoiding the pitfalls of choking is 75% of closing a match. 

Here Is The Other 25%:

One thing to realize to close out a match is you have tons of thoughts and they come and go like the wind and you have no control over them. BUT what you do have control over is which ones you pay attention to.  So it takes being conscience of your thoughts and letting go of the ones that are not going to help you win. 

What It Takes Is:

To finish the match, it takes being ruthless and strict with yourself and really focusing on your game plan. Focus on being aggressive, playing your game… focus on something. What was your focus that got you to almost winning in the first place? If you do not have a mindset to employ for yourself, then I highly recommend you take some time do so before your next match. 

It not only takes that, but an increased focus, effort and intentionality to close out a match. You want to treat those last points like they are going to be the hardest to earn points of the match, because a lot of times, they are.  It is going to take more focus and intentionality to close out the match than to gain the lead.  This is because your mind can often be fighting against you and the other person is fighting for their life.  

This is simple, but not easy, and if winning were easy, then everyone would be doing it. 

Mental toughness, just like anything else requires practice. Often times, we expect instant results in this area, but it is a muscle to develop just like any other muscles in you body. 

David Groemping

Gemini Mental Toughness Training

November 18 2009 at 08:23:01 AM

Dear David, Your advices are excellent. I would like to continue the discussion by maybe suggesting a product that can help. Writing down your thoughts will definitely help but keeping statistical data of your comeback power and finishing power will also help. Through statistics that reveal whether they have been able to close out matches (after initially being ahead), or successfully win tie-breaks, or escape with victory (after initially struggling), players can zero in on their strengths a

November 18 2009 at 08:27:25 AM

players can zero in on their strengths and weaknesses. Having this data available can impact a player’s motivation and confidence, and equip him or her with the direction to take for corrective action and for developing strategies. Let me introduce you to a new application product, My Tennis Buddy, created by Opus Mobile Technologies, seems to have gotten this performance component right. Through interviews with tennis professionals (and via having a life-long advanced player as one of the

November 18 2009 at 08:29:02 AM

Through interviews with tennis professionals (and via having a life-long advanced player as one of the application designers), the company has homed in on the functions that serious players truly find useful. Customer feedback from players who have already discovered My Tennis Buddy consistently echoes this. The application cost as much as cup of coffee, it's invaluable and indispensable to players, who are serious about improving their game. For more info on MTB:

November 18 2009 at 08:29:49 AM

For more info on MTB: Again this is a tool, although a very powerful one, use to help and propel a player to a new level of proficiency and enjoyment in the game. Thank You and Best Regards