© Ella Ling

US Open

How to avoid choking


For help on how to avoid choking on court, The Tennis Space turns not to tennis coaches or sports psychologists, but to the works of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker magazine. One of his books, ‘What the Dog Saw’, includes the brilliant essay ‘The Art of Failure’, which is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how a tennis player thinks.

Try, if you can, not to think about the mechanics of your shots.
“When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon,” Gladwell wrote of Novotna’s defeat to Steffi Graf in the 1993 final, “it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person – playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner – because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overheads since she was first taught tennis, as a child.”

If you’re panicking, at least you’re not choking.
“Panic is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart. Why does this distinction matter? In some instances, it doesn’t matter. If you lose a close tennis match, it’s of little moment whether you choked or panicked: either way, you lost.”

However, if you can establish which of the two it was – were you panicking or choking? – that could help you in future.

Forget about the past (at least the bad bits).
Gladwell wrote: “What did experience do for Novotna? In 1995, in the third round of the French Open, Novotna choked even more spectacularly than she had against Graf, losing to Chanda Rubin after surrendering a 5-0 lead in the third set. There seems little doubt that part of the reason for her collapse against Rubin was her collapse against Graf – that the second failure built on the first, making it possible for her to be up 5-0 in the third set and yet entertain the thought I can still lose. If panicking is conventional failure, choking is paradoxical failure.”

Stop trying so hard
“The usual prescription for failure – to work harder and to take [challenges] more seriously – only makes the problems worse,” Gladwell. “That is a hard lesson to grasp.”