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Charlie Garfinkel: Practice doesn’t make perfect in tournaments

In a recent tournament at a local tennis club a friend of mine walked off the court very distraught.

Why? He felt that because he was is in great physical shape, plays four or five times a week, and never seems to tire, he never should have lost the match he had played by 6-4, 6-4.

“I can’t believe I lost the match,” he said. “Even though my opponent was a good player I am in far better shape that he was. I play singles for at least an hour and a half five times a week, do a lot of running, and do a half hour of calisthenics, almost every day.”

It goes without saying that my friend was very upset after the loss. He was even more incredulous by the fact that he was cramping up by the time the match was over. He said, “I’ve never cramped when I am practicing.”

That was a very interesting comment. The reason is that the pressure of playing in practice in comparison to tournament play, especially if you’re playing singles, isn’t the same. The mental pressure of playing in a tournament can cause cramps, headaches, dizziness, or other ailments that rarely occur during practice workouts.

When you are practicing, your arm feels loose and you are able to flow into your shots with a full extension. In a tournament match some players tend to “choke” or not extend their racket fully to return a shot.

Why do some players do well in practice but lose in tournaments? Practice matches don’t have the pressure that tournament play does. Even if you lose in practice, so what? You will still be able to play the next day and the day after. In a tournament, if you lose your first match you are out.

In practice you usually don’t play in front of many people. In a tournament there is usually a group of people watching the matches. If you’re not used to playing in front of other people it can prove to be most unsettling and nerve-racking.

What, then, can you do to keep from getting tense and nervous?

First, you should have a local tennis professional or a friend that is very knowledgeable about tennis evaluate your strokes. Whatever strengths you have, you should work harder to perfect them. This could mean putting more spin on your serves to cut down on your double faults, hitting the ball harder to put your opponent on the defensive, or other strengths that your tennis pro feels that you should work on.

Conversely, it is more important to work on your weaknesses. For instance, if you are having trouble with your forehand or backhand stroke you should spend a great amount of time working to perfect those shots. Once you’ve mastered the basic shots you can then go on to perfecting the harder shots.

Of course, you can’t expect to overcome all of your weaknesses in a week or two. However, as you improve you will feel less tentative when you play and will feel much better about playing in tournaments again.

When you do enter a tournament you must have a game plan. If you don’t have one you’re looking for disaster. What happens if you have Plan A and that isn’t working? You then should have Plan B or even Plan C if necessary.

If possible, you should try to scout your future opponent. By watching your opponent play. you will be able to make a list of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. This will help you to have a game plan when you walk onto the court. ou will also be more relaxed and this will allow you to concentrate on your strokes as you warm up.

You should also try to concentrate on playing better than you had the last time you played, or concentrating on the improvement of a certain stroke or strategy. If you are only concerned with winning you may not enjoy the game as much as you should.

Setting goals such as keeping the ball in play or committing fewer errors will greatly help your concentration and keep you from getting tense. You will start winning matches and will be pleasantly surprised as to how you will begin winning matches that you used to lose. When you’re playing try to think about what is happening on the court. Worrying about personal problems while you are playing won’t help you when you’re playing a tough opponent.

If you’re concentrating but still having problems try to resort to basics. For instance, make sure that you consistently get your serves in and place them well. When returning serve be sure to keep the ball in play and don’t make foolish errors. Try to keep your opponent moving and do anything that you can to control the game. You will then find your tensions gradually disappearing. One thing that you should be wary of is not to concentrate too much. You could find yourself tightening up if you do that.

It goes without saying that you should stay calm at all times in addition to concentrating. Getting mad because of a missed shot or arguing with your opponent is very detrimental and will prevent you from playing your normal game. You will still be involved in a number of close matches and there will be added tension. Just relax, take a deep breath, and play as well as you can.

Some players like to enter two events in a tournament. hey feel that extra play will help them with their concentration. Nothing could be further from the truth. This will actually put more pressure on you. Why? There is a chance that you could get fatigued in a tournament if you enter two events. This could result in your “choking” and losing both events, whereas if you had entered only one event, you would have been able to focus much better.

The following is a summary of what you should do to improve your winning percentage:

1. Work on improving your strengths ad improving your weaknesses.

2. Prepare a strategy for each match before you warm up.

3. Enjoy the game and continually work on improving.

4. Concentrate on every point.

5. Control your temper.

6. Stay confident even if your opponent makes a good shot.

7. Play in only one event in each tournament.

8. Keep your eye on the ball and breathe deeply, especially if you’re in a tight match.