There's excitement in the air. Raging nerves. Only two players left. The finals. The finals are different than other matches; there is more pressure, more demands, less room for error, and only one chance to get it right. So how do you get it right?
I have had the opportunity to coach and consult with several very successful players. One of the more common, and important, topics that come up is preparing for and playing in the finals (or simply a big match, farther than the player has been before). Here are a few key things to consider when you find yourself in this position.
1) Nerves Serve A Purpose: Reframe and Redirect
A simple reframe of thoughts allows the player to acknowledge that the nerves are there and serve a purpose. Players tend to see their nerves in a negative fashion, but I urge them to look at this type of energy in a different way. I want them to reframe their nerves into something positive. For example:
"When my nerves come it means I am ready to go, ready to compete."
"Nerves mean I care and look to do well. I can use this energy to my advantage."
These types of statements elicit positive reactions - nerves are a good thing! Once you acknowledge you are nervous you can begin to change the dialogue in your mind before the match begins. In my experience, the first player to work through the nerves usually wins.
2) Win the Body Language Battle
Your opponent is just like you, they feel nerves and pressure too, which is why body language is so important in big matches. When your opponent looks across the net, what will he/she see? I call this the Body Language Battle - show strength, show self-assurance, create doubt in your opponent's mind. Think about what you think/feel when you notice that your opponent is positive, energetic, and competitive; create that same look in yourself!
3) Focus on the bookends - starting, finishing
I give players very simple goals to achieve when they start out matches or when they are trying to finish. Essentially they are the same goals; win the first point of the game, first serves/returns in play, high percentage shot selection, play to win mentality, etc. These are simple concepts and are within the player's control. Players tend to let their minds drift to the finish line, which increases pressure and opens the door for choking. When starting out or finishing, keep everything very simple and trust your training.
4) When Behind, Extend. When Ahead, Discipline
Remember that your opponent is just like you; he/she gets nervous when trying to finish matches as well. When you are behind, extend the match as long as you can, because good things can happen the longer you keep the opponent out there. When you do something good, SHOW SOMETHING GOOD. Commit to keeping a neutral/positive response after points are over. When ahead, maintain your point-to-point discipline; take time, simple thoughts, keep doing the mental work in between points.