Taming Butterflies

When I think back to my first year playing league tennis, one thing stands out to me more than any other–my nerves. Every match morning would be the same. My brain would be buzzing. My breathing would be shallow. My arms and legs would feel heavy and uncoordinated. Worst of all, my stomach would churn, and I’d make an alarming number of trips to the bathroom.

Not only did I struggle with nerves, I struggled with embarrassment over being so nervous. This was just recreational tennis. All the women in the league have careers, families, bigger issues in their lives. But telling myself that nothing was actually at stake made no difference. Neither my brain nor my gut believed me.

That first year I didn’t tell anyone how nervous I was. I didn’t think anyone else suffered from this level of pre-match anxiety. It seemed beyond pathetic that this silly little match could matter so much to me.

I’ve since learned that many people–including people who were on my team–experience pre-match jitters. I wish I’d known that my first year. Just knowing I wasn’t alone would have taken some of the edge off those feelings. Being able to laugh about it with my teammates would have helped.

By the second year, those nerves didn’t affect me as much. That sounds like I learned to control them, but I didn’t. They simply abated on their own because I’d been exposed to game-day stress so many times. Matches just didn’t trigger the same adrenaline rush they used to.

I’m rarely troubled with excessive nerves now, unless I’m facing a different kind of match, one where I fear I’m out of my league, or one where something really is at stake, such as winning the division. At those moments, I can end up feeling like a league newbie all over again, jelly legs and all.

But I don’t have to let those feelings derail my game. After a little brainstorming and poking around online, I came up with eleven ways to combat pre-match jitters.

  • Accept. Know that everyone gets nervous before matches. Not only is it normal, but a little adrenaline buzz can help you play better. Don’t let the fact that you’re jittery make you even more jittery!
  • Confide. Find a sympathetic teammate and share your feelings. No doubt she’ll be able to relate and may be able to help you relax.
  • Laugh. Listen to your favorite morning deejays on your way to the match. Or hang out with the funniest person on your team while you wait for your match to start.
  • Reframe. Don’t think of the match as a test you’ll either pass or fail. Reframe it as just one step in the process of developing your game. That process will include wins as well as losses. If you never lose, you aren’t challenging yourself enough–and your game isn’t growing.
  • Rebrand. Labels matter, so rebrand your anxiety. You’re not anxious! You’re energized, excited, amped up, eager, psyched… Find a label that puts those feelings in a better light–and then embrace them!
  • Focus. You have the power to decide what you want to think about. So replace negative thoughts about possible failure with positive thoughts about how you’re going to play. Keep it simple. Picture how you’re going to move your feet or get low on volleys.
  • Exercise. Burn off the negative energy. Hit the treadmill or elliptical before taking the court. If the club doesn’t have any exercise equipment, jumping jacks work, too.
  • Stretch. Gentle stretching can help release muscle tension. Find a quiet corner where you can practice a few downward dogs.
  • Breathe. Take deep, slow breaths. Count each inhalation and exhalation. Tune out the noise around you, and keep your mind focused on only your breathing.
  • Sing. Belt out your favorite song as you’re driving to your match. (Don’t worry–no one’s looking.) It’s impossible to stay nervous if you’re rocking out to an upbeat song.
  • Decaffeinate. Go easy on the caffeine. A little will help you stay alert, but too much will contribute to your jitters and your upset stomach.

Have you ever gotten nervous before a match? What do you do to tame your butterflies? And what are the best songs to blast in the car when you’re on your way to your match?

3 thoughts on “Taming Butterflies

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  1. All of these suggestions for minimizing pre-game jitters make a lot of sense. I already do a few of these, especially Singing in the car.
    But I am going to try two new ones that I think will make the most difference To Me: Breathing with counting my inhale and exhale; and Reframe: yes I’m each match is just another step in my development as a player. Love that thought! Thank you Deb.

  2. Yes, the reframe suggestion appeals to me, too. It does help put each match in perspective.

    So what song are you singing? 😊 Or are you just singing to whatever’s on the radio?

  3. En route to a tennis match I sing any upbeat song I can think of if I know the words. Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver works for me. So does the Beatles’ Ooh-blah-di, Ooh-blah-da. Happy singing y’all.

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