The Parallels between Tennis and Public Speaking

When I took time off last summer to write a book about tennis, I had intended for it to be merely a diversion. Having played the sport for decades, I have long felt that there is little support for adult doubles players. The major networks feed us nothing but singles and the only content you can find focuses on stroke mechanics...as if those of us in our fourth or fifth decade in life will suddenly overhaul our games. So I set out to write a book about doubles strategy, playing tactics, and even a bit of tennis philosophy.

killer doublesI didn't expect to find so many parallels with my day job. Here is an excerpt that contains a surprising amount of relevance for those in the presentation community.

Channeling Against the Choke

“Novak, if you win your quarterfinal match, you’ll play either Murray or Nadal. Have you thought at all about whom you’d rather go up against?”

“I’m just trying to get through this next match. I just need to go one match at a time and focus on what I need to do against [Joe Nobody].”

This typical interview surely accounts for some of the most boring television in the history of broadcasting, played out at every single major by every single player who has ever had a microphone thrust in his or her face. Wait, there’s one that’s even worse:

“Maria, what do you need to do today against [Jane Nobodyova]?”

“I just need to go out there and concentrate on each point, not try to do too much, take what she gives me, and oh yes, have fun out there.”

Let’s start with the obvious—that no players in their right minds would reveal their strategies before a match when, in the modern age, it would arrive on an opponent’s smartphone screen about 30 seconds later. But that’s not the only reason why the pros are so boring—after all, they’ve been being boring on camera since before Al Gore invented the Internet. They know that putting blinders on best prepares them for the match ahead.

There might not be a major in your future, or a television interview, but you would be well-advised to consider the same approach, especially if you battle with nerves during competition.

The anatomy of the choke

Why do people get nervous? I face that question on a daily basis, thanks to my day job coaching people on how to speak in public. I regularly cite the Jerry Seinfeld joke about how people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. (No joke, actually: In the 2012 Book of Lists, public speaking ranks as our No. 1 fear. Death is No 7.)

At the biological level, your nerves are an anachronistic response to a perceived threat. When our prehistoric ancestors faced a mortal threat, like a tiger ready to attack, their choices were to fight or run away, and in either case, the adrenalin that their bodies produced helped them do that. This so-called fight-or-flight response no longer serves us—having our bodies flooded with adrenalin in no way helps us prepare for a challenge in which our fine motor skills are required.

It is also not terribly helpful that we humans have an easier time thinking about the past or the future than we do the present. Your body knows how to perform a certain task, but when your mind begins to focus on the last time you attempted it and failed, or worse, dwells on what happens if you fail at it again, that just gunks up everything.

Dwelling on past mistakes and worrying about mistakes we might make are practically instinctual, and they stand as two gigantic impediments to performance.

Can you avoid nerves?

Our biology and our psychology have not evolved with the times. Wouldn’t it be great if our bodies were to automatically produce endorphins when the stakes rise? And wouldn’t it be something if we could create a state of temporary amnesia when called upon to focus on a particular task?

No, we’re stuck with nerves instead, so the question becomes how you deal with that inconvenience. Your teammates might be well-intended by assuring you that there is no reason to be nervous, but that is beyond your control. As I tell my clients about the specter of giving a public presentation, you can’t make yourself not be nervous. You either are or you are not, and given those two choices, I’d rather you be nervous. Your nerves are a sign that you are doing something that matters to you, something whose outcome is important to you. Also, your nerves provide energy—for all of the trouble that it might cause, adrenalin is an extremely efficient fuel.

The question before you is how you deal with all of that excess energy. How do you channel all of that energy into positive performance?

The mind/body relationship

One of the ways to channel nervous energy is to work your large muscle groups and we tennis players have plenty of opportunity to use our big muscles. However, you cannot ignore our small muscle groups. You must hit delicate volleys and deft lobs and call upon the thousands of tiny muscles in your wrists, hands, and fingers. And that is not so easy to do when every system in your body is operating faster than factory specification.

You might think at first that fast-twitch muscles would operate better if the rest of your body were also moving at a fast pace, but that is not how it works. The small muscles in your body work best when they are encased in calm. The slower your body systems are working, the more readily fast-twitch muscles can fire. The obvious analogy is the feline—watch the cat respond to his environment and you will be witness to one of the finer athletes in our midst. A cat who is minding his own business on the top of a fence is at complete rest and calm. When he hears or sees a disturbance, he responds with only the body parts needed to better perceive its source. He turns his head and watches or listens; no other part of his body moves. If the commotion is caused by his owner taking out the trash, he puts his head back down. If the noise is the dog next door, he immediately springs to action, ready to dash in any direction.

Can you be quick as a cat? Yes, but it will require a level of mastery that most humans do not think about. In order to move with that type of efficiency, you must quiet the rest of your body, and if a gallon of adrenalin has just been dumped into it, that won’t be so easy.

How can you slow down your world when facing break point on your serve? How can you shut out all of the distractions around you or within you? Those are the $64K questions here.

Turning back time

The cognitive leap that I am going to ask of you here is to regard these distractions not so much as a matter of what, but as a matter of when. Two of the most notable distractions to performance are fretting about errors that you just made and worrying about errors you might make. The past and the future are not your friends here.

We don’t say to ourselves: “Oh no, I am making an error right now!”

Instead we say: “You missed that volley. You suck.”

And: “What if I make another error on this next point.”

Is there a mortal threat before you on the tennis court? No. Despite all perceptions to the contrary, you are not about to die out there. It is also unlikely that the result of your match will affect your career, your marriage, or your financial well-being. None of the perceived threats actually exist in the present moment—there is no tiger staring you down—they are all about things that might happen.

That is why the pros are so boring in their interviews: they know that talking about the last match or about a future match is a distraction. All they want to do is focus on the task at hand. This match. This game. This point.

And that is the very best response to nerves and pressure. It is also perhaps the most important skill you can develop as a competitor, superseding most of the advice that this book offers. And I choose my words carefully here: this is a skill. You can learn to do this.

Let’s set the scene. It’s the third set and you’re facing match point against you, serving at 4-5, 30-40. The stakes can hardly be higher here—lose this point and you go home. The nervous, conscious mind is invariably going to some bad places here.

It’s going to the past: How could I have missed that easy forehand? If I hadn’t blown that shot, I wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

And it’s going to wander into the future: If I miss another forehand, I will have let my team down.

Instead, you must learn to focus on nothing but the task at hand. What do I want to accomplish here?

I want to hit a serve deep to the backhand and then look for a crosscourt volley or groundstroke.

That’s a good start, but you can focus the task even more.

In order to hit a deep serve, I want to toss a bit more over my head and hit up and out. Then I’m going to look for an opportunity to hit crosscourt.

Fear can’t live in that moment. Fear does not exist in the present, only in the future. When you contain your thoughts to the task at hand—to the thing happening right now—you take the first step toward facing down pressure.

Okay, that’s my task. I’ve got this. I can do this. I have each of those shots in my game. Now I just need to let myself do it. Let’s just play.

That is healthy thinking. That puts you in a really good place to compete under pressure. If you combine that mental approach with some of the physical exercises discussed here, you come up with a working recipe for dealing with stress on the tennis court:

  • Take one or two deep slow breaths.
  • Make two or three long slow circles with your shoulder.
  • Ask yourself what you want to get done on this next point.
  • Identify the key fundamentals needed to accomplish that task.
  • Recognize that those fundamentals are things you know how to do.
  • Now turn your mind off and just let yourself do it.

I’m not here to suggest that any of this is easy. We all know the stakes we choose to associate with competitive tennis. The point I want to leave you with is that dealing with nerves and stress involves a set of skills that you can learn, practice, and master.

The True Meaning Of Confidence

Now we get to one of the most important concepts of all. The word is pretty simple and nobody has to think too hard to grasp its meaning. You identify it as a good thing. You want to be confident. You want to play confidently. You want to exude confidence.

But do you actually know what it means? And more important, do you know how to harness it on demand when you are in a pressure situation and need it the most?

Many players do not. Let’s say that you and your partner are up 6-1, 2-0, and you’re cruising. Everything you hit goes in and you feel invincible. Backhand overheads that paint both lines…half-volley stabs…even your mishits are winners. You are hitting second serves almost as hard as firsts, and you have that wonderful feeling that you just can’t miss. It’s awesome. You love it. You’re in the zone. It’s a wonderful high.

But it’s not confidence.

Don’t misunderstand, playing out of your minds is a wonderful feeling and you and your partner hope it lasts all match. You should play quickly, in case the tennis gods have a timer, so you can get in as many points as you can while you are in this wonderful zone.

But this is not confidence, it’s magic, and those two things are quite different. In fact, maybe they are opposites of one another. True confidence does not come from the feeling that you are invincible and can hit any shot imaginable. True confidence comes from knowing which shots you really can hit. Confidence is what you rely on once you leave the magic zone.

Here is a simple litmus test: That amazing backhand overhead that you hit deep into the corner of the court without a care in the world—would you attempt it at 6-6 in a tiebreaker? No? Why not? Because it is too risky, you say? Aren’t you confident in your ability to hit it?

Well, no, you’re not. Because you are a reasonably intelligent person and you know better. Being able to hit a shot while in the zone does not provide you with any confidence that you can also execute it when the pressure is on. In fact, it might make you feel unconfident about it, like you can only hit it when you are in an otherworldly state.

So what shots can you hit under pressure? Here are mine:

  • Medium-pace serve to the backhand
  • Crosscourt backhand volley
  • Waist-high forehand volley
  • Rolling forehand from an open stance
  • Slice backhand

No matter what the situation, I harbor the belief that I can execute those five strokes. If I can orchestrate a point so that I would be attempting them, I would be quite confident in the outcome.

The time to attempt ridiculous shots is when you are in the zone and feel as if you can miss nothing. But when you find yourself in a must-make situation, you need to know what shots you really can hit.

When you find that out, you will be a truly confident tennis player.


What parallels do you recognize here with speaking in public? I'd love to hear your thoughts about them in the Comments. And if you want to pick up a great stocking stuffer for a tennis-playing friend, visit www.KillerDoubles.net.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Endicott on Dec 9, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Nice job, Rick!

    When it comes to tennis, receiving a big serve is more a matter of self-defense for me.

    Loved the insight and tie-ins to presenting. Especially the observation, “True confidence comes from knowing which shots you really can hit. Confidence is what you rely on once you leave the magic zone.”

    So true. I have moments of insecurity and self-doubt like most other folks too. The difference for me at this time of my life is that I’ve made the “swing” (solid presentation skills) so many times that I don’t have to worry about the swing being there. I know it will be. (Repetition creates muscle and message memory.) I just need to make sure my love of the game doesn’t get lost in the mechanics of the swing…

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