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Recent research from the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin sheds some very interesting light on fear in tennis.
Tennis is an eye-to-eye combative sport. Unlike team sports like baseball or individual sports such as track and field, tennis is a one-on-one combative contest of wills, stamina and skill. In this respect, tennis stimulates a part of the brain that is millions of years old and which has evolved to ensure our survival in primitive hostile environments.
The curious thing about this part of the brain, called the limbic system, is that it cannot make subtle distinctions between emotional threats and physical threats to our well being. As a result, tennis players may experience the same fear of emotional situations that they would normally fear in a life-threatening situations. For example, in simplistic terms, serving for a match can be as frightening as being a passenger in a plane that is going to crash land. The limbic systems cannot make the distinction.
The fear "build up" and subsequent increase in blood pressure and heart rate that can occur in tennis can be dissipated in a team sport by the presence of teammates. In track and field it can be dissipated by the fact that you do not have to face your opponent, and in golf it can be dissipated to some degree by the fact that your opponent cannot obstruct your actions or intimidate you. But in tennis, you are forced to face all of these "adversaries".
What the recent research brings to the fore is that movement alone can be a source of fear. Millions of years of evolution have conditioned the limbic system to register any object moving toward you as a threat. The research even used a computer simulation wherein the image "Aa" started out as small and then grew larger, giving the appearance of moving forward, to test a subjects response to movement. Even this simple "perceived" movement registered fear.
Now, let's hit the courts. Suppose you are at the baseline and your opponent charges the net. This act will evoke a primitive fear response. Unless you are trained to deal with this response, you will likely make an unforced error simply as a result of experiencing primitive fear. The reason is that the limbic system has direct "over ride" control of the motor systems and will interject a "tick" or jerk into your stroke causing it to go astray.
And that is not the only problem. You are in a baseline rally and the ball keeps coming back right at you. This alone can evoke a fear response that causes you to weaken a bit and begin hitting short, giving your opponent a significant advantage.
Tennis is continual movement, and movement can evoke primitive fear. Unless you understand this and train to overcome this fear, you are likely to lose matches you should win.
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About Ray Brown
Dr. Ray Brown entered tennis late in life through medical research
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