Not a day goes by that I don't hear the same thing … I am a slow starter in tournaments. What can I do to change this? When I hear this question, there are three things that I tell everyone …
The first step to changing and elevating your game is changing the mentality you start your match with. When the match begins, you are alone on an island, fighting for survival. Team sports like basketball and soccer allow for dependence on teammates when your game is not quite at its peak, when you’re not playing your best.
With a sport like tennis, the start of the game signals the beginning of your self-reliance on whatever fundamentals and special skills you have accumulated throughout your practices. You cannot rely on your teammates to bail you out while you shake off your nerves. Once the ball is tossed in the air for the first serve of the match, you need to be ready to rip!
Another great way to prepare for a tournament match is to treat your last few practice sessions as though you are playing in a tournament. As my father used to tell me, "Practice like you’re playing a match.” In tournaments, you get a five-minute warm-up. You should play your practice matches with that same warm-up time. Both kids and adults want to get their rhythm going before a match by hitting cross-court groundstrokes for an hour, and then serving for 15 minutes before playing practice sets. However, when they go to the tournament, they get down an early break or two, and the first set is gone.
The second step to elevating your game is to truly practice like you're playing a match! To do this, you have to come out swinging, not just literally, but also mentally. Have you ever seen a boxer when he enters the ring right before a fight? His fight song is blasting as he enters the ring, all lathered up, bouncing around, throwing jabs in the air and he is ready to rumble. If a boxer is static, his muscles and mind are cold, and he is not ready to go, all it takes is one hard punch to knock him out!
The third and final step to starting off on the right foot is to make sure that your body is fully prepared for the fight. This includes keeping well-hydrated, in top physical shape and having your body completely warmed up. To get your heart racing and your head in the game, I always advise players to jump rope for a few minutes right before you are about to go on. Blast your iPod with whatever gets you totally psyched up. Get a little sweaty, and most of all, get your nervous energy out.
Starting your tournaments off on the right foot isn’t easy, but by making a point to practice hard, maintaining a positive attitude and always coming out for your match like a caged lion, you will discover that it’s much easier to find your rhythm.