I used to be a runner. In high school and university I played competitive basketball and ran for a supplemental workout. After my basketball days ended, I took up running as a way to stay in shape. And in 2007 I joined a running group that was training for a marathon.
Before I knew it I was doing hill workouts, dreading 6am tempo runs, listening to entire audiobooks while doing my Sunday morning long runs, and never staying up past 9pm. And in May of 2008, I lined up for my first (and only!) marathon. This was one of my first encounters with something I now dread on the tennis court: adrenaline.
Adrenaline in Running – Good or Bad
I’ve tried in vain to block that marathon from memory. I went out too fast (after being told by literally everyone who had ever run a marathon that going out too fast is the #1 rookie-marathoner mistake), spent the 2nd half getting passed by what felt like the rest of the field, ran the last 15K with what I would find out later was a severe hip flexor strain (differentiating between normal marathon pain and actual injury is very hard, which can make it a dangerous activity if, like me, you don’t know what you’re doing), and couldn’t run for nearly a year afterwards.
My memory of that day is, unfortunately, pretty clear. And while most of the experience was, well, terrible, there were a few bright patches: Being part of that crowd of excited, motivated runners at the start was pretty special, and crossing the finish line only 5 minutes over my goal time (even with that strained hip flexor and cramping calves and knowing I missed Boston qualifying by 3 minutes) was a huge accomplishment.
But the absolute best part of running that marathon was the feeling I had for the first 10K: That I could literally run as fast as I wanted forever.
Ok, I knew that I should expect to feel that way. I had run shorter distance races during my training, and the first few kilometres of all of them had that same feeling: Running invincibility. But to feel like that for 10 whole kilometres was something I’ll never forget.
What causes us to feel so good at the beginning of a race? The good feeling doesn’t start before the race; as anyone who has raced knows, the pre-race jitters can be pretty uncomfortable. But once that gun goes off, once you press ‘start’ on your Garmin and surge forward with the crowd, the nerves transform into what feels like boundless energy. This is the work of adrenaline.
Fight or Flight
When our brains sense danger, they activate the “fight or flight” system in our bodies. Our brains prepare our bodies to run from a tiger or fight it off with a homemade spear. Among other superhero-like effects, our breathing quickens, blood redistributes away from non-essential functions like digestion and towards our muscles and limbs, we don’t feel pain as intensely, and we become hyper-aware of our surroundings. We perceive the friendly runner next to us as a threat and imagine tearing off her newer model Garmin and stomping on it (actually, newer research says this last one might depend on if you’re a woman or man – more on that in a future post).
This effect is awesome in running. With some control, runners can learn to use pre-race nerves to help them run faster for longer, which is one reason PRs (personal records for any non-runners) are often achieved during races rather than training. I say that some control must be used, as the effect is temporary and you still need to pace your energy output to make sure you’re not out of gas and fighting with your brain to let you run a few steps further with 20 kilometres to run (like I was in my marathon). Adrenaline can also interfere with your technique and cause you to expend more energy than necessary or lead to injury.
Adrenaline in Tennis – Not so Good
Ok, so how does this affect us in tennis? Does it make our feet move faster? Can we play 24 shot rallies without breaking a sweat? Do we see our opponents’ movements in our peripherals with crystal clarity so we can adjust our targets?
Unfortunately, while some aspects of our games might improve (we can hit the ball harder, play through our tennis elbow pain and get to a drop shot we might ordinarily not), fight or flight reduces our fine motor skills, which are essential for tennis (but not for fighting off tigers). Also, that extra strength and speed that can be so useful in a weightlifting competition or footrace, can completely throw off our timing in tennis. Plus if we don’t control our breathing we can get tired a lot faster, and adrenaline-induced excessive sweating can cause dehydration if we’re not careful. And the icing on the cake is that our minds go into overdrive, making it even more difficult to achieve the relaxed focus so crucial for tennis performance.
Some people have stronger fight or flight reactions than others. My husband sees competition as a challenge, a chance to put his skills to the test, an opportunity to engage in battle. I’m on the other end of the spectrum: I tend to break out in a nervous sweat if I see a spider across the room, and my tennis nerves are much worse.
Needless to say, adrenaline does not work in my favour in tennis. My racquet feels foreign in my hands, I have to catch every other service ball toss, my feet are heavy and glued to the court (I’m more of a deer in headlights, hoping the tiger just doesn’t spot me I guess), and I forget that I’ve ever been able to hit a fairly decent forehand.
My Mind races: I’m pretty sure my opponent is a former tour player as she is literally incapable of missing a shot. If I do manage to win a point I believe it’s by sheer luck and there is no way I will win another. And lose a point? I might as well quit now, I’m losing the match anyway (doesn’t matter that I’m up 5-1).
My progression in tennis over the past few years has been largely focused on technique. As this side of my game has improved, a few things have changed. First, I’m learning that I perform differently in practice and in matches. And second, As my experience grows so do my expectations for myself and I get increasingly frustrated when I perform poorly.
What Do We Do About It? (When I figure it out I’ll let you know)
To address this, a major area of focus for me right now is preventing this adrenaline rush from interfering with my game. The great players on tour right now – Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, Serena and Sharapova all come to mind as players who can play relaxed under extreme pressure, and they all use different strategies to do this. I’ve been reading books on sport psychology – some written specifically about tennis and some not – and also some popular non-sport psychology books. This blog will highlight a lot of what I’m learning and track my personal experiences with implementing various strategies or learning to adjust my mindset.
Oh and just to clarify, I have nothing but respect for runners. I think running is an awesome (and challenging!) sport that gets people active and can lead to great friendships and a lifelong passion for training and competition. I know that when I ran that marathon I was a relative beginner and I suffered so much largely because I didn’t have a good understanding of the training/recovery requirements. While I no longer consider myself a runner, I still enjoy the occasional relaxing run.
Do you struggle with adrenaline in tennis? I’d love to hear what you do to address it. This is a major barrier for a lot of us that prevents us from consistently playing our best tennis and getting the most enjoyment and satisfaction from the sport. Stay tuned for more.