Tennis in Serbia was very much played as an individual sport in my junior days. All tournaments had a singles format only. My coaches were busy at the academy so they seldom attended my matches. I was left at the mercy of riding alone in the car, and to my own thoughts about feeling anxious.
At first, I started to experience anxiety only on the day of the match. I did not know how to handle it so I tried the most common self-talk : “oh come on don’t be ridiculous, don’t be such a coward, it’s only tennis’. Later on it became :’ Why am I feeling this way ? What the hell is going on ?”
I was trying so hard to convince myself that this is just a game and that everything will be alright. None of it worked. Feeling anxious became normal to me. I expected myself to feel this way on game day. I became very good at feeling anxious, I was actually the expert at it. As the Director of High Performance at Intensity, Ryan Ginley, says : ‘ Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent’. This is how I felt, like I was practicing how to be anxious.
Thoughts of feeling anxious for the upcoming weekend tournament started to enter my mind at the beginning of the week. I was not even aware how difficult dealing with this was going to be. It was like thunder before the storm. The weekend anxiety was just a warning for what was coming after. I started feeling it the moment I would sign up for a tournament. I felt I had a package deal, if I sign up for a tournament I get to take anxiety with me, like a bonus point. I felt completely overwhelmed. I could not stop thinking about it day after day, at school, and at home. I had trouble falling asleep as I kept thinking about my match and how I was going to fall apart. During the day, I had trouble eating as my stomach would close up and I would lose my appetite the second I thought about the weekend.
Escaping into my own mind was clearly not a solution so I started seeking advice from my parents and coaches. Both sides had the best intention to help me. My parents would tell me to just have fun and go out there and do my best. I understood but could not feel that way at all. I could not even smile in a tennis match let alone have a good time.
My coaches were telling me to pretend it’s just practice. This definitely did not make any sense to me because if it was practice I could easily play against the best player at the academy. But it wasn’t practice. I did not know how to handle anxiety in a match situation. I got frustrated. I spoke to my teammates who would go as far as the finals and some even won big tournaments. None of them seemed to experience what I was feeling. I felt so alone and alienated.
I reverted back to my own mind for counsel. I started to imagine my best performance every Friday night while listening to music. I would relax more and get a spur of confidence here and there. I was trying as hard as I could to make myself perceive the upcoming match as ‘just a game’. I got so excited and happy when I accomplished that, which is quite sad actually. I would fall asleep with a happy thought. However, once I woke up…BAM, back to reality, back to my old anxiety again. On the day of the match, I started to hope my opponent would not show up. This was the only way to pass into the next round. I felt miserable, pathetic and most of all, hopeless. I had all this talent and skills but could not use any of it. I stopped seeing the point behind playing tennis and training. So, I did what I tell my players today to never, ever ,do… I quit the sport. That moment was the beginning of a lifelong change I was about to experience…
Stay tuned for Nikola’s next blog, where he explains how this decision impacted his life!
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