Stage Fright - How to Handle Competition Nerves

by Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3

August 2023

Understanding the various stages of a match and how to play them will help calm those nerves and help you focus on better shot selection and smarter tactical plays.

Are you one of the growing number of players wanting to get more competitive with your tennis? Do you want to move on from pick-up games to playing league or team matches, or even entering local or provincial events?

'The Competitive Edge' by lifelong player and coach Adrian Coles, features easy to digest tips and strategies to help keen recreational competitors play smarter. Improving stroke technique certainly helps but that requires a great deal of deliberate practice. A quicker way is to sharpen tactical skills whilst still using the strokes you've already got! He will cover topics often overlooked or even glossed over in on court instruction when hitting lots of balls is what is appreciated most.

This ONTENNIS exclusive series is a must-read for anyone who plays tennis at the recreational level and is interested in optimizing their match-play competitive experience. To access the other stories in the series, visit

The ONTENNIS Competitive Edge Series, Part 3:

Stage Fright - How to Handle Competition Nerves.

Are you starting to play more competitive tennis? Do you get a little anxious at the thought of facing an unknown opponent? Are you fearful of not playing up to your normal level? Understanding the various stages of a match and how to play them will help calm those nerves and help you focus on better shot selection and smarter tactical plays.

Can you rise to the occasion?

Stage 1 - Warm-up, first impressions.

The first stage is the on-court pre-match warm up; either five minutes when there is an official or umpire, or more usually, when there is no on-court official, ten to fifteen minutes at the discretion of the tournament director. Use this time to form an initial impression of your opponent. Is there anything that immediately jumps out at you? Left-handed? Strongest shot? Weakest? What about movement? Preferred strike height? What about spin? Net confidence? Big serve? Try to play steadily, the more you hit back at your opponent, the more you might learn. This is not the time to try to impress your opponent with your best shots. Hit at your 'control speed' to show confidence.

Stage 2 - Before you start playing.

At the end of the warm-up take some time to reflect, collect your thoughts and come up with a few assumptions you would like to test in the opening three games. Ideally, sit down, get organized and take a few deep breaths.

Take a moment to decide which is their strongest side, backhand or forehand? How much spin? How much speed? Plan A: play steadily, don't go for high-risk shots, and see what happens. Even if you have played this opponent before, it is how they are playing today, at this moment, that matters.

Stage 3 - The First Three Games - Test Your Opponent.

Take this time to get used to the speed of the court, the ambient atmosphere (direct sun, wind, distractions, etc.). It may be tempting to try to dominate your opponent right from the start, but trying to hit winners before you have really got going is risky. Short points mean you see your opponent hit fewer shots, and you also hit fewer balls. To learn more, and get yourself feeling the ball better, try to prolong the rallies to check your opponent's movement, preferred strokes, patterns etc.

Stage 4 - The changeover break, after the first three games.

Taking a break as you change ends may be uncommon in casual or pick-up games, but it is an important part of competitive tennis. There is a saying: “Tennis is played between the lines and between the ears!” This is your thinking time! Don't let an unscrupulous or over-friendly opponent distract you with chatter! Plenty of time for that after the match! Reflect on the first three games. How is it going? Easier than you thought? Or tougher? Do you need to try anything different? Be steadier? More aggressive? How are points being won or lost? Are any patterns emerging? Are serves always going to your backhand? Opponent never coming to the net? What haven't you tested yet? Have you changed the pace? Hit short? What is your plan for the next 2 games?

Stage 5 - Keep asking the questions.

As you progress through the contest use the changeover breaks to reflect on what is happening. Just take it, two games at a time. There are two questions to ask yourself. What do I need to do to hold the next service game? What do I need to do to break serve? The more you learn about your opponent, the better your answers will be. Keep interested in the match if it is very one-sided, either in your favour or theirs. A never-give-up attitude is one of the attributes of good players! And it will serve you in future matches! Expect there to be changes in momentum.

Keep focused on the present, and don't fret about previous lost points. Take your time, take deep breaths to relax, and enjoy the process!


Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3 and Tennis Analytics Certified Technical Analyst, brings a wide variety of perspectives to his new series 'The Competitive Edge' based on his decades of involvement in playing, coaching and managing. His success as a top British junior player, plus his time as the touring coach for his world ranked daughter, enable him to offer useful insights to players aspiring to compete in local, provincial or national events. Having witnessed the evolution of the game from the beginnings of Open Tennis to its current iteration, Adrian is familiar with many different styles of play giving options to players of different ages, interest levels and abilities. His passion is to help as many players as possible get the most out of this wonderful sport of a lifetime.

Do you have a favourite tip you would like to share, or a topic you would like us to cover? Please let us know via email at:, and don’t forget to practice your match play! “Good Luck”.