17 May 2019

On-court stress - the sweet solution

If you suffer from match anxiety, could chocolate be the answer? Local Tennis League player and student Edward Stolliday is doing some research to find out – and he wants your help

If Edward Stolliday has a stressful day, he goes home and has some sugar. Ideally, this is in the form chocolate, preferably Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. “Maybe it’s the texture, but it calms me down.”

Describing himself as “a very stressful person who gets really anxious,” Stolliday is very interested in mental health, loves food in general and chocolate in particular. So when it came to doing his dissertation for his MSc in Sport & Exercise Nutrition at Westminster University, Stolliday, who is also a tennis coach, put his favourite things together: could chocolate help reduce anxiety in tennis players?

“To my knowledge, this is new research. Chocolate has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety but I wanted to put it into an exercise-related situation and track people’s stress levels to see if there is a reduction.”  He is now looking for chocolate-loving, male tennis players to take part in his trial.

The chocolate will be dark, with a high percentage of cocoa, and the study conducted over 3 days with a ‘control’ session, followed by two experiments. Participants will be hooked up to monitors to test key indicators like heart rate and blood pressure.

Edward, who played in the Portsmouth Tennis League for a couple of years, has not tried the experiment on himself yet. “I used to listen to music before playing my matches. But if the connection between eating chocolate and reduced stress is proved, it could be useful for people in all kinds of circumstances." 

Edward’s study will be conducted at the University of Exeter in Devon. If you are interested, please contact him on 07927 740 201 or by email w1711653@my.westminster.ac.uk


Until the study is completed, what is the best way to cope with match-stress (or how to prevent a Kyrgios-style meltdown)

1 Listen to music

Edward was on to something. Music is a good motivator for performance. Think Rocky (Lleyton Hewitt was a big fan).

2 Get prepared

“Two fundamental psychological skills that all (and I do mean all) athletes use, are visualisation [the pictures you have in your mind as you approach a performance situation] and self-talk [the dialogue you have with yourself]," writes Dr Steve Bull in his book, The Game Plan. “You simply must visualise success [or imagine yourself executing your shots well] and think positively.”

3 Frame instructions to yourself in positive terms

Think: “Hit deep to their backhand” not “Don’t screw up.” You can’t perform a negative instruction. If someone tells you not to think of pink elephants, pink elephants are all you can think of.

4 Mood repair

Having a bad day? Research shows two things work: re-call a happy memory or distract yourself by for example, focusing on your technique, looking for opportunities to come to the net or keep trying things until you find your opponent's weakness

5  Identify the stressors

Does playing someone you think you should beat make you anxious? Playing someone you don’t know? Being on strange new courts? Once you know the triggers, you can prepare for how best to overcome them.

6 Get into the right frame of mind

What were you thinking in your worst ever match? And in your best? Get into the emotional state that works for you in the days leading up to your match.

7 Cultivate a ‘growth mindset’

People with fixed mindsets believe ‘you either have it or you don’t,” says Dr Carol Dweck, author of Mindset. Those with a growth mindset understand anything can be learned or improved. It’s about effort, learning from mistakes, enjoying the challenge and perseverance.

8 Try ‘Brad Gilbert’s nerve busters’

The author of Winning Ugly recommends the following to cope with match stress: breathe deeply, get on your toes (‘nerves make your feet stick to the court like you’ve got Velcro on the bottom of your shoes’); look for the brandname on the ball (marvellous for focus); sing to yourself – and during pressure points in a match, focus on your game plan. “What am I trying to do with this serve? What am I looking to take advantage of in my opponent’s shot...by thinking about that, I am not thinking about nerves.”  

9 Learn instant stress relief

The quickest way to reduce stress is to engage one of the five senses, says the website Helpguide.org  If you are playing in the park, that might mean admiring at a tree, listening to the birds or smelling or savouring some food you have brought with you. “Like any skill, learning how to ease stress in the moment takes time, experimentation and practice - but the payoff is huge.”

10 Get mindful

Mindfulness and meditation can improve mental wellbeing says the NHS website. Learn it online at Be Mindful, the brilliantly designed Headspace or try it free at Helpguide.org

Main pic Roger Federer visits the headquarters of Lindt & Sprüngli in Switzerland