How to Manage Emotions During Tennis Matches

During a tennis match players are going through a whole host of emotions. Everything from happiness to anger to sadness is probably felt throughout the course of a match and normally regardless of the score. Finding out where these emotions come from, accepting them and then acting in the correct manner, are all skills that tennis players need to develop.

The human brain is recognized as the most complex system in the known universe so when talking about it, simplifications are necessary. So what follows is an attempt to present a simplified model which gives us a perspective on feelings and suggests ways of managing them.

Where do Feeling/Emotions come from? ‘The Tiger’

The human brain has evolved over millions of years to become the multiple faceted super computer that separates us from other living organisms in the world. As we evolved as species, our brain has adapted to cope with the new environments. In the earlier stages, we had a brain we now refer to as the sub-cortex or what we like to nickname ‘the tiger’. This is where all our instincts and feelings come from. It is in charge of keeping us alive and safe, and is always on the alert for threats. When we are born our sub-cortex is already wired up with our instincts and feelings, and just like the tiger, we act out our feelings. If the tiger wants to sleep it sleeps, if it wants to eat it eats, just like infant children.  Obviously as time went on we evolved to realise that acting on these feelings could be detrimental to our safety rather than helpful as we began to group together into tribes, societies and then onto states and countries. As we became more evolved the neo-cortex developed to help humans with planning, reasoning and thinking logically, and above all, managing the ‘tiger’.

The Neo-Cortex ‘The Human’

At birth, the neo-cortex is not ‘wired up’ to the same extent as the sub-cortex: it is basically a blank canvas ready to be painted on! It needs to be wired up to help us with all those skills we associate with being human like planning, reasoning and thinking logically, but it is also responsible for the physical skills we develop. As tennis players, our strokes, movement and every other motor pattern that gives us the ability to hit the ball consistently and to a certain level, has to be wired up. These skills take time to develop which is why we go to school, are taught manners and society etiquette, and practice tennis skills for years and years to reach the highest level. Throughout the development of these skills we feel many emotions. If we have a good day on the practice court, we feel happy and confident that everything is going in the right direction to achieve our dream. Alternatively, if it has been a bad day, the opposite emotions may take hold; anger and feelings of desperation that we may not achieve the goals we have in the game.

Managing the Tiger and the Human

So as humans we have both  a cortex and a sub-cortex (‘tiger’). It is the sophistication of our cortex that separates us from animals and has allowed us to develop the society and culture we have over the centuries. However, we still have ‘the tiger’ inside us and often (some more often than others) we succumb to the tiger and act out our feelings. Whenever we act or say something instinctively, which in hindsight we know was not right, this is the tiger expressing itself.

So how do we control the tiger? Answer: the same way we learn forehands; we must practice the mental skills that will help to manage it.

The first step is to figure out what we are feeling and acknowledge it for what it is. We should never be ashamed of it, as we cannot control whether we have these feelings or not. Difficult feelings such as fear, anxiety or anger are the result of our sub-cortex sensing our safety is being threatened. Once acknowledged and accepted, we must try to be aware of what the feeling is ‘driving’ us to do in this moment and what other options we have. This is where our logic and mental training should kick in and enable us to make a decision and choose the best option. If we feel wronged by someone and we feel like striking them, we know that this action may affect our future life so we have to make the logical decision to deal with this feeling without physical violence.

The Tiger During a Tennis Match

The tiger will come out at some stage during a tennis match, but the tiger must be managed for us to achieve high performance results in tennis. If we are having a terrible match which we feel is far below our expected level, we may be feeling anger, sadness, anxiousness, as it looks like we may lose this match. Losing could result in an angry reaction from our coach and/or parents. Further, our peers may start to criticise us and think we are no good at tennis. All of these feelings are taken as threats to our safety or, in our society, to our public image. Not being able to manage these feelings could result in a player ‘acting out’ in negative way. Smashing balls into the fence, throwing rackets, screaming, swearing and tanking are all actions of players that cannot manage the difficult feelings driving them to act in this way. Mental coaches in tennis use many techniques to help players through these difficult moments; visualisation and forms of mediation are a couple that are used with top players on the women’s and men’s pro tours.

Visualisation

This is the act of imagining an image or desired result, which in turn helps you to cope with the emotions during the process of trying to achieve that result. When I played I use to get very nervous in tight situations. Some would say I was prone to a choke! Big situations at the business end of matches used to get to me. In 2003, England beat Australia in the rugby world cup final (unfortunately) in a very memorable match. With time almost up at the end of the game, England led Australia by 14-11.  The Aussies were then awarded a penalty, which if converted would be worth 3 points and take the final into extra time. Elton Flatley, the kicker for the Wallabies, stepped up and kicked straight through the middle. While watching this kick, I was a bundle of nerves hoping for a positive result for my nation. Conversely, Flatley looked calm and collected, even though there were 100,000 people watching in the stadium and millions all around the world. From this moment, whenever I felt nervous during a big situation in a tennis match, I visualised this penalty kick and immediately felt at ease. I felt no matter how big the situation was in my match it would never be as big as that moment for Flatley and the Aussies.

Fast forward to now. A player of mine was competing recently and feeling like she was always the bridesmaid and never the bride when it came to big tournament wins. Before her next event she heard that 37 year old Radek Stepanek from the Czech republic didn’t win his first ATP tour event until he was 27 years old – having been on the tour for almost 10 years before then. This image put her at ease and allows her to play tennis with freedom. And you know what, she won that next tournament! All of us I’m sure have images and memories like this, so finding one for yourself (or indeed many to suit specific occasions) will help to manage certain feelings and difficult moments in a tennis match.

Meditation

Meditation, which is allied to visualisation, is another important technique that enables us to manage feelings. Research shows that it improves our ability to focus our attention and shut out sensations that are extraneous to the task in hand. It also trains us to be able to identify what we are feeling, calm these feelings when necessary and even turn them to our advantage.

Novak Djokovic is a big advocate of meditation. He apparently does it religiously every day to manage his emotions. Looking from the outside, you can see he has become more and more in control over the years. In his younger days he could let situations in matches get to him: the crowd, the opponent, not feeling well, the umpiring and so on. These instances are few and far between in the 2016 Djokovic, and are very much contributing to his increasing domination of the men’s game. The development of his meditation skills over the years has allowed Novak to manage the difficult feelings that everyone has in a match, and then act in a positive way that will help him achieve the outcome he craves. He has said many times that he doesn’t try to put these feelings away – he acknowledges them, and then behaves in the correct way. The Serb goes into a zone (the subject of a future article) where everything is focused on one target; winning this match. Recently in Rome, he was so much in the zone he didn’t realise he had broken a string, even after numerous attempts from the umpire and his team to get his attention! This is focus to the highest level – a skill that takes years and years to develop. But we all have to start somewhere! Focusing solely on your breathing is a good start. If you can do this more often between points in matches, you will begin to develop the art of mediation.

Summary

As humans, we are going to feel many emotions when we are in the heat of battle (e.g. a tennis match). We must not think these emotions are bad; they are normal and part of the way we have evolved, being indicators of our state of safety (happy – we feel safe; angry –  we feel threatened). However as tennis players, we must learn to manage them, because if we don’t, the ‘tiger’ will run loose and threaten to compromise our objective: being the best player we can be.

 

Special thanks to Ray Weedon for his contribution to the ideas of this article.

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