Fearless Tennis: Channel your anger

Fearless Tennis

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

I have frequently been asked whether some anger in competition is normal, if not positive. The key is learning how to place your ego on the shelf and channel your energy effectively. While some anger has proven to actually improve performance in specific instances, there are many more examples where it has been destructive. First, let’s look at what ignites the anger fuse.

Typically, anger on the court is caused by a threat to one’s ego. For example, it can occur when we make mistakes at critical times in a match or are losing—the most common factors that create negative emotion—because they make us think that we are failing. That is, our expectations are not being met in the moment (of course, there is always the possibility that the stress buildup off the court is a major contributor). Th is judgment and reaction to errors or “lost opportunities” create further tension and anxiety, which begins to hurt performance. However, we must be careful not to assume and label this type of reaction as negative unless our performance declines. Typically, when anger levels have reached a critical point, we may either begin overhitting, tanking, or making more mistakes, which, of course, only fuels the anger pump further. As our arousal levels rise, fluid strokes with proper biomechanics, effective strategy, and mental calmness become almost impossible to maintain.

Why then do we see some athletes actually performing at even higher levels when it is obvious that they are angry? To answer this question, let’s observe the following scenario.

Jim is playing somebody he knows he can beat. But in this particular match he is down 4–3 in the first set and, from his perspective, playing rather poorly. At ad-out, after a long rally, he misses a relatively easy forehand (his strength) and goes down 5–3. Upon missing the forehand, Jim becomes incensed. He angrily screams to the heavens, “God, c’mon. Let’s go!” But the scream has elements of extreme competitiveness in it. It has a different quality to it—not defeated or hopeless, but determined and competitive. Jim is absorbed in the match, pouring his heart out on every point and challenging himself. As you watch Jim play the next point after this outburst, you notice that he plays even more aggressively. You will not hear another outburst from Jim for quite a while, perhaps not until there is another important point he badly wants.

In the above scenario, Jim seems to be unaffected by his “passing” anger. Rather, the emotion is a reflection of his desire to play well and win, not of lasting disappointment and despair. In fact, Jim may even play better due to a rise in intensity, which makes him move his feet more quickly and helps him loosen up and go for his shots. If he can maintain this level of intensity and focus throughout the match without getting overly aroused for too long, he may play even better. The key is not to let your anger contaminate the next point.

However, in most instances, these emotional outbursts actually do contaminate your overall quality of play, affecting subsequent points and the match results. In the final analysis, it boils down to the quality of the anger, which is either fueled by challenge or by unrealistic expectations and despair. If it is the latter of the two, the problem is no longer a psychological one; it becomes a physical issue. When players become angry and negative, the body responds with a fight-or-flight response, sending a chemical known as cortisol to the brain, which creates muscle tension. And you know what muscle tension does to your strokes.

The ultimate question you have to ask yourself is whether your emotional reaction on the court, especially anger, hurts or helps your performance.

The best mentality on the court is to be so focused and absorbed in competition so you can have fun and go for your shots. Then anger becomes highly unlikely because of your involvement in the flow of your movements. As the pros often (though not always) demonstrate, errors are a natural part of any match. They don’t become overly preoccupied with their winning passing shots—unless it is a critical point—nor do they blow up after missed opportunities. Their shots, points, and match results unfold over the course of the match, and they are keenly aware how their composure and reactions impact the momentum of every match. Andre Agassi, after the Australian Open in 2002, summed it up this way:

There’s a time to enjoy the good shots and a time to get upset about what happened, but it’s not when you’re out there. The question you’ve got to ask yourself and answer is how do I make this the most difficult on my opponent, because he’s struggling as much as you are. He’s having to beat you, too, and the only way to do that is to think about the next point. It’s quite a profound simplicity.

Agassi, in particular, became a master at literally turning his back after an error. He, like so many successful players, recognized how destructive anger can be during a match.

When you hit the court, take your high energy and competitiveness and channel it into every point. Keep the negative emotions off the court, and if you do reach a boiling point, try to turn this high energy into more competitiveness and pinpoint focus on the task at hand. When you get absorbed in the joy of hitting the ball, relishing the opportunity to challenge yourself, and keeping your ego caged in, you will no longer be a slave to your anger.