Stay in Control

by: Sian Beilock | February 28, 2012

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When things go wrong on the court, don’t lose your mind. Walk away.

Late in the second set of a much-anticipated semifinal at the 2009 U.S. Open, Serena Williams stepped up to serve against Kim Clijsters. Williams had already lost the first set 6-4 and you know what happened next: A line judge called Williams for a foot fault. The call, so late in the match, angered Williams, who approached the official, waving the ball and screaming. The outburst cost Williams $10,000, a point penalty on the final point, and with it, the match.

It’s no secret that when we find ourselves in stressful situations, our ability to inhibit our emotions can be impaired. But why? One reason is that, under pressure, our prefrontal cortex stops working the way it should. This very front part of our brain is a major source of our inhibitory powers. Usually, the prefrontal cortex helps us keep what we want in mind and what we don’t want out—in part, by keeping the emotional centers of our brain (such as the amygdala) in check. When we lose our temper or say something we shouldn’t in times of stress, it’s often a sign that our prefrontal cortex isn’t able to regulate our emotions the way it normally does. Because the prefrontal cortex develops well into our early 20s, kids often have a hard time keeping their emotions in check. Under pressure, the adult brain can regress back to a more child-like state.

Fortunately, there are some pretty simple things you can do to prevent those tantrums after a bad call, whether you are an adult who sometimes acts like a child or a kid who is in need of all the inhibitory control he or she can muster. The first is to pause your reaction—to walk away for a moment. After the foot fault call, Williams actually began to prepare for her next serve before she stopped and walked up to the line judge. There is a good chance that Williams would have been better off had she walked away from the service line and paused for a moment.

Taking a step back helps people see a problem from a new perspective, which can refuel our ability to control our emotions. Keep in mind that, in this step away, you don’t want to focus too much on the details of your next serve because taking time to dwell on the minutia of your movements can be a bad thing. But, when you feel a tantrum coming on, stepping back and focusing on, say, an upcoming strategy (e.g., where you are going to play the next ball to take control of the game) can help take your mind off a bad call or a particularly annoying error.

Second, merely knowing that your inhibitory control can be compromised under stress and that you may become more reactive can actually make you less likely to lose your temper. When we are better able to interpret our reactions for what they are—a derailed prefrontal cortex rather than a racquet-smashing response that’s justified by whatever has outraged us—our emotions are less likely to get the best of us. It turns out that knowledge is power in the heat of battle.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and the author of the book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.



Originally published in the November/December 2011 issue of TENNIS.

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