Unnatural Selection

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 /by

Everybody above the age of 8 knows that self-destructive emotions make players lose. Coaches discuss with their players the obvious need for emotional control, but despite their understanding of consequences, they are rarely able to eschew the negative emotions that sabotage their play. They often start out in command of their emotions, but later, after an hour of heated competition and missed opportunities, destructive emotions rear their ugly heads—choice expletives erupt or heads droop. Why? Aren’t we intelligent creatures? Can’t we foresee that this behavior will lead to the inevitable debacle? Of course we can, but at that moment, we don’t care. Satisfying our emotional needs takes precedence over our intelligent determination to win the match. Understanding why this sequence of events is so difficult to change requires a deeper look at the relationship between our intelligent minds and our emotional systems.

We think our intelligent brains are driving our ships because we use them all of our waking hours to think and plan. We know we have an emotional system that interferes occasionally, but we believe, because we are the smartest creatures on the planet, that it’s secondary to our intelligence. In reality, it’s quite the opposite.

Emotions are the behind-the-scenes drivers of most of our behaviors. They set the direction, while the intelligent, thinking parts of our brains are tools, like our hands and feet, that are used to satisfy the needs of our emotional systems (as well as our basic physiological needs). Much of this was genetically hard-wired thousands of years ago when we lived in primitive, small tribes because of its survival value. For example, we are emotionally programmed to love our children, so our intelligent minds go to work keeping their hands away from hot stoves, getting them good educations, and making sure they wear sweaters on cold nights. This love helped keep our genes in the gene pool.

Another example involves our social nature. We’re emotionally driven to occupy a high position relative to our fellows. Other creatures achieve it by winning fights, which is what a tennis match is, other than you can’t hit your opponent. High ranking would have been adaptive because it would have provided better access to food, territory and mates, all of which help move genes into future generations. So our emotional systems are programmed to feel it’s important to win fights (and tennis matches).

Nature designed our emotional systems for short fights, not tennis matches where we have to exert fine motor control under stress for hours. So our emotional drives in competitive matches are mostly counterproductive. For example, players are emotionally driven to reduce high and unpleasant stress when they are losing by tanking or rationalizing (i.e. they can claim they don’t care if they win). And they react to frustration with anger.

All of this is normal. In fact, the players that don’t do this—the great champions— are the abnormal ones. Overpowering these emotions with our intelligent brain is more difficult and takes high motivation, determination and constant vigilance. It is hard to do for long periods of time and particularly when you become tired. Most players cannot do it for an entire match, and certainly not every match. But it’s worth the effort, and as diff icult as it may be, it’s better than losing.


Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfi nalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.

(Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Tennis magazine.)

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