Playing with Fire: The delicate role of emotion in pro and rec tennis

Playing with Fire: The delicate role of emotion in pro and rec tennis

Some players win by keeping their emotions in...others by letting them out. What’s the right amount of emotion to show?

Can fire become ice? Early in his career, John McEnroe occasionally tried to find out.

“I’m going to play like Borg today,” he would announce at practice, referring to his arch-rival Bjorn Borg.

The idea, of course, sounded preposterous. The New Yorker was McTantrum, the game’s enfant terrible. The Swede was the Angelic Assassin; a side-eye from him was the equivalent of a racquet-pulverizing tirade from anyone else. Not surprisingly, Johnny Mac’s attempts to emulate Borg didn’t last long.

What did last was the shadow their rivalry cast over the sport. The contrasts between them—attacker vs. defender, stoic vs. grouch—made their matchup the most iconic of the Open era. Forty years later, we can see a similar split at the top of the game: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal win by keeping their emotions under control; Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams win by letting them out. All of which leaves the rest of us with questions. How much emotion is too much to show? Does letting off steam help us relax, or does it enrage us further? Is there a way to do what McEnroe never could: fuse fire and ice into a winning combination?

Before we try to solve those tennis-related dilemmas, we should step back and look at the age-old concept behind them: catharsis. The Greeks defined it as the process of releasing negative emotions by acting them out. In modern terms, it’s known as “blowing off steam.” A tennis match, where some form of frustration is acted out after virtually every point, would seem to be an ideal format for witnessing the process in action.

But does all of our venting actually do us any good? According to some psychology studies, the idea that aggressively expressing your frustration will help you release it is a myth. In one experiment from 1999, a group of participants were provoked into anger; afterward, some were given a chance to hit a punching bag for two minutes, while others did nothing. Then the whole group came together to play a competitive game. Contrary to the “blowing off steam” theory, it was the people who had punched the bag that continued to act aggressively during competition.

If we can’t take our rage out on our racquets, what’s the best way to deal with it on court? Frank Giampaolo, author of Championship Tennis, suggests we try a more cautionary metaphor than “letting off steam.”

“Anger is like fire,” Giampaolo says. “Fire managed can help cook your meals and heat your home. Unmanaged, it can burn your house down.”

Alexandra Guhde, a clinical psychologist who has worked with tour players, says it’s important to distinguish between emotions and the actions we use to express them.

“Anger and frustration are great allies on court. They’re passionate emotions,” she says. “Often, in [my] work with professional athletes, it centers on helping them welcome the experience of frustration, so they get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Comfortable enough, in other words, not to lash out.

“What happens when we smash a racquet or knock a ball out of the court is that we rehearse our rage,” Guhde says. “We practice it against ourselves, encourage our negative self-talk to get louder, treat ourselves with contempt. That’s not a good way to keep the confidence flowing!”

Dr. Jim Loehr, a co-founder of the Human Performance Institute in Florida, says the danger in acting out your anger is that it can become a habit.

“The brain is constantly adapting,” Loehr says. “If you chuck your racquet, you’ve opened a door, and started to train your mind that this is acceptable. Your motor skills and problem solving suffer under the influence of anger.”

According to Loehr, expressing your emotions is a normal response to nervousness. Even the best players choke, he says, but they learn to control their anxiety. Just as important, they learn to fuel themselves from their positive emotions, rather than their rage. Watch Serena and Djokovic closely and you’ll see that it’s their fist-pumps, rather than their racquet-smashes, that typically signal their return to top form.

That’s easier said than done, right? But just because you don’t have the talent of a world No. 1 doesn’t mean you can’t learn to make your emotions work for you.

Here are four ways to do just that—none of which will leave your racquet in tatters.

1. Prepare mentally the same way you do physically

According to Loehr, emotional management begins before you get to the court.

“You need to look at all the variables in someone’s performance,” he says. “You can choke because you’re not properly hydrated, or if you haven’t slept enough. If you’re not physically ready for a match, you won’t be as mentally ready, and you’ll get nervous and frustrated more easily. It may look like you’re just gagging, but there’s so much more to it.”

2. Focus on what you can control

Too often, we deflect our anger onto things that are out of our hands—the wind, sun, noise, bad bounces, our opponent’s lucky line-clippers.

“When athletes struggle to control their frustration, I try to get them to step back and determine the true source of the anger,” Giampaolo says. “Is it an untrustworthy backhand, or impatience, or a tendency to play too fast? From there, you can find individualized solutions.”

Treat your reactions to adversity the same way you do your serve, backhand or forehand—i.e., something to analyze, practice and improve.

3. Welcome frustration

Adversity in tennis is inevitable, and so are the feelings that come with it. The question is: Are you using them positively or negatively?

“When I work with players learning to channel their anger, I like to refer to a book by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Fight,” Guhde says. “He talks about how to use anger skillfully, which is not to whip it into a frenzy of aggression. If you don’t welcome it, you won’t be able to encourage it to pass through your system.”

4. Don’t give yourself time to get negative

Loehr developed a system in the 1980s called “The 16-second Cure.” This was the amount of time he believed a player needed to recover from the stress of the previous point, and reset for the next one.

After watching what the top pros did between rallies, he broke those 16 seconds into four segments, to be repeated before every point:

—Start with positive body language, throw your shoulders back and walk purposefully.
—Relax by walking around a little and looking at your strings, so your eyes have a place to rest.
—Prepare for the next point by training a confident gaze across the net as you decide where to hit your first shot.
—Go through your serve or return rituals.

And if you still get the urge to smash your racquet or let out a primal scream, remember what McEnroe himself said recently. Without his tirades, he told the Associated Press, he “would have been a 40 percent more boring player.” But he “would have been 20 percent better.”