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Allen Fox: “Beware of Counterproductive Emotions”

Fri, Oct 12, 2012

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Allen Fox: “Beware of Counterproductive Emotions”

Written by: Allen Fox, Ph.D.

Excerpt from Tennis: Winning the Mental Match


***Dr. Allen Fox, Ph.D. psychologist from UCLA, is a former NCAA singles champion, Canadian National champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Dr. Fox also coached the Pepperdine tennis teams to two NCAA finals, including team member Martin Laurendeau, captain of the Canadian Davis Cup team.

He has authored several books, his latest, “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match,” has been acclaimed as “the best book on tennis psychology ever written.” It can be purchased on Amazon or Tennis Warehouse, or electronically on Kindle or iTunes. For more information and articles visit He is also an editor of TENNIS magazine, consults with players on mental issues, and lectures worldwide on sports psychology.***


Most of the obviously counterproductive emotional responses during tennis matches are driven by subconscious fears of failure and urges to escape the stress of competition. Darwin would have it that emotional responses generally evolve because they, in some way, enhance prospects for species survival. In other words, they are supposed to be helpful. Unfortunately, in tennis matches the opposite is usually the case. Our nervous systems were not designed to exert fine motor control for long periods of time under high stress. Certain normal emotional responses, in particular those involving escape from prolonged and excessive anxiety, frequently make players lose to opponents who are physically and technically inferior.

By its very nature, tennis is an emotional game. Of course it may not look it from the outside, but it is constructed to be a one-on-one, non-contact fistfight. It is inherently antagonistic since players use their tennis tools to break down their opponents. It is a battle of wills, where players compete for physical and mental dominance, where threat and intimidation play significant roles in victory, and where one contestant ultimately proves himself directly superior to his opponent. This makes the emotional stakes far greater than they appear. Closely-contested matches are stressful because winning them is so pleasurable and uplifting, and losing them is so painful.

Uncontrollable outcomes cause stress. For the serious tennis competitor, one who has invested countless hours honing tennis skills and who competes full-bloodedly, the emotional stakes of match-play are high. The problem is that the outcome is not controllable. It is an unpleasant fact of life that no matter how hard you train, how well you concentrate, how shrewd your game plan is, and how perfectly you control your emotions, you cannot be sure of winning against an opponent of equal ability. The scary truth of competition is that you can do everything right and still lose.

This is the structure for a fearful and uncomfortably stressful state of affairs. Essentially, you have players in a situation where one outcome is very pleasant and the other is very painful, but try as they might, they cannot control the outcome. It is a structure tailor-made for stress, anxiety, and escapism.

It is natural to try to escape from stress. The usual means of escape from the stress, uncertainty, and uncontrollability of a tennis match are: to become angry, to make excuses, to lose concentration, to focus on and complain about “problems” rather than solve them or forget them, or to simply give up. Of course it is not a conscious decision, nor is it a productive one. But it is quite normal. Any creature will become stressed and try to escape from an uncontrollable situation when the alternative outcomes are randomly pleasant (winning) or extremely painful (losing). Escape responses are natural. It is the exceedingly rare (or abnormal) individuals who can remain rational, unemotional, and practical in an important match when, despite their committed efforts, things are going wrong and the prospects of failure loom large. The vast majority cannot. Since they can’t simply pack their bags and run off the court, their alternative is to use forms of mental and emotional escapism to temporarily insulate themselves from the impending pain of defeat.

Defense mechanisms: When players elect to forget about winning in favor of making excuses, becoming blindly angry, or deciding that further efforts to win are hopeless, they are employing what Sigmund Freud identified and called “defense mechanisms.” These are unconscious distortions of perception and interpretation that protect us from unpalatable realities, and they are quite normal. Freud postulated that cold reality can force us to face stressful or frightening issues that we cannot resolve. At such times we often comfort ourselves, unconsciously, of course, by adjusting the way we see things so that these stressors appear to go away. Defense mechanisms are, in essence, soothing forms of self-delusion. The key to their effectiveness is that while we are using them, we don’t realize what we are doing.

One of the common defense mechanisms employed in tennis matches is called “rationalization.” An early example of it in literature was Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. Here, unable to reach grapes high on a trellis, the fox rationalizes that they are “sour” anyway. Since sour grapes are unpalatable, the fox is not unhappy about being unable to get them. He thus reconciles the discrepancy between his desires and capabilities. (Like the tennis player who says he doesn’t care if he wins.) As with all defense mechanisms, it works only because the fox completely believes his own story, a belief made possible because there are elements of truth in it.

Players rationalize when they unconsciously rearrange facts to produce a picture of reality that is less insecure and stressful than the real one. As with all defense mechanisms, some of the real facts in a close tennis match are unpalatable. At the top of the list is the fact that they may lose, despite their most fervent efforts to win. This is scary and stressful. So players create more attractive depictions by emphasizing different facts and adjusting their viewpoints. Examples are, “I don’t care if I win because all I want is the exercise anyway.” or “The guy cheated me, and if the cheater wants the match that badly, let him have it.” or “I’m so mad I just don’t care anymore.” or “What’s the use of trying? It’s just not my day.” Here the truth is that the player does want exercise; the player did get a bad call; and the player may well be having a bad day.

There are elements of truth in each statement. But to reach their happy conclusions the players must unconsciously reduce the importance of some facts (like wanting to win the match) while amplifying the importance of others (like it’s not my day or I’m not winning the big points). They don’t make up false facts; rather they just change the emphasis of real ones. Inconvenient facts are ignored while convenient ones are highlighted. At the end of this process the rationalizing players are able to reach conclusions that solve their emotional difficulties. It costs them a lot of tennis matches, but while they are doing it, they feel better.

Angry players, for example, feel no fear. They are no longer afraid of losing. All they feel is anger – problem solved! Or, a player who is afraid of losing gets a bad call and decides to tank the match. Once he or she stops trying to win, the fear of losing goes away, and the stress is reduced – problem solved! Players bemoaning and focusing on their excuses no longer have to deal with the uncertainty of winning the match – again, problem solved! Afterward the player may regret it, but by then it is too late.

Of course the great competitors can see past their own natural escapist emotions and can keep their real goals in mind. But anyone can do it if they become aware in advance of what’s likely to happen emotionally and make up their minds not to fall for it. Like the large piece of chocolate cake available at the restaurant for dessert. The smart, health-conscious diners my want the cake but resist ordering it because they know it’s not good for them. The smart tennis players do the same with counterproductive emotions.

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12 Responses to “Allen Fox: “Beware of Counterproductive Emotions””

  1. 1
    Robert Bregman Ph.D. Says:

    I wish to postulate a possible alternative to Dr. Fox’s claim that Unconscious responses in a tennis match produce emotional reactions in a player which are counterproductive to winning BECAUSE OF A FEAR OF FAILURE!
    I will start with the obvious: at best the claim an “unconscious” is speculative. That is one cannot deduce its existence by the ‘Scientific Method’. As is the case in much of Freudian psychoanalysis. Having stating the obvious; it is my opinion that sports figures in general and tennis players in particular have a FEAR OF WINNING. That is human nature will seek safety in numbers ( in a 64 draw you have 63 losers). Many take comfort in bowing out of the fray and and being accepted with the others who have not won: there is comfort in numbers. The Winners – the Federer’s of the world are an exception. Even though we wish to emulate great achievements the climb is far to arduous for the general populace. One simply has to read Plato’s Republic to understand via cogent argument by Plato that only a few gifted people can rise to rule the State coherently – while the rest of the citizens were placed in important yet subordinate roles.

    The moral: Reach your potential- don’t kick yourself when you lose! Enjoy the sport and all the nice people and coaches you meet on the way.

  2. 2
    Plato Says:

    Dr. Bregman I think you mean far too arduous not ‘to’ arduous.

  3. 3
    robert bregman Says:

    Thank you. Grammarians are important to a cogent society!

  4. 4
    Bob Bregman Says:

    Mr. Plato,

    My sin was not proofreading my argument so my “too” was grammatically demoted to “to”.
    However, your supposed correction of “far too” falls into the classic trap of using an unnecessary qualifier: QUALIFIERS ARE THE LEECHES THAT SUCK THE LIFE BLOOD OUT OF WORDS!

    P.S. the real Plato ( you remember him?) would not stoop to a pedantic statement as it wreaks of Sophism!

  5. 5
    Judith White Says:

    Well you two ruined the flavour of what was otherwise a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. Or should I say you “too” . . .

  6. 6
    Bob Bregman Says:

    Do you have an argument one way or the other on the content of the article ? Or simply an ad hominum trite remark?

  7. 7
    Michael Zimmerman Says:

    Bob Bregman has a valid argument with reference to the fear of winning. There is a substantial amount of literature on this phenomenon. Fear of winning seems like an oxymoron and a paradox. However there are several psychological reasons why athletes are afraid of winning. These reasons are often difficult to understand by the layman. Here is just one that is easier.
    When an athlete wins big once, against everyone’s expectation, it surprises everyone, himself included. Following the big achievement he gives up, does not want to test himself any more, for fear of disappointing himself and the others. The fear of winning, therefore, is seen as the fear of having to repeat the ability to win in front of one’s parents and coaches. In other words, the pressure is too great. It is more comfortable to lose.

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