Written by: Stephanie Nihon
***Stephanie has received her Masters in Kinesiology and Sports from the University of Sydney. There she performed extensive testing and training on elite athletes and specialized in Human Biomechanics. As a varsity and national athlete herself in the USA and Australia, Stephanie received her Undergraduate Degree in Psychology and wrote her dissertation on golfers using Neurofeedback to enhance their performance***
Angry outbursts on and off the court are regular occurrences in competitive tennis. Almost every day, newspapers report acts of aggression on court. Canada’s very own, Rebecca Marino displayed her uncontrolled angry impulse against Sveltlana Kuznetsova. Marino, typically a pretty calm player on the court, actually threw her racquet on the court in anger after the first set finished in just under 18 minutes. But the way things were going, even that didn’t go right – one bounce, another half bounce, and the slight shame of having to bend all the way down to pick up the racquet in front of a large crowd on Court No. 1. Marino commented: “I won’t deny the fact that, yes, it was extremely frustrating, getting a bagel.”
Another example of hostility occurred during a point between Andy Murray and Viktor Troicki when a ballboy ran out onto the court to get the ball as Troicki was winding up for an overhead smash. The umpire called a let. Later on, Viktor Troicki pulled off a pretty unsportsmanlike move. After Andy Murray won a point similar to the previous point, Troicki looked over at the ballboy and sarcastically asked him why he didn’t run onto the court during that play. He then kicked the ball away from him.
So what’s wrong with venting anger on court, doesn’t it help to blow off a little steam? Well Dr. Charles Spielberger, one of the primary researchers in anger literature, states that acts such as kicking the dirt and cursing out loud after a mistake in a match can make an athletes performance suffer. Since the brain has a limited amount of attentional capacity, concentration is diverted from the competitive task at hand. Sport psychology research shows that anger does not enhance performance. Research reviews by Yuri Hanin and others, showed that high levels of anger can have deleterious effects on focus and concentration. There may be hope though, here are some strategies used by the pro’s to get back into the a better performance zone:
1) Become aware of what you feel/think when angry and then DO something about it– Start noticing in practice what triggers your anger/announce. Then take immediate action as soon as you feel like your anger is at a 3 out of 10. 1 being, as cool as a cucumber and a 10 being, full out rage (enough to throw your racket). Your solution should be to keep a towel at the back of the court. Use it metaphorically to whip away excess anger and flush the previous point.
2) Get rid of the blaming ANT (Automatic Negative Thought)– Examples include: “my opponent is cheating, the wind did it, it’s because I am not used to playing on clay.” Think of these thoughts as a waste of mental energy. The brain has limited space for attention. Keep thoughts on controllable factors.
3) Slow your heart rate, breathing and release your muscles– As an athlete gets angry they release chemicals in their blood that accelerates their heart and breathing rate, this can lead to busy-brain or negative thinking. The chemicals in your blood can directly attached to the smooth muscles in the body and cause tension. I know breathing has been mentioned before but slowing it down and exhaling for longer is the quickest way to decrease your heart rate and get back to neutral.
4) Keep a “Hassle Log”– An index card system in which you write down incidents that have made you angry in practice. This is very helpful to discover your triggers. Then develop a plan to combat it when the situation happens again.
These strategies for cooling one’s boiling point have to be practiced as much as a tennis player might work on his/her serve. We are creatures of habit and the brain needs a certain amount of repetitions before an action becomes automatic. Being on Court 1 at the French Open is an honor and it takes consistent mental work to get there.