Dr. Allen Fox, USPTA Elite Professional

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 too often the case. Certain emotions, in particular, those involving anxiety and escape, can and often do become extraordinarily counterproductive. They frequently make players lose to opponents who are physically and technically inferior. The analysis to follow will point out why this is so and what one can do about it.
By its 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 each player uses his tennis tools to break down his opponent. It is a battle of wills, where players compete for physical and mental dominance, where threat and intimidation can play significant roles, and where one contestant ends up superior to the other. This makes the emotional stakes far greater than they appear. In fact, we are genetically programmed to fight for superiority in such situations. It makes playing closely-contested matches stressful; it makes winning them emotionally important and uplifting and makes losing them painful. 

Thus, for the serious tennis competitor, 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 one trains, and how well one concentrates, and how perfectly one controls one’s emotions, one cannot assure victory against an opponent of near-equal ability. The scary truth of competition is that you can do everything right and still lose. This is the structure for a potentially stressful and unpleasant state of affairs, one tailor-made for stress, anxiety, and escapism. 

The usual means of escape from the stress, uncertainty, and uncontrollability of a tennis match is to become angry, make excuses, focus on and complain about “problems,” or simply give up. It is neither a conscious nor productive decision, but it is quite normal. It is the exceedingly rare (or abnormal) individual who can remain rational, unemotional, and practical in an important match when things are going wrong and the prospects of failure loom. Unlike great pros like Rafael Nadal or Maria Sharapova, most players cannot. And since they can’t simply pack their bags and run off court, their alternative is to mentally check out by becoming angry, focusing on “problems,” or giving up, all of which are forms of escapism in that they temporarily insulate the players from the stress and impending pain of defeat. 

These are emotional proclivities that don’t go away. So, the players must overpower them with the practical, logical parts of their brains. It’s not easy because emotions fire more quickly than thought; they warp the thought processes; and even though players might understand these reactions are counterproductive, logic and emotions don’t mix. In the throes of strong emotion, logic is usually the first casualty. 

How do tennis pros and coaches handle this? Ultimately, players have to be convinced to overpower their counterproductive emotions with their logic systems. This requires pros/coaches to have verbal talent, people skills, and patience as they must come at the problem repeatedly from different logical angles over longer periods of time than seems reasonable. Their most powerful weapon is, of course, the player’s desire to win, and the pros/coaches must be mentally agile enough to use this in ways that make an impact on the player. He/she must have enough “feel” to somehow get to the player’s head. 

And it’s not a matter of simply giving the players information. The information itself is obvious, and everyone is well aware that losing one’s head makes one lose. The problem is getting players to do something about it. Players must decide at a deep level to overpower counterproductive emotional urges. This is difficult because the player’s urges to escape from stress, uncertainty, and frustration are natural, powerful, and unending. Players must exert constant conscious vigilance. Like an alcoholic on the wagon, the player must maintain constant mental vigilance lest backsliding occurs. 

Pros and coaches sometimes wonder why players seem to “get it” for a while but then so frequently relapse and revert. Yes, they understand the issues at some level, but they don’t really get it deeply enough. And by “getting it,” I mean that they haven’t committed deeply enough to overpowering their escapist proclivities. They think that they have, but they haven’t. They are really cured only when the light bulb in their head goes off and they irrevocably decide that they are simply not going to do those counterproductive things that make them lose anymore, regardless of anything that may happen on-court. 

Instituting these behavioral changes requires powerful motivation and players rarely have it immediately. How do I know the problem is motivation rather than information? Consider this: If I were to go on court with a gun, point it at their heads, and tell them if they become angry, make excuses, or stop trying during a match I will instantly run out and shoot them. I would bet that as long as I am standing on the sideline brandishing my gun, they won’t allow their emotions to go haywire. Of course, I haven’t done brain surgery. I haven’t touched them. I’ve just motivated them to control themselves. This tells me that when players want to change badly enough, they will do so immediately. The function of the pro/coach is merely to convince them to do so. 

The process takes time and involves relapses. It is up to the verbal and intellectual skill of the pro/coach to come at the old problems from new angles so that the player is constantly motivated to continue the process. In my experience, a “cure” (and there will always be occasional relapses) generally takes one or two years. I have never seen it happen immediately, although I am still hoping.
About Dr. Allen Fox
Dr. Allen Fox earned a Ph.D. in psychology at UCLA and is a former NCAA champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Dr. Fox also coached the Pepperdine University tennis team to two NCAA finals, and his latest book on the mental game is: “Tennis, Winning the Mental Match.”