You're standing on the court, racket raised above your head, teeth clenched, muscles tense, a primal scream stirring in your belly. You've missed your third consecutive sitter, and the urge to slam dunk your racket into the court is overwhelming.
Anger is the enemy of every tennis player. Broken rackets, balls slammed into (and over) fences and a XXX vocabulary are a few of our most popular responses when our temper gets the better of us.
Once anger comes to your side of the court, defeat is usually not far behind. Unlike basketball and football where anger can be translated into physical aggression, tennis is a fine motor skill sport. When we get angry, our muscles tense. The tension causes our strokes to go off which results in errors. As the errors pile up, the anger increases and the vicious cycle continues until we've missed enough shots to lose the match--or break all of our rackets and have to default as happened to touring pro Goran Ivanisevic a few years ago.
Anger is never pretty. It's seldom productive and almost always embarrassing. In these days of high stress living, anger is an opponent in our lives and just as on the tennis court, you need to devise a strategy to defeat it.
WHAT IS ANGER?
Anger, quite simply, is an emotion that comes out in stressful situations. We all get mad, be it on the tennis court, the highway or at the local 7-11. Unfortunately for some, anger becomes a way of life. We all know people who go through their lives seemingly angry at the world. They're not a lot of fun on or off the tennis court.
I'm sure you also know people who seem just the opposite: calm, cool and collected. Believe me, these people have a temper as well. They've just learned how to overcome it and maintain their composure. You can, too.
BIG MAC, JIMBO, THE ICEMAN AND ARTHUR
John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe are four of the most famous names in tennis history--four legends with totally different ways of dealing with their anger. McEnroe and Connors often lost control of themselves and resorted to tantrums and gestures, while Borg and Ashe only let their rackets do the talking.
Interestingly, the ever-so-controlled Borg was anything but in his junior days. At one point, Borg's behavior became so bad that his parents took away his racket for a year (an action I highly recommend to parents today). Borg learned his lesson and became the model for keeping his emotions under control.
While McEnroe and Connors were known for being able to make their rage work for them, most us don't have that ability. Anger can sometimes help wake us up when our concentration falters, but most of the time, as our temperature rises, our games fall apart.
No matter how hard we try to avoid the situations or people that make us mad, anger is an inevitable part of our lives on and off the tennis court. Though we can't hide from the emotion, we can learn to control how we react to it.
BATTLE PLAN FOR CONFRONTING YOUR ANGER
As I said, anger is an emotion, and the key to mastering our emotions comes from the intellectual side of our personality. The next time you feel the anger balloon inflating, deflate it by thinking of REGNA (that's anger spelled backwards for those of you who aren't paying attention).
Here's what REGNA stands for:
Recognize the anger when it first begins. Your opponent has given you three consecutive bad line calls and you're pissed off. If you can acknowledge it in the beginning stages, with a bit of discipline you can put out the fire before it burns your house down.
Exhale and take some time. Anger strikes fast, and before we know it, we've lost control. You must break the pattern and allow the rage to subside. Take a few deep breaths. Walk around the court. Tie your shoes, towel off, count to 10, anything to give you a few moments to calm down and gain control of your emotions. Like a big wave crashing over you, all it takes is a few seconds for the danger to pass.
Get hold of the situation. Why are you mad, and what can you do about it? You've missed three forehands in a row? Remind yourself of the basics. Be aware of what you're doing and learn how to correct your errors. You think your opponent is making bad calls? Ask him if he's sure? If you're in a tournament, request a linesman. If it's a social game, let them have the point--they obviously need it more than you.
Next. The moment's past, the point's over, move on. Former tour player and current coach Brad Gilbert says that you "cannot look ahead and behind at the same time." Forget about what made you angry and focus on the next point.
Attitude. Remind yourself that you are your attitude, and your attitude is a choice. Do you really want to be angry and miserable for the rest of your time on the court? I doubt it.
Here are a few more tips to keep in mind when your blood begins to boil.
- SLOW DOWN. When things are not going well, we all have a tendency to rush. When we feel rushed our strokes tend to fall apart. Establish a few rituals that will help slow (and calm) you down. Rituals are something that are familiar to us and give us a sense of calm. It could be bouncing the ball a certain number of times before you serve, adjusting your strings, counting to 10, dancing on your toes before you receive serve--anything to break the wave of anger and bring your mind back into focus.
- CONTROL YOUR BREATH and you control your mind and the tension in your muscles. When the tension hits, take a long slow breath and you'll send a message to your brain that it's OK that you've double faulted four times in a row, you're still in control.
- BE NICE TO YOURSELF. We all talk to ourselves and what we say, we usually believe. Replace the negative thoughts with positive self-talk. Negative self-talk makes you tense, positive self-talk relaxes you. Become aware of what you say to yourself and make a conscious effort to be positive. Instead of saying to yourself, "How did you miss that easy volley, you idiot?" try something like, "Bad luck, remember to keep your racket head up on the next one." Try to help yourself, not hurt yourself.
I once heard of a pro who used to have his students wear a rubber band around their wrist when they played. Each time they said or thought something negative, they had to snap the band against their wrist. This might be a good exercise for on and off the tennis court.
- VISUALIZE being a good player. I know, the dreaded "V" word. But it really does work. If your backhand is letting you down, mentally rehearse a perfect backhand and take a few practice swings. On a big point, rehearse in your mind what you'd like to see happen. I realize this may be a bit too Zen-like for you but give it a try.
- DEVELOP TUNNEL VISION. Your eyes and mind work together. If you're constantly looking around, your mind will wander. Focus only on one object: the ball, the court, etc. This narrow vision will help you to calm down and regain (and maintain) your concentration. Pete Sampras looked at his strings in between points.
- WHAT'S REALLY WRONG? I learned very early in my career that when someone gets angry on the tennis court, it's usually not about tennis. Maybe you had a bad day at the office or a fight with your spouse. Whatever it is, try to push it aside and enjoy your tennis. The time away from your "issue" will be good for you and you'll come back to the problem in a calmer frame of mind.
- SIMPLIFY. When we get angry, we often lose control and try to do too much. Remind yourself of, and focus on, the basics: moving your feet, hitting the ball down the center of the court, first serve in, etc.
- SING TO YOURSELF. I know this sounds ridiculous, but many players have used this as a way of calming their minds when dealing with anger or nerves.
- SMILE when you make a mistake. For whatever reason, a smile just makes your whole body lift up. Plus, it will show your opponent that you're totally under control. Tennis legend Stan Smith was famous for this.
- IT'S ONLY TENNIS. Remind yourself that nothing that happens to us on the tennis court is important in the overall scheme of our lives. Chill out and have fun!