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Anger…The Tennis Player’s Achilles’ Heel

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

As many of you who read my column on a regular basis know, I am a coach of a NCAA Collegiate tennis team. In addition, I spend lots of time coaching junior players, from ages 12 to 17. One thing I can tell you from both perspectives is that I have seen lots of matches lost because a player could not control his/her anger.

Please do not get me wrong. Anger in tennis is not limited to the more youthful players. I have seen racquets that have been broken; balls slammed into outer space, and heard language that would make a longshoreman blush from players of every age. Truth be known, there are times when I have to fight the demons of anger stirring inside of me. In fact, I doubt there has been a player that hasn’t "lost it" at one time or another.

Even the great Bjorn Borg, as a junior player, was known for his temper tantrums. Despite being the master of self control, the "iceman" during tough situations; this was not always the case with Borg. When he was a young teenage, he displayed anger during a match…much to the embarrassment of his parents. Their response to Borg’s outburst was to retire his racquet for a year. Not an action that most parents of junior tennis players would take today. Still, Bjorn learned the lesson…and the appearance of complete self control and confidence.

In all of the players I have seen, professional or amateur, there has been only one player who seemed to benefit from anger: John McEnroe. In reality, I think John needed anger to play at his best. But, as we will see later on in this month’s column, I think John’s anger was a very special variety.

Now, it should be noted that I am not a sports psychologist, but as a coach, I have seen the destructive power of anger. I have read lots on the subject in a quest to improve my coaching skills. Clearly, my colleague, John Murray in his seminal work, Smart Tennis, has presented the tennisphile with a host of essential and useful insights on the mental game of tennis. I cannot stress enough that every player should take the time to read this truly amazing book. It will definitely improve your love of the game, and your ability to compete.

Having said this, I want to share with readers my thoughts on anger, its ultimate consequences and ways in which a player can control her/his anger during matches.

Being 52, most of the players I train and with whom I compete are significantly younger than I am. They look at me and believe that their youth and prowess should immediately overpower me, and in truth, sometimes they do. However, I can honestly say I win more than I lose…and fortunately, the win margin is significantly large. Essentially, I am a Type B player (see my earlier column "Type "A" or Type "B" Player?") who will adapt my game in anyway necessary to win. I realize that most matches are won by the person who makes the fewest errors…not by making the most winners. I recognize that there are no "style points" in tennis. How you win the point is inconsequential in the end…there are no judges as would be the case in ice skating competition.

Many of these younger players become angry with themselves during our matches. Always having my "antenna" focused on my opponent’s weaknesses, I know that I am making significant progress when anger creeps in his/her mind…regardless of the game or set scores. In fact, when I see my opponent becoming angry, I take comfort. It is, for me, a sign that he or she is playing two people on the court…me and himself/herself.

So, why is anger counterproductive in tennis? If one looks at American football or even soccer, anger can sometimes raise the level of play. Well, in my opinion there are several key reasons.

First, tennis is primarily an individual sport. Granted many play doubles, but when playing singles, a player is truly on her or his own. Even when coaching is permitted, the singles player must play the points alone. For those of us who have competed in front of audiences, the feeling of being alone and the associated self-pressure is exacerbated. Anger will only amplify our "solitary" feelings.

Second, tennis is not simply a physical sport…it is also a fine motor skill sport. Slight variances in how we strike the ball can make for profound errors. These variances may be so slight as to baffle us. This confusion often times can lead to frustration and anger. Anger generally tightens muscles and forces us to hit with slightly imperfect strokes. It is quite easy to get into a very bad cycle: errors leading to anger, which in turn, leads to more errors. The ultimate consequence of this cycle is defeat…usually self-defeat.

Lastly, many players hate to lose instead of love to win. These are really two very different mindsets. When a player loves to win, the energy is all positive. The goal is to win and the expectation is that winning is possible. When the player is one who hates or fears losing, the energy is negative. These leads to frustration, anger, and even at times, panic.

Now, if you were doing anything in a relaxed, patient and confident manner, wouldn’t you enjoy the experience more…regardless of the outcome or results? On the other side of the coin, what joy is there in winning when the road to victory is filled with anger, frustration, self-doubt and fear?

I once heard a tennis coach chastise his player who had just lost an important match with the words: "Winners win…losers lose." I followed this player’s record for the remaining part of the season. His results went from bad to worse. He was demoted from the number 1 singles spot down to the number 3 singles position. At this lower position, he only won about 50% of his matches. I am sure that, for him, this was not a pleasant season.

Negativity in tennis is a very destructive force. Once it creeps into the mind of a player it can take a nuclear explosion to force it out.

So, why did/does anger work so well for John McEnroe. Well, you need to really examine how he presents the anger to himself. For John, the anger is always a result of some injustice (real or imagined) that he has experienced on the court. Bad line calls are not an accident, they are a conspiracy. Once he has placed himself in the position of being the victim, his anger is "justified." He is, now, able to turn this negative into a positive. How?...by making his anger a source of motivation for his "crusade" for fairness and justice.

Not many, if any, of us could perform this transformation.

So, the logical question is: "How can I rid myself of my anger when I play?"

Well first, I must admit that there is no magic bullet. Anger management in life or on the court requires time, effort and persistence. But, anger can be controlled…and in some instances…it can be eliminated.

What follows is the advice and techniques that I have found useful in my game and in my role as coach.

  1. Recognize that tennis is a game. There are many things in this world that are worse than losing a tennis match…even if tennis is the most important thing in your life.
  2. Anger is a slippery slope. Once anger creeps into your life, it grows and grows. To eliminate anger in your game, you need to examine anger in your life. When anger is identified, addressed and controlled in your everyday life, it will be a much easier to do the same on the tennis court.
  3. You can’t think about two things at the same time. When anger starts creeping into your conscious mind, get in the habit of thinking about something positive, pleasant or beautiful. If you can stamp out the angry thought for a few seconds, you can stamp it out for a minute. If you can stamp out the anger for a minute, you can stamp out the anger for a game, etc.
  4. Learn to focus on your breathing and muscles when you find yourself getting angry. Breathe more slowly. Try to relax your major muscle groups. Slow down, take more time between points. Focus on your game rituals to regain your equilibrium and rhythm.
  5. Never, I repeat never, say anything negative to yourself during a match. Statements like: "That was stupid." "That was horrible" "Am I ever going to make that shot?" "I cannot believe that I missed that shot." etc., only reinforce the negative feelings inside of you. Sooner or later, your negativity will give way to anger and frustration. When these creep into your mind, you have a lot more to worry about than just the person on the other side of the net. Your biggest opponent has become yourself. Try to comfort yourself with your "self-talk." Statements like "That’s okay; I will make the next one." "Hang in there, you own the stroke and it will find its way back." "No problem, just forget it." etc., are much better alternatives.
  6. Try counting from 10 to 1 in between points. Say each number aloud, and do not allow yourself to begin the next point until you have finished the count. This simple action works well for many of the players on my team. It takes their mind off whatever mistake they may have made, slows them down and creates a ritual. Rituals are the way tennis players gain comfort when all is seemingly crumbling around them.
  7. When you are really frustrated, try singing to yourself. Crazy as this may seem, I know several players on the pro circuits who have "confessed" to me that this is their way of dealing with both nerves and anger during matches. Guarantees of confidentiality prevent me from revealing their names, but you would be quite surprised.
  8. Don’t be afraid to stretch your muscles in between points. This action will put your mind on your body and will actually help you identify your stress points. Anytime you play with more relaxed muscles, anger is less likely to creep into your mind or game.

In a future article, I will address the question of "Why Do I Play Tennis?" In answering this basic question, the roots of anger and frustration can, often times, be realized.

Still, an honest recognition of your propensity for anger and a realization that it rarely, if ever, helps a player to win will go a long way toward improving your game and enjoyment of the game.

Hopefully, some of the eight points mentioned earlier will work for you. The key is to practice these as you practice your strokes. Anger in practice will find its way into anger in matches.

Spend some time working on eliminating anger in your game, and I am sure that in no time, you will become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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