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Mental Equipment
August 1996 Article

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Understanding and Conquering Anger

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Dr. John Murray

It has been said that those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make angry. What is anger, how does it impact tennis performance, and what can be done to keep it in check and actually turn it to your advantage during competition.

What is Anger?

Anger is usually viewed as an emotional response to a stressful situation. Expressed anger is easy to recognize, but angry thoughts and feelings may also exist internally, well concealed from others. Here are some typical definitions of anger:

  • A strong feeling of displeasure and aggressive hostility aroused by real or suspected wrong.

  • A response to the frustration of an unresolved problem.

  • An emotional reaction created by combining high psychic energy with high stress.

  • A sudden violent displeasure accompanied by an impulse to retaliate.

Anger intensity varies widely. Whereas irritation and annoyance represent forms of mild anger, strongly emotional and energetic anger is sometimes called rage. Fury is rage so great that it resembles insanity.

It is important to distinguish between the normal anger which often occurs during competition, and much more serious forms of anger which may extend beyond sport and lead to serious physical and emotional harm. Before anger reaches these levels, it is strongly advised to seek counseling.

Anger in Tennis

Tennis was traditionally associated with the gracious manners and refined etiquette of the elite. As such, expressions of anger were vigorously repressed in favor of style and sportsmanship. This gentler and kinder time has all but vanished, as tennis is now embraced by irate masses worldwide, cultivated or not!

Expressions of anger are witnessed at all levels of the game in screaming, temper tantrums, cursing, racket throwing, linesperson and umpire abuse, and self-condemnation. Anger which is contained within can be equally distasteful when the player is consumed by negative thoughts and images.

Uncontrolled anger almost always impairs tennis performance. One explanation is that arousal levels rise dangerously high. Recall that tennis requires optimal levels of relatively low arousal compared with most other sports (see September 1995 article).

Taking Control

Controlled anger sometimes proves useful on the tennis courts. John McEnroe may be best remembered for his violent and maniacal temper tantrums. He was actually a brilliant strategist who used anger to distract opponents, while maintaining internal control. Perhaps he wasn't angry at all, but only made it appear so to gain an advantage! I am not recommending that anger be used in this manner, but stay extra focused when your opponent gets mad!

Getting mad at yourself after unforced errors might sometimes be useful, because it shows that you value consistency. But remember to stay in control and move mentally to the next point or you may find yourself distracted and unable to perform your best.

Here are some further ways to control anger:

  1. Use your anger to focus intensely on what you will do next rather than on the mistake you just made.

  2. Negative self-talk is a killer. Learn to recognize when it happens and get angry that you are thinking negatively. Use this anger to transform negative thoughts into positive ones.

  3. When anger is overwhelming you, do anything to break the pattern. Tie your shoelaces, count to 10, breathe deeply and slowly, write a letter to your grandmother, and get in the mindset of playing each point one at a time.

  4. Use imagery to practice dealing with situations that have caused anger in the past. Imagine yourself handling these situations successfully.

Anger is quite a force, but like most energy it can be harnessed for your benefit or allowed to roam wildly and destroy you. Understand and conquer this madness! Until next month ...

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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