“I’m Not FEELIN’ It Today!”

“I’m Not FEELIN’ It Today!”

The Trouble with Focusing on Emotions

As a culture we are tuned into our moods—perhaps, at times, too much so. The juniors in my program echo this reality like a piano sounding board. Within the first five minutes of almost every practice, various players announce how they feel about their ball striking—and usually, it’s not good. “Coach, I’m not feelin’ the ball today.” “Coach, something’s off.” “Coach, I’m just not hitting the ball cleanly today. I don’t have it.”

This is a critical moment. What they (or you, as their coach) do right then with those negative feelings will determine the value of that day’s practice. Players and coaches need to understand that the most potent skill for evolving into a great tennis player is learning to manage emotions.

Feelings are human, of course—fine and natural things. We all want to feel good on the court. And developing players, always tuned in to their emotions, love to seek out that elusive feeling of perfection. They want to strike the ball cleanly and crisply. (The sounds clean and crisp remind me of TV commercials for a tasty potato chip or a Kit Kat Bar: all packaged up, nice and pretty.)

But these seekers of clean and crisp face a problem. Winning tennis matches most often demands dealing with the dirty and messy, not the clean and crisp. While top players may look smooth and tidy on court, they don’t “feel the ball” all that often. Andy Roddick once told me that he hits the ball cleanly about 15 percent of the time. Even when I was among the top ten in the world, I remember feeling great even less than Roddick. During most practices and matches, bouts of confusion and doubts about our abilities cloud our perspective. Top players achieve their status not because everything is working, but because they learn to navigate the topography of negative feelings. They figure out how to practice and compete effectively in spite of how they feel.

“Players and coaches need to understand that the most potent skill for evolving into a great tennis player is learning to manage emotions.”

Managing one’s emotions is a never-ending project. Here are a few basic guidelines to help coaches and players.

First, remember that feelings are not “truth.” Most players see those bad feelings on the court as somehow very real—permanent and unchangeable. This perspective makes it all too easy to be victimized by them. When we begin not “feeling it,” if we pine for the loss of “it” (whatever that may be), we risk sinking into an obsessional state that can paralyze us. Any good student of Eastern philosophy knows that emotions and feelings are transient: they ebb, flow, morph, and transform. So work to stay open to the reality that feelings are not as solid and immovable as they may seem.

Second, stand back, observe dispassionately, and refocus on possible helpful steps. Feeling states can actually guide us toward improvement. As competitors, we must try to see exactly what the bad feelings are telling us, other than that we aren’t hitting the ball well. Can you problem-solve on the spot by learning to recognize your emotional state?

I take my younger players through a simple checklist of possible reasons why they feel lousy. “Are you hungry?” “Thirsty?” “Injured?” “Tired?” I am hoping they will learn to question themselves to identify these basic causes of discomfort.

“With growth and repetition, they can often figure out how to help themselves.”