Resist Reacting Emotionally after Points in the Tennis Match

Resist Reacting Emotionally after Points in the Tennis Match

Allen Fox

Learn how to manage your emotions during a tennis match. I like this excerpt from the famous sport psychologist Allen Fox’s new book Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.

Resist reacting emotionally after points in the tennis match

Your game will tend to follow your emotions, positive ones producing good play and negative ones, bad play, so you need to control them rather than having them control you. The starting point for this (and probably the most useful single idea in this book) is the following: When a point ends have no feeling or emotional reactions at all! It means that whether you have made the most egregious error or hit the most outlandish winner, it’s generally best to have no emotional reaction whatsoever.

No matter how important the point, when it’s over, regardless of outcome, you simply turn around and start walking back into position having had no emotional reaction. Nothing happened! As an example, watch Roger Federer’s face at the end of a point. You will not usually be able to tell if he has just hit a winner or missed a sitter. Most of the time, he doesn’t react. You see the outer lack of reaction, but, equally importantly, he doesn’t usually react internally either.

What about reacting positively after winning a point?

Okay, let’s start with the obvious counter arguments. You may say, “What if I hit a good shot? Shouldn’t I celebrate or pump myself up with a raised fist or something? Doesn’t this fit better with your theory of having good emotions so your game will follow them and get better?” My answer is that most highly-ranked professional players do not do this.

Notice I say most and not all. Of course some players, like Lleyton Hewitt, Jimmy Connors, Rafael Nadal, John McEnroe, and Maria Sharapova do (or did) play better by pumping themselves up after winning points. But even they didn’t do it after every point they won – often, yes, but only after some points. These few players performed well on adrenaline and seemed, somehow, to be able to emote again and again without getting emotionally exhausted.

But keep in mind that these people are champions with far more emotional resiliency, self-control, and confidence than you or I have. (If you win a couple of Wimbledons you might also be able to get away with it, but until then, I advise against it.) In any case, even they are the exceptions among the pros. The list of great pros that usually didn’t react after points is far longer – Don Budge, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roger Federer, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Stephan Edberg, Pete Sampras, etc., etc., etc.

The reasons for not reacting emotionally after a point are many.

1. In a close match you will lose every other point. Reacting after points means you will continually swing up and down. This is an exhausting emotional roller-coaster and will mentally tire you out in a long match.

2. You will make errors, some unaccountably terrible and some on huge points. If you react to these errors they will scare you and possibly make you lose faith in your strokes. Experiments have shown that memories are genetically programmed to be enhanced when accompanied by strong emotion, and it is not beneficial for us to remember all of our errors too vividly. So it’s best to completely ignore errors emotionally. Assume they are random incidents and immediately forget about them. The response should be, “Nothing happened.” Then just walk on without acknowledgment.

3. Reacting after points momentarily throws you off balance emotionally. You then have only a few seconds to gather yourself before the next point starts. You put yourself in an emotional hole and have to quickly dig yourself out. It is best to start preparing for the next point from an emotionally neutral position rather than from a hole.

4. You are momentarily allowing your emotions to get out of your control, and you risk being unable to get them back under control. A tennis matches is best played like a day at the office – going about your business, under control, and using emotions only as needed to help you get the job done.

5. You overemphasize the importance of particular points. It is best to treat all points as important but none as too important. This helps keep your emotions on an even keel.

6. If you pump up and celebrate the points you win, what do you do on the ones you lose? (which will be every other one).

Using adrenaline.                                                                                                                    

Having said all this, there are occasions, not too often, when even the non-reactive pros choose to react after making a great shot or winning a particularly important point. They will do it to pump themselves up in crucial situations, usually late in a set or late in the match, to give themselves a shot of adrenaline. (You can also do it deliberately by slapping yourself on the side, making yourself feel aggressive, and saying something like, “Come on!!” or “Get going!!” under your breath.)

Paradoxically, this type of adrenaline response is sometimes even useful in counteracting shaky nerves in pressure situations. At such times it is natural to become tight and conservative. Calling up an adrenaline response can sometimes loosen you up. Essentially, you try to turn feelings of fear into feelings of aggression, the physiological correlates of which are quite similar.

Adrenaline is a hormone released by the adrenal gland that makes you stronger and quicker – sort of a personal afterburner – but running on it too long can tire you out. It can speed up your reactions, strengthen you when you are getting tired, or help you focus when your concentration is slipping.

However it’s best to use it sparingly – on occasions when it will do the most good, such as when the finish line is in sight and you need a little something extra to drive you over it. Tennis players differ in their response to adrenaline, so you will need to learn from experience how often and when to use it. But no regardless of what you learn, the vast majority of your points should end with no emotional reaction .