Anger wastes mental energy and clouds judgement, two clear detriments in any competitive setting, so while anger certainly has its uses, “useful emotion in the game of tennis” isn’t one of them. To better understand anger in tennis, we’ll first draw a line between two classes of mistakes, which I’ll call:
- Bad Results
- Process Mistakes
Anger towards bad results – towards missing a particular shot or your opponent hitting a lucky winner – provides very little benefit, in any context. It’s difficult to let go of, but you’ll be far better off once you do. If you struggle with anger towards bad results, internalizing that tennis is random is extremely helpful.
When you get angry because you missed a well chosen shot by two inches, it’s the same as a poker player tilting because their opponent hit a 2-outer on the river. Of course it’s annoying, and it makes sense that you’re upset, but there’s nothing you can do, or could have done, to change it, so your emotional response can’t lead to any life improving action. When you play a game of probability, the cards fall how they may.
The rest of this article will be about how to abandon justified anger.
Process Mistakes are Frustrating
For process mistakes, anger is often a justified response, but just because it’s justified doesn’t mean it’s useful. Here are some examples of process mistakes:
- Making the same poor shot selection decision over and over.
- Letting up on the final shot of an offensive combination, and missing because of it.
- Thinking you’ve hit a winner, not getting ready, and then losing the point because of it.
- Not running for a ball because you think it’s out, only to have it land inside the line.
These kinds of mistakes feel more fixable than bad results, which is why our emotions run so much hotter when making them, but despite that feeling, mid-match anger isn’t productive to fixing these mistakes either.
The anger that wells up during a match is primarily a result of the outcome not matching your expectations.
- Your belief – I move well. I run balls down. I play smart.
- The reality – I move lazily. I let balls go. I play dumb.
That dissonance is what’s infuriating (or can be; some people are wired such that it doesn’t bother them, but it’s far less likely they clicked on this article).
You Are Your Coach
To prove to yourself how inappropriate of a response anger is, even to process mistakes, imagine having a student (many of my readers are also coaches, so no need to imagine). If your student made these mistakes, you might feel angry, or frustrated, or at the very least, disappointed, but how would you react?
Would you yell and scream at them? Tell them they’re terrible at tennis? Walk out on the court, take their racket, and smash it?
Of course not.
Like a responsible adult, you’d calmly and analytically evaluate what was working and what wasn’t, and, as gently as you could, try to nudge your player in a better direction.
Trained Patterns of Behavior
Process mistakes feel fixable mid-match, because human beings like to pretend we have full control over our system 2, personal narrator, logical level thinking:
Sure, I can’t perfectly execute a forehand movement every time, but of course I can choose the right shot, can’t I? That’s a choice after all, and I have full control over my choices, don’t I?
Sorry, no. That’s not the way the human brain works. Process mistakes are trained patterns of behavior that you need to re-train in order to fix.
Once you’re already in a match, you’re working with what you’re working with. Mid-match, the useful orientation towards the information you’re receiving is non-judgmental, emotion free evaluation. Figure out which shots and patterns are working, and which shots and patterns are not. Expectations aren’t useful mid-match, because expectations lead to dissonance, and that dissonance leads to anger.
In any given match you play, the behavior you’re seeing on the match court is precisely the behavior you’ve cemented in practice:
- Don’t sprint for short balls in practice? Guess what, in a match, shouting at yourself to “stop being lazy and run for it” isn’t going to fix that habit.
- Routinely forget to track the ball in practice? Same thing. No amount of “watch the ball, idiot!” will fix that mid-match.
Practice is the time to be hard on yourself. While you practice, you can scold yourself for not moving, or for playing too casually at the end of a rally, or for making poor shot selection decisions. Practice is the time to allow yourself to be frustrated by the dissonance between where you think you should be, and where you are, because practice is the time when you can actually do something about it.
During a match, you can’t expect your built in patterns of behavior to change on a dime. I know it feels like you can “just move your feet” or “just focus more,” but the truth is, you can’t. You can’t consistently do those things without first building the habit of doing them.
Letting Go of Expectations
It’s difficult to let go of your expectations. There’s a reason certain process mistakes frustrate you so much. For some people I’ve met, it’s moving poorly. They absolutely hate when they move lazily – when they don’t sprint, or they don’t get in a proper ready position before the ball comes, it infuriates them.
Whatever your particular most hated process mistake is, the reason you hate it so much is because you really, really don’t want to be the kind of player that makes that mistake. Well, time to be the bearer of bad news.
You are that player.
And getting angry about that won’t change it. What will change it is practice dedicated to replacing the habit you hate.
It won’t be an instantaneous process, either, and while you’re on the path to re-wiring your habit, you have two choices: you can continue to smash rackets every time you relapse, or you can… just not do that.
Instead of “I DIDN’T MOVE MY FEET [expletive], [expletive], [expletive]!!” it can just be…
“I didn’t move my feet.” Fact of life. Evidence I’ve observed while playing, and I’ll adjust my practice accordingly.