The best way to control feelings of anger in a tennis match is to stop trying to control your anger. The best course of action is no course of action!
It may sound counterintuitive, but doing nothing is the best way to deal with your temper on court.
By doing nothing, I don’t mean you should continue doing what you usually do when you feel angry.
Usually, you respond to your feeling of anger with thinking and self-analysis. You get involved with your anger. You take it seriously.
You justify your temper, believing that you need to respond to it in order to work it out, or get rid of it.
Perhaps you swear, or throw your racket, or berate the umpire, or curse your opponent. Most likely, you curse yourself, either out loud or in the silence of your thoughts.
That’s right, for most players, anger is directed inwards. We lash out at ourselves, with self-criticism and other unhelpful patterns of thought.
But what if you could just let go of anger, even welcome those uncomfortable feelings?
The first step is to acknowledge that anger itself is not the problem. The problem lies in how we respond to anger.
Anger is a normal human emotion that all players will experience in tennis, sometimes multiple times in a match.
We should expect to feel angry sometimes in tennis. It’s a demanding sport with a scoring system that constantly puts us on edge, with one player poised to take all, the other to lose all.
We’re not rewarded proportionately in tennis. We can win plenty of points in a game, but still lose it with nothing to show for our efforts. We have to win the right points at the right time.
This explains why tennis is such a psychologically challenging game, and why so many players struggle with anger and lose their temper.
Overcoming Anger On Court
If you meddle with and respond to your angry feelings, then you’re adding fuel to the fire. There’s no time in a match to try to talk yourself out of being angry. The very act of trying to do this adds a layer of unnecessary thinking into an already overactive mind.
Likewise, acting out your anger by throwing your racket or shouting, apart from being embarrassing, is often counterproductive. Sometimes it may bring temporary relief, but over time it exacerbates the problem, making angry episodes more likely. This happens because the behavior reinforces the emotion, effectively encouraging it.
A more sustainable approach to anger management in tennis is to learn to leave anger alone and let it subside naturally.
This is hard because the emotional purpose of anger is to prompt an action. Anger is useful if we are being physically attacked or need to motivate ourselves to resolve a problem or a social injustice. Anger is not very useful in tennis, where a sense of deep concentration and calm are key drivers of success.
Sure, a ball struck in anger might sometimes result in a blistering winner. But more often than not an angry shot will miss the mark.
John McEnroe is a great example of how anger impedes a tennis player. McEnroe admitted in his autobiography ‘Serious’ that anger hindered rather than helped him on court. Despite occasionally playing well after an angry outburst, in general it led to a decline in form. He is clear that he would have been an even better player if he had been able to deal more effectively with his temper.
Fortunately there’s a lot we can do to improve our relationship with anger.
I’ve written before about an exercise which will help you to overcome anger on the tennis court. This practice teaches you the importance of noticing and acknowledging anger – and then redirecting your attention.
The power of this exercise is enhanced substantially if you have already developed a range of tennis-specific mindfulness skills off court. For this reason I teach my clients a broad repertoire of foundational and concentration-based mindfulness skills, as well as on court practices.
I also encourage players to notice when anger arises in their lives outside of tennis.
While anger sometimes has its uses in everyday life, there are also many times when anger is unhelpful. When an unhelpful feeling of anger pops up, acknowledge it, notice what it feels like in the mind and body. Practice being with that feeling without responding to it with an action. Remind yourself that this is a process of mental training. You don’t have to be on court to practice this, or even in a tennis situation at all.
Finding a new and more productive way of dealing with anger is liberating. It feels great not to be a slave to an emotion, when that emotion is leading you down a problematic path.
It feels great to relax into whatever your mind throws at you during a match – that’s what mental toughness in tennis really means.
It feels great to be a resilient, self-sufficient tennis player. It feels great to be truly focused and present on court.
Above all, dealing better with anger during matches will lead to much better results, and greater enjoyment of match play.