Experiencing difficult emotions is normal in tennis. It’s also normal to want to control or get rid of those emotions.
The problem is that trying to control emotions doesn’t work. In fact it’s often counterproductive. By attempting to control or eliminate uncomfortable feelings, we’re actually putting fuel on the fire, and compounding our difficulty.
The only effective way to control emotions is to give up on trying to control them.
This may sound counterintuitive, but I’m going to explain in this article why this is correct, and the steps you can take to deal more productively with emotions on court.
Accepting Difficult Emotions on Court
Players often ask me how they can get rid of troubling emotions during a match. How do I stop feeling unhappy about trailing in a match? How do I overcome feeling disappointment when I make a bad mistake? How do I avoid nerves on big points?
I explain to them that there is no need to get rid of any of these emotions. They’re normal responses to the inevitable events that occur in a match.
If we make a series of mistakes, it’s normal to feel frustration. If we get a bad line call, or get distracted by someone shouting in the crowd, it’s normal to feel anger. If we’re serving for the match, it’s normal to feel nervous.
Anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety and nerves are all common experiences and we should expect to feel them to a lesser or greater extent in every match we play. Tennis is an unusually mentally challenging sport, largely as a result of its unique scoring system, which constantly puts us under pressure, with players poised to take all or lose all at regular intervals. The game’s very structure continually pushes our emotional buttons.
Of course, we can also expect to feel joy, excitement, satisfaction and other positive emotions in tennis. A tennis match is usually a rollercoaster experience of different feelings and thoughts, some positive, some negative.
Accepting this fact is the first step to an effective approach to our mental experience on court.
We should not expect to feel good all the time on court. One of the keys to developing mental toughness in tennis is learning how to play well when we’re not feeling good. This is one of the least understood skills of all the great players – the ability to play well and win, even when you’re not feeling good.
Why Trying To Control Emotions Doesn’t Work
When we accept that difficult emotions are normal and can’t be avoided in a tennis match, then we no longer need to feel surprised by them or that something is wrong when they occur. Instead we can focus on dealing with those challenging emotions in an appropriate way.
Think of your emotions as being like the weather. Sometimes it’s a sunny day without a cloud in the sky, sometimes it’s overcast and cold, sometimes it’s stormy and dark. Most of the time the weather is changeable.
So it is with your emotions. Sometimes you’re happy and playing with ease and freedom. Sometimes you feel flat and out of sorts. Other times you’re struggling with dark and difficult feelings on court. Very often you experience changeable and various emotions during the course of a match.
The lesson here is this: just as you can’t force the weather to change, in a tennis match you can’t force your emotions to change.
Interfering with your emotions and trying to change them can get you into trouble. Just as shouting at a stormy sky because you want it to be sunny will not change the weather, so arguing with yourself, or trying to talk or think your way out of a bad mood or unwanted feeling will not work.
In fact it exacerbates the problem, focussing your mind more on the unwanted feeling, and less on the present moment and the match itself.
Crucially, trying to think your way out of difficult emotions on court increases the amount of cognitive activity in the mind. This unnecessary thinking makes it hard to get into the zone, that state of flow in which you play with intuition and ease.
Remember that when you’re playing in the zone you’re not thinking a lot – you’re in a deep state of presence where thinking is either minimal or non-existent.
Trying to deal with difficult emotions by thinking about them or ‘working them out’ is generating more thinking, just at the time when you need to be thinking less!
There are also practical reasons why trying to think your way out of unwanted emotions on court doesn’t work. You simply don’t have time! You have at most a minute on the changeover or between points. This should be a time for rest, maintaining composure, and perhaps a little strategic planning (ie. where to serve). This time should not be wasted on interfering with emotions.
Dealing Effectively With Emotions On Court
So, we can’t control emotions. And thinking about them on court doesn’t help us either.
In order to deal effectively with emotions, you have to learn to leave them alone, and then refocus on the match.
In short, we have to learn to do nothing with our emotions.
Sounds like it should be easy, but most players instinctively want to meddle with unwanted feelings and try to banish them.
You have to train yourself not to do this.
You need to learn to notice your emotions, then let them be there, then refocus on the present moment.
One of the most efficient ways of learning this is by training in tennis-specific mindfulness.
Mindfulness trains us to be present and focused. It enables players to maximize their potential in every match, whatever their emotional experiences are. It helps players overcome nerves, choking, anger and frustration. It enables players to play with ease, freedom and intuition.
When we give up on trying to control our emotions on court, we open up the door to a new, more effective way of playing the game.