When watching professional tennis, there are so many great players to watch and emulate. Conversely, there are also other players not worthy of copying especially regarding the mental game. This article is not about calling out professional players that sabotage their games by disrespecting themselves, their opponents and the game by throwing rackets, smashing balls and verbal abuse. Rather it’s to try to understand what’s happening below the surface when a professional player, junior or everyday Joe implodes on the court.
Think about this: how many times have you seen a professional player throw their racket or smash a ball, either hitting or narrowly missing a linesman, ball boy or fan? Or verbally abusing the umpire, or even chirping directly at their opponent? To me this is unacceptable, unappealing and completely unsportsmanlike. Now, let’s bring it closer to home: imagine it’s your child that you’re watching. They are on the court, cursing, smashing their racket and just self-destructing. Parents often relate that when this happens they often leave, not wanting to support this behavior from their child. Then the player looks to the side fence, doesn’t see the parent and sure enough the ingredients for a heated car ride home are waiting to be cooked!
Certainly it’s key for the parent and/or coach to not only address the behavior (broken racket, smashed ball, verbal abuse) but also to look into the underlying cause(s), below the surface. In reality, upon deeper reflection, hints or triggers that all has not been well have probably been simmering for a long time. However, like a volcano, until it blows, there is not much attention on it. If your kid were a robot you could turn a switch and viola, their behavior changes.
Now, of course that’s not realistic, and equally you cannot put a band aid over the behavior, and say “it won’t happen again”, or, “this was a one off”. In this instance, you merely have affixed a bandage to the symptom, not the cause.
So, what is the underlying cause? What’s going on below the surface? This is where things get complicated and are unique to each individual person that plays the game. However, there are some common questions which come up in my client work which would be worth exploring with your child, and as a player, coach and parent self-reflecting on.
The following are common pressures, thoughts and triggers that kids (and pros) internalize. Questions like these often relate to the turbulence a player carries in their body and ruminates on in their mind. Here are a number of them:
Is your child feeling intense pressure to win? Where is this coming from? Are the expectations of friends, coaches, and parents getting to them? Is the child afraid of failing? What would failing mean to them?
Does the child feel like they are being judged every time they walk on the court? By whom? Is it that they are trying to validate their worth, value and standing as a person in matches? Is it that under pressure they skip the process and jump to thinking only of the results and forgetting about what they must do to get that result?
Are they coming back from an injury? Or holding the stress of an injury in their body because they don’t want to admit vulnerability? Is it that they are thinking of the post-match critique while bottled up in the car? Is it that the child is trying to be perfect, because that’s what they think is expected?
Is it that they are trying to prove themselves to others and winning is the only way to do it? Is it that they don’t understand that tennis does not define them as a person and therefore a loss is more than disappointment, but it is shame, as it means they are not only not good enough as a player, but worse yet as a person?
These are just some of the underlying fears and beliefs that may be behind bad behavior. In reality, another lens to see things, though it may be hard to believe...but true. The bad behavior throwing of the racket, verbal abuse etc. is an emotional release for the child, the only way they know to vent and release their overwhelmed energy at that moment. A young junior tennis client told me he used to punch himself in the stomach when he got into tense match situations. He explained to me that he was just trying to punch his nerves and fear of losing. On another occasion, a top-notch high school player told me she would throw her racket into the back fence during a match to relieve the pressure.
Again, let’s be clear, I am not condoning ill behavior. In fact, I dislike it even more from the pros because young aspiring players observe it and this behavior then gets normalized. However, it is crucial that we attempt to understand what is fueling these actions and address them from the root level. It’s important to note that if the roots of the problem are not resolved, two things will happen: the emotional cause of the tension will be released in a different way, or the athlete will hold the issues inside and erupt on court at another time. Neither of these results is conducive to balanced mental health and playing your best.
In summary, to address and change the bad behavior we must first understand what’s going on below the surface, what’s triggering things, and what are the thought patterns the player is having. On a personal note, I share with my clients, and also remember when I am playing competitive matches:
“Tennis is not who I am, it is what I do.”
Because it’s not who I am, it’s not personal, there’s nothing to prove, and I don’t have to be perfect. My goal is to just play, be the best I can be and bring who I am (resilient, competitive, problem solver) to what I am doing. The result will be a consequence which I can learn from, win or lose.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.