Sport Psychology: The Schedule for Emotions

Whether you play tennis, table tennis, racquetball, badminton, or squash, individual sports have similar emotional challenges. In coaching, once in a while you meet a student whose dedication becomes too intense. This is a letter to just such a student. Let’s call her Engrid.

Dear Engrid:

I want to thank you for the intense effort you bring to every minute on my lesson court as well as the studious approach you have to practicing your skills on other courts. Of all my students, you are the most intense about your tennis game and I want you to know that I appreciate how much effort you put into it.

Of course intensity is a two edged sword and has some disadvantages too. One is that it tends to put players at more risk of injury (your recent calf muscle experience is an example). Another is that you run the risk of what many sport psychologists call “Burn Out”.

Today coaches and psychologists use the term “Burn Out” to mean different things, but generally they mean that the sport or activity has become more often irritating or anxiety producing, than enjoyable. When that balance shifts negatively, a player either quits or at least notices a significant plateau in performance which is difficult to break through.
Players may ask, “how can a game I love like tennis ever feel distasteful or repulsive?”

In over 25 years of coaching at all levels of skill, especially at the elite athlete level, I have answered this question many times. This time Engrid my answer will be customized a bit for you.

As your coach and health care practitioner, I realize that you have some compulsive personality traits. It’s an intensely which strives to reach toward perfection in most, if not all, modes of expression. The good news for coaches is that for complex activities these feelings motivate you to bring a high degree of focus.

This is why I believe you appreciate my style of instruction. You enjoy when I break a motor skill down to its minute parts so that you may scrutinize and practice them in there bite size portions until you have mastered each part toward creating the better whole.

The bad news is that these detailed study, for some personality types like this, can become tedious, may negatively influence your mood, approach to outside activities, or perspective on those around you. When I hear you berate yourself, or express feelings on the court that others are not trying their best in practice, my alarm bell goes off telling me that tennis is becoming too much of a burden. That perhaps it has become a chore, or at least more trouble than it is worth. Their are two approaches to ameliorate this situation–one logistic, one attitudinal. Both will help make you a better player!

Logistically, I would advise that you schedule more recreational time off. Get away from the court. That time should be spent in amusement/relaxation and should be as carefully interspersed between your tennis workouts as if you were designing a cross training schedule with other fitness activities. The question arises, “How do I tell if I am successful enough at this?”

When you are getting dressed to PLAY you are well rested and as you walk toward the court, feelings of anticipation of the adventure you are about to have crescendo. Your heart rate picks up as the fun of the last great shots and disappointments of the correctable errors flood back to you as you get ready to hit the first ball. Now we have struck on our second method of amelioration–attitudinal.

Tennis must remain a game. It must remain PLAY in every sense of the word. It certainly has no components that should elicit feelings SIMILAR in intensity to a life or death struggle, that your survival is in the balance, or self esteem is at risk, AT ANY TIME.

It should not feel like work. It should not elicit feelings that are as intense as those you feel when you are busy or frustrated while trying to make a living and pay your bills. It should not elicit feelings as intense as, for example, if all your family were suddenly coming to visit. It should not make you doubt your own effort, your own dedication, and the unique skills and attributes that you bring to the sport. To let others worry about their own level of effort and intensity is a skill which requires practice. That practice can be done outside competition too.

You may not have met anyone like this, because I have not either, but there are many people who can’t leave their homes because they are afraid of failure. Of being hurt either psychologically or physically. They are physically fit enough but they can’t go out, can’t go shopping, can’t go to a movie, or go to a restaurant, let alone play sports. They are psychological “Shut Ins”, agoraphobics unable to go into public places.

The take home lesson from them is to treat each event in which you participate with a sense of gratitude. Embrace the idea that you are healthy enough to enjoy the risk of both good and bad performances.

In tennis, I would like to see everyone respect, if not relish the inevitable but temporary feelings of failure in themselves, as well as respect others who take these risks too. Be proud of the ability to risk your feelings in competition as a sign of a healthy life and healthy tennis life. As a sport scientist, it is sometimes difficult to communicate that this is a critical part of the process of improving motor skills.

The “Schedule for Emotions”

The great athletes when they miss a shot are well adjusted to this perspective. They PRACTICE handling it better than recreational players. With rare exceptions, they take 5 or 10 seconds to SILENTLY indulge in purely normal disappointment WITHOUT showing negative body language. The next 5-10 seconds to physically practice the proper motion or mentally note the proper decision for the next time the situation arises. Then in the next 5-10 seconds they move on to preparing for the next point.

That is what I call the “Schedule for Emotions” in tennis. Some coaches call these rituals to be employed before every point. Inevitably you have about 30 seconds to indulge silently and get your act together for the next point. If you verbalize, slump your shoulders, or take too long in recovery, your opponent will think you are about to loose several points if they just get the ball back. This makes their task very easy. Remember, psychological skills are like motor skills that require practice!

Missing a shot and making a shot are two sides of the same coin that fascinates us all with this game. It is as inevitable that you will have moments of elation as well as moments of disappointment. You can handle these feelings like a beginner or strive to handle them like the pros.

The best players demonstrate the above competitive psychological skills as often as forehands. They have taken to heart that the risk of having these temporary and illusory failures is actually part of the fun.

If this topic interests you further, I can pass along several articles by the top sports psychology people in the industry, one of which is Dr. Allen Fox. These articles have been required reading for scholarship athletes at USC and other teams I’ve coached.

Tennis is play time. Have fun!

Warmest Regards,

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