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What’s the deal with emotions in college tennis?

June 13, 2017

This post has been on my mind for awhile and I’m writing it for all of those young tennis players who aspire to play college tennis. I want you to be prepared for what you are going to experience, and at the same time, I want you to apply the actions and principles of mental toughness that are going to help you succeed. To be clear, my viewpoint on the emotions and behaviors in college tennis is probably not the norm among coaches and players. Other coaches and programs will encourage you to do the exact opposite of what I will suggest here, and that’s fine. We all have our own approach to driving great performances. Mine is centered on a player’s mental toughness and competitive skills, and letting results stem from that, and that is what I aim to present to you here.

So have you been to a college tennis match? Men’s? Women’s? Both? If you have, what you likely saw was a lot of energy, and a lot of emotion on court and in the stands. You probably liked it and thought it was cool. It’s such a different atmosphere from tournament tennis and high school tennis, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. But is there too much energy? Is there too much emotion? Before you answer that, let me throw another question at you. How many of the top pros on tour, especially on the men’s side, behave the way most college tennis players do? The answer: Zero.

Of course we see professional players display emotion after points, but it’s not with the same frequency that we see in college tennis, especially with celebrations. When the top pros do celebrate, they’ve actually won something that mattered – like an important game or a set. They don’t go crazy celebrating the first point of a game. It’s 15-0. You haven’t won anything that actually matters!

To be clear, the vast majority of college teams and players that I see handle themselves well, but in my opinion, there is generally too much emotion after points in college tennis especially on the celebration side. From my vantage point, celebrating the point is not the only purpose for the emotional outburst. I think a significant portion of that emotion is being directed at the opponent in an effort to intimidate and get in his or her head. When I have asked players about this, most deny that they are attempting to intimidate their opponent through their celebrations. It’s possible that they are not aware of what they are doing, and/or they are simply copying the behavior of someone else because they thought this behavior looked cool. Perhaps they believe that this is the way college tennis is or is supposed to be. However, I think it’s difficult to watch the actual behavior and not believe that something more is going on than just pure celebration. When a player raises her fist and stares at her opponent, that is clearly an attempt to intimidate and taunt. When a player yells, “Let’s go!” in such an obnoxious manner, it is clearly an attempt to distract and annoy the opponent.

For me, it’s difficult to watch these players – who are very nice people off the court – act in such a boorish manner on the court because they think that’s how college tennis is supposed to be played. It doesn’t have to be this way and it is incredibly disrespectful. Your opponent is NOT your enemy. Thinking that way only hurts you because it stokes up your negative emotions. And you are potentially sabotaging your mental toughness because you are playing with too much emotion.

Since the rise of Roger Federer and subsequently Rafael Nadal, we have seen the top men’s tennis players display a great deal of respect for each other on and off the court. They don’t see each other as enemies. They see each other as challenges that can make each of them better. This wasn’t always true in the past, and tennis rivalries often became adversarial and personal. But this generation of players has evolved beyond that to a place where Respect is a competitive skill, and it actually makes them better competitors.

“Emotionalism destroys consistency.”
– John Wooden, UCLA Basketball Coach (1948 – 1975)
10 National Championships

In the March/April 2017 issue of Tennis Magazine, Allen Fox, Ph.D wrote an article advising players to play without feeling. He stated that tennis is a mental marathon, and emotions after points can exhaust a player mentally and physically leading to fewer mental resources later in the match. When you are mentally exhausted, your ability to make good decisions and deal with adversity is going to be compromised. You won’t be thinking clearly and you will make mental mistakes. The ups and downs of winning and losing points can be exhausting – we’ve all felt that. The remedy is to treat the next point as the most important, and to avoid judging the last point (or the past, in general). After a point is over, ask yourself – have you actually won anything worth celebrating? Have you actually lost anything worth getting upset over? The answer is almost always, “No.”

As long as the match is still in play, you owe it to yourself to keep your thoughts and emotions in the present moment so you can play better and better. The match stays in the present moment and always moves forward so you should do the same. This attitude leads to a mentally calmer approach; one in which you can continue to focus on your overall game plan.

I enjoyed this article by Allen Fox so much – and I’ve been preaching the same for years – that I printed it for several of the teams I work with to discuss. In general, the discussions went well. Players understood the logic, but change takes time. Talking about being calm is easier than it is to put it into practice, especially when you’ve spent years playing with emotions. It’s a habit that has been reinforced for years so replacing it with new behavior is a process. We don’t want to simply suppress emotions per se, but instead, choose to focus on what is really important if you want to have a chance of winning the match.

Naturally, some players pushed back on this no emotions after points approach. They’ve reached a very high level of tennis playing with emotions, so their response was something like, “Isn’t that a sign that it works for me?” I won’t deny that playing with such emotions can work. These players have reached a high level, but their approach is NOT optimal and they have NEVER tried playing the way I’m suggesting. The ceiling on their development potential is much lower than it would be with strong mental and emotional intelligence, yet for various reasons, they are afraid to change.

If you develop your mental and emotional skills, you open up a new world of possibilities in your tennis game. For example, Federer, Nadal, Wawrinka, Djokovic all intentionally worked on their mental game to help them compete better. Once they started competing better, they realized more of the results and achievements they wanted. If you’re able to do this, you’ll play with a sense of tranquility and enjoyment that you didn’t realize existed. I’ve been through this transformation so I have first-hand experience with moving from the agony of winning and losing points to the tranquility of playing good tennis (although celebrating was not my problem!).

Earlier this Spring, one of the schools I work with faced a very good team, and a program on the rise. They have great players and great coaches, but the level of emotionalism that they brought to the match was over the top, in my opinion. Every time they won a point, some sort of celebration ensued. It didn’t matter what the score was or if they had actually won anything that mattered. At 15-love, they were screaming “C’mon!” Some of our guys got sucked into this behavior with varying degrees of success. Contrary to what players think, not everyone handles this as well as they think they do. Decision making was affected. Behavior and sportsmanship was affected. And interestingly enough, several players were cramping at the end of their matches. There is no doubt in my mind that mental exhaustion was a factor in the physical exhaustion evidenced by cramping. It takes a lot of physical energy to celebrate after points so players were using up their physical reserves for no good reason.

For me, this particular team match was a difficult one to watch because the behavior was so counter-productive to mental toughness and producing great tennis. It’s not how I want our guys to conduct themselves because I know they can rise above it and be better competitors in the process. The idea that you have to be a jerk to the opponent and/or play with anger is a myth propagated by people who have no idea what true TOUGHNESS is. Winning does not erase how you conducted yourself.

So back to our young player who aspires to play college tennis – what should you do? First, decide who your role model for behavior will be. Here are two options: Roger Federer / Rafael Nadal or the average college tennis player. Most players will choose to behave like the average college tennis player. It’s what they see everyday and it’s easy to do. However, if you make that choice, please understand that you are choosing to be AVERAGE. Is that what you want to do? Is that what you aspire to be? I doubt it, but intentions and actions are often at odds with each other. Make sure your actions in life align with your intentions. If you want to be outstanding, you need to STAND OUT. That means learning from the best players and coaches in the world and doing what they do, and in the future, expanding on their methods. The players around you will probably not be doing what you do. They may even question your methods, but they will be wrong. Doing what everyone around you is doing will only lead to mediocrity. Have the courage to do what you believe is right.

If you really want to stand out, then work on your mental toughness and competitive skills. Intentionally train skills such as focus, concentration, confidence, intensity, motivation, respect, optimism, self-belief, persistence and resilience. Develop a personal philosophy that allows you to handle challenges, adversity, competition, mistakes and failures in a way that moves you forward. Your personal philosophy will help you make good decisions under pressure. Developing these skills intentionally will help you realize that the behavior of the average college tennis player is an obstacle on the way to becoming the best competitor you could be. I’m asking you to have the courage to choose to overcome that obstacle. Not only will you be better for it, but just maybe, you’ll be a part of helping the college tennis world evolve to a better level of competitor – a place where the top men’s players on the ATP tour have gone.

P.S. – If you want a copy of the article by Allen Fox, Ph.D., referenced above, send me an email at brian@performancextra.com and I’ll forward the pdf to you.

photo credit: Don Voaklander 2016_07_31UniTennisDay4 (32) via photopin (license)

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4 responses to “What’s the deal with emotions in college tennis?”

  1. Tammy Goldfisher says:

    Funny thing – I think I’ve recently experienced how emotions have worn me down physically over the duration of a match.
    As the physical side of a players game may decrease with age, hopefully the counter-balance is a stronger mental game using calm focus and warm thoughts.

    Sign me up for more training on this topic… I will focus on this during my matches…I found keeping a notebook helped but sometimes I’m in such a state that I really did not express purposeful comments but more jib jab. Interesting to re-read your notes from your matches as an indicator of your mental state.

    • Brian Lomax says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tammy! It’s true that we all need to be aware of the physical consequences of emotions, regardless of age, level, league, etc.

      Training journals are effective, but you need a structure for those. Email me if you want some more info on that topic. Take care!

  2. Joe says:

    I haven’t checked into this blog in a while, and it’s funny because the very day I chose to, I find this article. This is, without doubt, my chief objection to the way the game is played today.

    Interestingly enough, this “emotionalism” has been present in the college ranks for a long, long time. As kid in Louisiana in the early 80s, I used to watch LSU’s team play Pepperdine, Georgia Tech (and even your own alma mater, Brian) in atmospheres that were nothing short of an MMA or a WWF event. At the time, even as a child, I was puzzled by it, but probably enjoyed it as a spectator.

    Fast-forward to my own college tennis career ten years later, and the behavior had only worsened. Even now, playing as an over-the-hill vet in local leagues, the obnoxious self-cheering continues at top volume.

    As a fan of the game, I’ve always loved the fact that tennis is one of the few games (maybe other than golf or chess, another of my favorites) that is conducted in absolute silence. To me, there is such a tension and release in the hush during points, and the waves and roars of emotion following. I still think the most interesting matches are those old Wimbledon highlight reels of players in all-whites, with their wooden rackets, quietly trying to out-fox one another. No fist-pumps, no bouncing around and chest-thumping, just foot-work and shot-making, placements and angles, done in sheerest silence. That, to me, is like watching a great symphony, or looking at a Canaletto.

    • Brian Lomax says:

      Joe,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and we are of the same mind on this. Unfortunately, this is what is taught to players at an early age and what they see on television, so it’s hard to convince someone later in their career that what they are doing is sub-optimal. So much emotion is spent on insignificant moments that it can only be classified as a waste of energy.
      Hope to see you soon!

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