Monday, June 18, 2012

Managing those pesky emotions

Poor Nalbandian. The best player to never win a Slam is now going to be known worldwide as that guy who accidentally injured a linesman in a moment of frustration, costing him the match, his winnings, and no doubt the trophy. It was his chance to win his 12th singles title. He lost out because of his inability to control his emotions, specifically his anger.

Serena was not fined for bursting into tears in the middle of her match against Razzano at the 2012 French Open. But her emotional loss of control cost her that Slam as well. I honestly believe that an emotionally grounded Serena would have sent Sharapova packing. My point being that Serena's problem was no different from Davide Nalbandian's. By breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably into her towel, Serena once again showed us that she has not yet matured into adult emotional self-control. In moments of intensity she becomes emotionally vulnerable. And it has cost her dearly, more than once. 

It's tempting to blame the Chair in Serena's situation, but I believe that that is unfair. Until someone proves to me that this particular Chair ONLY calls interference during Serena matches, I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt. What needs to change is that Serena Williams needs to learn once and for all that when you're being tested, it's important to know how to keep it together. I don't believe that that is asking too much when your salary for a final win is going to be over a million dollars. 

The problem for players like Serena and Davide may be that no one taught them how to manage their emotions in a competitive situations from the start. And this is as true for the pros as it is for the country-club or public court players. In fact, as you are reading this, if you have taken tennis lessons, I want you to stop and reflect on how many times your coach has bothered to talk to you about how to become mentally fit. Then compare that to the number of times you were told what you were doing wrong on the forehand or backhand. Get my point?

When coaches teach tennis today, they often focus on building a massive serve, a huge forehand, and a reliable double-handed backhand that will not break down under pressure. Some coaches also teach their students how to volley but such coaches are increasingly disappearing from the current era of baseline bashing. Look at how many pros dump their overheads into the net just like you and me. What they can all do is run like mad from side to side. Tennis is now for the fast of feet. And this is all very important instruction.

But many coaches do not also teach the mental side of the game. Sure most coaches tell their students to think positively and visualize, don't get me wrong. But how many tell their students about the importance of emotional self-control? How many teach their students to breathe diaphragmatically, to relax their muscles after the point, to ground themselves and become centered because the next point is always there, because it is not over, there is no crisis, there is no need to catastrophize, and so on. 

How many are qualified to speak about the limbic system where all emotions are produced, and about that pesky amygdala which has a way of interpreting danger where none exists and gets you all tense and ready to fight or flee? How many talk about the regulatory functions of the frontal lobe, and how you need to keep talking to yourself, and talking to yourself, and talking to yourself some more because more nerve messages are sent from the amygdala than to it? What do you think Sharapova is doing every single time she turns her back to the court, walks to the back fence, her eyes focused only on her strings? She is making positive internal self-statements, I would bet my house on it.

And how many coaches teach their students that thought always precedes emotion and that for an emotion to be expressed it must first be triggered by a particularly negative catastrophic thought? And so, in order to gain emotional self-control one must first gain cognitive self-control. In other words, banish the catastrophic thoughts and you will be better able to manage the negative emotions they trigger. And so on. 

Judging from the way many of the pros behave, it is clear that they never learned many of the concepts that you dear readers are getting free from this blog. My bill is in the mail. 

My point is that the Nalbandian situation is not unique in professional tennis. What makes Nalbandian stand out is that he caused someone to bleed. And if I were Nalbandian, my defense would include the fact that the damn sign should have been better attached to the wall. Not that I am defending his behavior by any means. But really he is being punished not for what he did but for its terrible consequences. And yes he deserves to be punished. But he is not alone among the long list of tennis players who also need to dedicate themselves to learning how to manage their emotions before, during, and after play.

And I don't mean in this treatise to focus only on managing anger and frustration although these twin emotions probably cause tennis players the most in fines. Just ask John McEnroe. But when Roger burst into tears after losing to Nadal at an Australian Open some years ago, I had the same thought back then. Roger needs to learn how to manage his emotions. My problem was not with his tears but with the fact that they should have been shed privately into Mirka's ample bosom, not on full public display.

Clearly I believe that all tennis players should include a sports psychologist in their retinue. And it is sadly obvious that most of them do not. Andy Murray seems like a player who can benefit from hiring a shrink to help him climb out of that hole of negativity in which he has been living for far too long. Lendl is not going to be able to do that for him. (No offense Ivan my man, I swear I'm thrilled that you have a job.) 

And Wozniacki's decision to hire Thomas Johansson is, I believe, an utter waste of time. Not that I am begrudging Thomas his new gig, but without a shrink by his side, he is not going to help Caroline be anything more than the passive, defensive hack she has remained for far too long. And maybe had Nalbandian sought the help of the right psychologist years ago, he may not close out his career as the super-talented Argie who is yet to win a Slam, a.k.a that guy who injured a line judge in a fit of anger.