Most of the obviously counterproductive emotional responses during tennis matches are driven by subconscious fears of failure and urges to escape the stress of competition. Darwin would have it that emotional responses generally evolve because they, in some way, enhance prospects for species survival. In other words, they are supposed to be helpful. Unfortunately, in tennis matches the opposite is usually the case. Our nervous systems were not designed to exert fine motor control for long periods of time under high stress. Certain normal emotional responses, in particular those involving escape from prolonged and excessive anxiety, frequently make players lose to opponents who are physically and technically inferior.
By its very nature, tennis is an emotional game. Of course it may not look it from the outside, but it is constructed to be a one-on-one, non-contact fistfight. It is inherently antagonistic since players use their tennis tools to break down their opponents. It is a battle of wills, where players compete for physical and mental dominance, where threat and intimidation play significant roles in victory, and where one contestant ultimately proves himself directly superior to his opponent. This makes the emotional stakes far greater than they appear. Closely-contested matches are stressful because winning them is so pleasurable and uplifting, and losing them is so painful.
Uncontrollable outcomes cause stress. For the serious tennis competitor, one who has invested countless hours honing tennis skills and who competes full-bloodedly, the emotional stakes of match-play are high. The problem is that the outcome is not controllable. It is an unpleasant fact of life that no matter how hard you train, how well you concentrate, how shrewd your game plan is, and how perfectly you control your emotions, you cannot be sure of winning against an opponent of equal ability. The scary truth of competition is that you can do everything right and still lose.
This is the structure for a fearful and uncomfortably stressful state of affairs. Essentially, you have players in a situation where one outcome is very pleasant and the other is very painful, but try as they might, they cannot control the outcome. It is a structure tailor-made for stress, anxiety, and escapism.
It is natural to try to escape from stress. The usual means of escape from the stress, uncertainty, and uncontrollability of a tennis match are: to become angry, to make excuses, to lose concentration, to focus on and complain about „problems” rather than solve them or forget them, or to simply give up. Of course it is not a conscious decision, nor is it a productive one. But it is quite normal. Any creature will become stressed and try to escape from an uncontrollable situation when the alternative outcomes are randomly pleasant (winning) or extremely painful (losing). Escape responses are natural. It is the exceedingly rare (or abnormal) individuals who can remain rational, unemotional, and practical in an important match when, despite their committed efforts, things are going wrong and the prospects of failure loom large. The vast majority cannot. Since they can’t simply pack their bags and run off the court, their alternative is to use forms of mental and emotional escapism to temporarily insulate themselves from the impending pain of defeat.
Defense mechanisms: When players elect to forget about winning in favor of making excuses, becoming blindly angry, or deciding that further efforts to win are hopeless, they are employing what Sigmond Freud identified and called „defense mechanisms.” These are unconscious distortions of perception and interpretation that protect us from unpalatable realities, and they are quite normal. Freud postulated that cold reality can force us to face stressful or frightening issues that we cannot resolve. At such times we often comfort ourselves, unconsciously, of course, by adjusting the way we see things so that these stressors appear to go away. Defense mechanisms are, in essence, soothing forms of self-delusion. The key to their effectiveness is that while we are using them, we don’t realize what we are doing.
One of the common defense mechanisms employed in tennis matches is called „rationalization.” An early example of it in literature was Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. Here, unable to reach grapes high on a trellis, the fox rationalizes that they are „sour” anyway. Since sour grapes are unpalatable, the fox is not unhappy about being unable to get them. He thus reconciles the discrepancy between his desires and capabilities. (Like the tennis player who says he doesn’t care if he wins.) As with all defense mechanisms, it works only because the fox completely believes his own story, a belief made possible because there are elements of truth in it.
Players rationalize when they unconsciously rearrange facts to produce a picture of reality that is less insecure and stressful than the real one. As with all defense mechanisms, some of the real facts in a close tennis match are unpalatable. At the top of the list is the fact that they may lose, despite their most fervent efforts to win. This is scary and stressful. So players create more attractive depictions by emphasizing different facts and adjusting their viewpoints. Examples are, „I don’t care if I win because all I want is the exercise anyway.” or „The guy cheated me, and if the cheater wants the match that badly, let him have it.” or „I’m so mad I just don’t care anymore.” or „What’s the use of trying” It’s just not my day.” Here the truth is that the player does want exercise; the player did get a bad call; and the player may well be having a bad day.
There are elements of truth in each statement. But to reach their happy conclusions the players must unconsciously reduce the importance of some facts (like wanting to win the match) while amplifying the importance of others. They don’t make up false facts; rather they just change the emphasis of real ones. Inconvenient facts are ignored while convenient ones are highlighted. At the end of this process the rationalizing players are able to reach conclusions that solve their emotional difficulties. It costs them a lot of tennis matches, but while they are doing it, they feel better.
Angry players, for example, feel no fear. They are no longer afraid of losing. All they feel is anger – problem solved! Or, a player who is afraid of losing gets a bad call and decides to tank the match. Once he or she stops trying to win, the fear of losing goes away, and the stress is reduced – problem solved! Players bemoaning and focusing on their excuses no longer have to deal with the uncertainty of winning the match – again, problem solved! Afterward the player may regret it, but by then it is too late.
Of course the great competitors can see past their own natural escapist emotions and can keep their real goals in mind. But anyone can do it if they become aware in advance of what’s likely to happen emotionally and make up their minds not to fall for it. Like the large piece of chocolate cake available at the restaurant for dessert. The smart, health-conscious diners my want the cake but resist ordering it because they know it’s not good for them. The smart tennis players do the same with counterproductive emotions.