I am hearing more and more chat about the need for children to have emotional control on the tennis court. Funnily enough I have a slightly bizarre theory. Telling a child to control their emotions is bullshit! I know from being a dad to 2 young children, if they are upset the last thing I would tell them is to control their emotions. What I would do is distract (re-focus) them. If you are a parent reading this you will have first hand experience of this. Your child can have a fall and are hysterically crying. You can say one thing that takes their mind away from their distress and in a second they are back to normal, maybe even laughing.
I liken telling someone to control their emotions as effective as telling someone not to eat chocolate, it doesn’t work. It is more effective to suggest someone replaces chocolate with something else like nuts or a piece of fruit. If someone is angry on a tennis court they don’t have to control their anger, they have to re-focus on a process.
Relatively new research (2014) suggests there may only be 4 primary emotions
It is a sad state of affairs to admit that most of the time I watch junior tennis matches I see sadness, anger and fear. What is interesting to me is negative emotions outweigh positive 3:1. I’ve often said negative emotions are way more powerful than positive in that if you think negatively you give yourself zero chance of success where if you think positively you only increases your chances of success. If this is true, and it’s only my opinion, then it makes sense to me we have to practice being happy.
What does happiness look like on a tennis court? There are so many secondary emotions associated with happiness; joy, cheerfulness, pride, optimism, hope, enthralment, excitement, jubilation, delight, satisfaction, the list goes on and on. When you read the list above what do you think is realistic to expect from a child in the middle of a match? I genuinely believe they could experience all of them in one single match. I cannot bring myself to list the secondary emotions for sadness, anger and fear. You won’t be surprised to know they are much larger. You also won’t be surprised to know that if you read them you know that children experience them all in a match. It can be torturous to watch. Imagine what it must be like for the parents to watch their children go through this hell in front of other parents and children.
On the match court, what typically makes someone happy? Of course the obvious answer is winning. What can they win in a match? A point, a game, a set, a match and ultimately a tournament. If they equate happiness with winning then they are in for an awful experience.
Let’s take an extreme situation of winning a match 6-0 6-0 but every game goes to deuce. In terms of points they win 60 points and they lose 36. That is 60 happy moments and 36 unhappy moments. So even if a child double bagels an opponent then they are going to spend over 30% of the match in a bad place. Ever seen a kid be 5-0 up, lose a game and throw a hissy fit? You will often hear the excuse for this as ‘it is because they are so competitive’. That is also bullshit. It is because they attach happiness with winning and they are desperate for it.
Most matches are not 6-0 6-0. They are tightly fought affairs where a point here or there can make the difference. If this is the case then the player will have to be aware of what they are great at when these moments come. Too many players spend the majority of their coaching/training time either making changes or working on ‘weaknesses’. In my opinion this fills their head with doubts and fears. When these doubts and fears are put under pressure what emotion do you think will be triggered….. ANGER of course.
How many times have you watched a junior play a match and think to yourself ‘why are they so angry?’ I’ve lost count of how many times. Now counter that thought with how many times have you watched a junior play a match and genuinely look content or full of joy and happiness? I’m struggling to think of many in the last 33 years. What would happiness look like on a tennis court? I am getting joy from writing this blog on a Wednesday morning sitting in my house. Am I smiling? nope! Am I showing any positive emotion? Nope! I am content and enjoying writing this because I am submerged in PROCESS.
There are 3 different areas for being submerged in process:
- What am I about to DO – planning mindset
- What am I DOING – performer mindset
- What has just happened – reflective mindset
In my opinion the second one is easy as it involves physically doing something. This is where the training and practice will take over. However numbers one and three are very tough as they have to re-focus straight after the point and the re-focus again just before the next point begins. The reality is compared to the ‘doing’ stuff of a child they have virtually never practiced these skills. It is little wonder our children look like they are emotional wrecks on a tennis court. They have no experience of practicing planning and reflecting. Too often a child’s ‘talent’ is related to their ‘doing’ skills.
Tennis is a chaotic game. It is an extremely complex sport and nothing about it is easy so why do we have an expectation a child should be able to handle this crazy sport naturally. To play the game at their best they have to learn to be the calm within the storm. However the real storm takes place in their heads in between the points or at change of ends. They have to find ways to enjoy the struggle, the up and down nature of the game, the occasional sense of injustice and they may still lose the match.
If I can take a sense of joy and contentment from reading a book or writing this blog then it is relatively easy for me to take joy from being physically and mentally active pitting my skills and experience against a friend or peer at the other end of the court. What a privilege to play such a complex and chaotic game against someone. What a sheer delight in seeing how my skills match up against theirs. What a tremendous test of sheer determination and competitiveness. Ultimately winning has nothing to do with the result of the match but more to do with how I deal with this chaos. What do I learn from this amazing experience? How I take this information and use it wisely to ensure the next time I am in the middle of the storm I have a clear focus on the processes I need to perform at my best. My best may not be enough to win this particular match but from this new experience I can become stronger because there is always another match.
It took me decades to learn this as I didn’t have anyone helping me understand and learn from these experiences. Learning from your mistakes is an important experience to have but if you could choose surely you would choose to learn from someone else’s mistakes. That way you get the benefit without the huge time delay in learning.
We have to encourage children to be grateful for everything that tennis brings. Friends for life, amazing skill development, benefits of travelling and all the other transferable life skills tennis can naturally teach. They will learn, over time, how to enjoy this amazing game and it is our job as coaches, parents and friends to help accelerate this process. We have to take every opportunity possible to separate their self worth from winning or being perceived as successful. Their worth as a person has nothing to do with how well they strike a small yellow sphere over a net. Place more emphasis on how they submerge themselves in process before and after the point. Playing the point is relatively simple, it’s what you think, feel and do in between them that will make the difference in the match.
With this in mind, one of my biggest suggestions for all children would be……… play way more practice sets!! This seems to be the thing they do the least. Think about it for a second, if a child needs to practice planning and reflecting then they need to put themselves in the situation to practice it. Practice sets are a hugely important part of the learning process for children and they should take every opportunity to practice with as many different players as possible. Ideally a mix of players who they are more experienced than, the same as or less experienced. That way they learn how to handle all the pressures a match court can bring. Interestingly enough if you could give truth serum to children I am convinced they would tell you the most pressure comes from playing against players who they are expected to beat. Think for a second on why that may be…… they hardly ever practice with players they can beat as they view it as not worth their time. They always want to play against better players. There is little pressure in playing better players as the expectations are so low. If you are a parent or a coach, please encourage your children to play practice sets with everyone and anyone.
So, in summary, I believe that tennis is the ultimate game if children want to test their ability to submerge themselves in process. Process is not just playing the point, it is every second you are on the court. They can learn how to enjoy the test, the struggle and the chaos it brings. They will learn how to be the calm within the storm and learn how to bring joy to their tennis. I guarantee you will start to see this transfer into other areas of their lives.
If you have any questions on this blog please write them below or you can privately email me through the site.
Thank you for reading