What can you do when your opponent throws a fit on the court?

I made the mistake of commenting on a tennis parent’s website to a post about one of their son’s opponents who had an all-out temper tantrum on the court; it was highly emotional and it was repeated. My initial thought was that the outburst could be a symptom of a mental disorder, but one of the parents commenting promptly objected to this interpretation. Evidently, high reactivity is a part of the normal back-and-forth of tennis. Then I remembered from watching both young people and professionals compete in tennis tournaments and also from the tennis player on the pro circuit I had spoken with many years ago.

Throwing a temper tantrum is a habit

It seems to me that throwing a temper tantrum is a habit—to throw a fit when we don’t get our way is easier than taking action to address the issue, which can require immense courage.

For twelve years now, I have been studying and practicing a nonviolent communication process first outlined by the psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg. One thing I know for sure is this: feelings are genuine.

Another way of saying this is that feelings are valid. Feelings are worth giving our attention to. Why? Because they point to a need or a value that is important to us that is either met if positive, or not met if negative. Once we recognize this, we can take action to address the unmet need (or happily accept and express gratitude for a need is being met.)

You may be used to ignoring the warning sign your emotions are sending you or you might simply opt to dismiss a strong “negative” emotion—anger, hurt, fear—or worse still and more commonly, stuff your feelings down. Unaddressed feelings have a tendency to fester and grow inside and lead to problems. You may think there is something wrong with you for feeling “bad.” That is negative self-talk you can promptly dismiss; it is to your benefit to pay extra special attention to your feelings and to what is important to you.

Say for example, you are angry about something that happened on the field between you and another athlete. You are angry, and if your best friend asked you, you will tell them what happened. Instead of the outcome you got, you wanted something else.

I will take this a step further and, with a fair amount of certainty, say that underneath your anger is fear—fear of saying what is important to you, fear of not being worthy, of not being important, of not belonging. Whatever the anger or fear is pointing to, once recognized, you will almost always have a sense of relief, accompanied by a deep sigh of relaxation.

Your career can be at stake

If you let your feelings fester silently inside yourself in the dark, without unpacking them, your career can be at stake. One tennis player who was competing at the top international levels when he was 18, turned his feelings inward. He said he did not reach out for support because there was no one he felt safe talking with. At the top levels of competition it can be challenging to find anyone you trust to give you support unless you have your support set up before you hit this level This very talented young tennis player turned to alcohol to cope with his feelings and unmet needs and became an alcoholic. He had to leave his career at its peak to get help. I met him after he had been in rehab for a year. By that time, he was well aware of what can happen with elite sport competition.

Another outcome may be that you may take your anger out on others—the authorities, your opponent, your teammates—it can become a default habit to have a tantrum because at least you get the emotions out and you justify it to yourself. There may be an immediate—though short-lived—satisfaction in venting and in creating drama. It does not, however, bring the underlying issues to light. These issues will eat you up on the inside until you acknowledge your feelings and what these feelings are pointing to. On the immensely challenging path of elite sports, it is easy to slide down a negative spiral that is of no benefit to anyone and doesn’t help you with the all-important need to cope.

It is important to note that when coaches are recruiting, they look at more than skills; they want an athlete who has the ability to handle tough times, to lose with dignity, to take a loss in stride, and to pick themselves up afterward and continue working on their skills.

Feel the feeling. It is real. There is a reason for it.

So, it is to your advantage to take personal responsibility. Take a little time for self-reflection. I suggest you consider writing some entries in your training journal about your emotional reactions. If something upset you, write down the facts—take a word snapshot. Feel the feeling. It is real. There is a reason for it. Let the anger flow when you write because when you journal it out, you will uncover what you wish had happened—and what you could do next to address the issue. Once you understand what is important to you, you will have a sense of relief, a degree of calm. Doesn’t that sound wonderful! With that, you can shift your world for the better.

Now, comes the time for open communication.

Is there someone you need to talk with? If so, ask that person if you might share your feelings and needs with them—and, at the same time, hear from them what their feelings and needs are. This person may be your perceived “enemy,” but this doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter either which of you speaks first. You will both be telling your side of the story; you will both be both talking and listening. Perhaps this person was unaware of the impact their actions or words had on you and will be grateful when you point that out. See if you can find a common ground, a common need, or a respect for the differences between your needs. In short, see if you can work it out before it gets worse. With understanding, solutions open up, and bonds are made and strengthened. It is rewarding, and it takes immense courage.

Emotional Resilience is like gold for an athlete

Mark Twain said, “Courage is resilience to fear.”  You do have the capacity to find your courage, and there are so many benefits to your doing so. When you take time for this process, you are building your character. You are adding value to your skills by demonstrating your ability to take responsibility for yourself. You are offering a service to everyone on your team and in your sport when you communicate openly without judgment or blame. Most of all, you are building emotional resilience, and that is like gold for an elite athlete.