This Video of a German Tennis Star Berating Himself Is the Key to Understanding Sports Psychology

The stadium scene.
Aug. 26 2013 12:38 PM

Self-Loathing Wins Championships

A video of a German tennis star berating himself is the key to understanding sports psychology.

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There is great value in the concept of mindfulness, and not only in sports. In the past 20 years, the field of psychotherapy has followed Gallwey’s lead. Newer treatments such as mindfulness-based therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy are premised on the notion that patients, like players, are sometimes helped by entering a zone “beyond talk.” When patients’ emotions become overwhelming, they are urged to “perform” survival skills by focusing on the present moment—using relaxation, a focus on bodily sensations, and acceptance of external reality as ways to endure great distress without resorting to self-harm. When they do have negative thoughts, they are taught to simply observe them and then let them go. The idea is that the emotional impact of thinking and observing yourself thinking are different—that “I am a screw-up” is likely to cause more suffering than “I am having the thought that I am a screw-up.”

In the fourth set of the 2007 Australian Open quarterfinal, Tommy Haas may or may not have been practicing mindfulness while playing his points. But as the video shows, he quickly enters a state of self-recrimination and judgment once play has stopped. This brings us to the limits of Gallwey’s advice on the inner game. Theoretically, a player might be able to sit like a sphinx for two minutes during breaks, observing the present moment and casting aside all thoughts of the past or future. But this is clearly unrealistic in practice—tennis players are human beings, after all, not Buddhist monks.

Most psychological studies on athletes’ self-talk have borne out the fact that positive and task-oriented self-talk enhances performance, and that negative self-talk inhibits it. A 1994 study of junior tennis players found that negative self-talk was associated with poor play. In other tennis studies, varsity players improved their volleying after using the cue words “split” and “turn,” and beginners improved their forehands and backhands using instructional self-talk. Other studies have found motivational and/or self-instructional statements associated with improved performance in golfing, water polo, volleyball, badminton, and bowling.

Psychologist Albert Ellis identified four types of attitudes that can limit an athlete’s potential:

  • I must do well in sport, and if I don’t, I am an incompetent and worthless person.
  • I must do well to gain the love and approval of others, and if I don’t, it is horrible.
  • Everyone must treat me with respect and fairness at all times.
  • The conditions of my life must be arranged so that I can get what I want easily and quickly.

Ellis’s list illustrates many of the dysfunctional cognitive patterns in athletes, psychotherapy patients, and really everyone. These include catastrophizing (“If I lose, it will end my career”), basing self-worth on achievement (“If I don’t win, I’m not a real man”), personalization (“my missed free throw caused the team to lose”), blaming (“his missed free throw caused the team to lose”), black-and-white thinking (“I’m a loser.” “He’s unbeatable.”), and generalizations (“I always choke when I go for that passing shot.”)

The best tennis players sometimes display impressively functional attitudes. Witness Djokovic’s noncatastrophizing comment two weeks ago, shortly after losing in the quarterfinals of the Western and Southern Open. “I’m disappointed because I really wanted to win,” he said. “But it’s sport. I’ll move on.” Of course, there are apparent exceptions to the rule that negativity undermines performance. Think John McEnroe, whose vitriolic blame-fests seemed to fuel his success.

So how should we judge the utility of Haas’ courtside monologue? He certainly uses the break to indulge in negative self-talk and self-limiting attitudes. There is self-labeling and judging: “just too weak.” There is overgeneralization, like “it is always the same” and “once again you didn’t go to the net.” (A more mindful statement would have been “that time I didn’t go to the net.”). And there is blaming: “I’m paying people for nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

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Yet despite the negativity of his courtside monologue, there is at least some task-orientation. (“You can’t win that way.” “Too many errors.” “You didn’t go to the net.”) He also seems to shy away from blaming and from finding his self-worth externally. When he asks, “Why am I doing all this shit? For what? For whom? Except for myself,” there is a hint of mindful self-observation. Most importantly, he pivots in the final seconds toward positive statements (“You’ll win that match, come on!”) that seem to propel him onto the court to receive his opponent’s serve.

So, does negativity serve a “positive” function for Haas that research is blind to? The authors of the journal article “A Descriptive Study of Athlete Self-Talk” point out that the function of self-talk may not be as apparent to sports psychologists as they think. Researchers typically classify self-talk as “task-relevant” or “task-irrelevant” as if the function were obvious. But consider a marathoner who sings a song in her head during a race. Though that may be assumed to be task-irrelevant behavior, for the marathoner it may serve to keep rhythm, relieve boredom, or distract from pain. 

Perhaps this is the key to understanding Haas’ monologue—it serves a motivational function for him that standard research cannot capture. For him, at least, bursts of negativity (mixed with some task-relevant tactical correction and existential reflection) serve as a springboard to positive, motivational statements and, ultimately, better performance.

In fact, Haas’ last-minute switch from negative to positive may indicate that he was mindfully observing himself during the break. Based on his public statements, Haas considers his negativity a problem. “I can show you videos where I go crazy. Some people can sort of let go and change it, and some people have a tougher time with it,” he told the New York Times in June. At the 2007 Australian Open at least, Haas did let go, and positive results followed. Not only did he win the next point, as the video shows, but he took all the remaining games in that set and went on to win the match.

Michael Brus, a former Slate assistant editor, is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. He is on the clinical faculty of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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