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.

Tommy Haas of Germany returns a shot to Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria during the Citi Open at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center on August 2, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Tommy Haas of Germany returns a shot to Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria during the Citi Open on Aug. 2, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Tommy Haas is not going to win the U.S. Open. At 35, the German is the oldest player in the men’s field and is clearly past his prime. (His peak rank was No. 2 in 2002.) But in 2013, after years beset by injuries, Haas is having a renaissance. He is now ranked No. 13, and he beat Novak Djokovic earlier this year, becoming the oldest man in three decades to defeat a No. 1 player. Clearly Haas is in great physical shape. His mental game, too, is one of the best in the world.

So, what is Haas’ mental approach to tennis? The video below, from the 2007 Australian Open quarterfinals, gives us a fascinating, rare glimpse at an athlete’s innermost thoughts. The scene: Haas, serving at 15–40 and one set from elimination against Nikolay Davydenko, nets an easy forehand. He has now had his service game broken for the fifth time in the match. As he sits during a two-minute changeover, he excoriates himself in his native German. (Note: The video’s pop-up English subtitles may not appear on tablets or other mobile devices.) 

Here’s the complete transcript of Haas’ externalization of his internal monologue (in translation from the original German):

You can’t win that way, Haasi. It’s not possible. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work. Just too weak. Too many errors. Too many errors. [A group of crowd members start chanting something in English. Haas then thanks someone in English for bringing him something.] It is always the same. [Blows his nose in a towel while a spectator can be heard shouting, in English, “Come on, Thomas!”]

I don’t want this anymore. I don’t feel like it. Why am I doing all this shit? For what? For whom? Except for myself. Why? For which reason? I can’t do it. I don’t get it. I’m paying people for nothing. For absolutely nothing. [He starts sipping from several different bottles and is quiet for several seconds.] That I can get excited over it. You’re a retard. [The same male spectators begin to chant something that sounds like “Let’s go, Tommy!”]

Once again, you didn’t go to the net. Nicely done. [Finishes drinking, takes off baseball cap. Smooths back his hair, puts cap back on.]

But you’re gonna win. You’ll win that match, come on! You can’t lose it. Fight! [Stands up and walks back on court.]

The video then shows Haas win the next point, an 11-shot rally, with a backhand down the line. Did his courtside monologue help him perform well? I am a psychiatrist who practices psychotherapy, and many people in my field and the field of sports psychology would say no—that Haas’ “self-talk” was overwhelmingly negative, and negativity hurts athletes on the field of play. A closer examination of Haas’s self-directed diatribe, however, reveals that it may be more useful than you’d think.

Advertisement

Psychologists and coaches have long debated whether “inner monologues” affect how athletes function. Perhaps the best-known book on this subject is The Inner Game of Tennis, written in the early 1970s by W. Timothy Gallwey. The tennis coach went on to expand his theory into a series of “inner game” books on golf, skiing, music, work, and more. Gallwey’s classic has sometimes been oversimplified into the notion that “thinking destroys performance,” but his actual argument is more subtle.

Gallwey draws on Zen Buddhist traditions of “mindful attention”—that is, attention that is without judgment and focused on objectives rather than prescriptive technique (“Put more tension in your wrist on that backhand, Junior!”). He uses the metaphor of a cat stalking a bird to illustrate this ideal performative frame of mind:

Effortlessly alert, [the cat] crouches, gathering his relaxed muscles for the spring. Not thinking about when to jump, nor when he will push off with his hind legs to attain the proper distance, his mind is still and perfectly concentrated on his prey. No thought flashes into his consciousness of the possibility or consequences of missing his mark. He sees only the bird. ... Afterward, no self-congratulations, just the reward inherent in his action: the bird in the mouth.

The cat is completely “in the moment.” He has a dispassionate focus on his desired outcome, and he moves with great fluidity and timing precisely because his method is nonverbal and instinctual.

This, Gallwey argues, is how a tennis player should both play and train. If he wants his forehand to land closer to his opponent’s baseline, he should not think about bringing his racket back earlier or rolling it over less on the follow through. Instead, he should imagine the arc of the ball, and then let his body do the rest. And if a coach wants to adjust a player’s stroke, he should simply model the correct stroke and have the player imitate it, rather than pointing out the technical differences.

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.