Sports are supposed to be fun. They are a recreational activity and they give a person the chance to use their body, and find zest and excitement in life. When the young tennis player starts out, they fall in love with the game and can’t get enough of it. But after a period of time, they become competitive, perhaps spotted by a coach, enter leagues and tournaments to play more seriously and, voila, the fun fades and gets replaced by work, anger, anxiety and stress.
One of the most common questions I am asked by tennis players I work with is, “how do I go back to having fun on the court?” This seemingly simple question is very tough to answer because a large part of the motivation to play tennis at the highest level is unconscious. Those that get to the top are driven by their dark side which consists of feelings of inferiority and shame. Whether that comes from being bullied, tormented by an older sibling or abused by a parent or coach, the fuel to stay focused and climb all the way to the top usually derives from these negative feelings of inferiority, and the need to overcompensate to overcome them. The athlete then falls into the treadmill of effort and angst, and no matter how often they win, they still harbor unconscious feelings of shame and anger. Slowly but surely, they lose the joy, fun, creativity and playfulness they had when they first started playing.
These emotions are all crucial if one is to maintain interest and passion in the game. So how does one regain the joy of playing tennis? The answer lies in two areas.
Firstly, and maybe most importantly, one needs to learn about your true motivations. The loss of joy will often be due to the intense quest to be the best, to be superior in order to overcome feelings of inferiority. Good examples are seen in Jimmy Connors, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, all of who had tough upbringings and faced discrimination. They all became extremely demanding on themselves and perfectionists in order to overcompensate for their childhood shame. They slowly became internally demanding and angry. They all had high expectations as a way of escaping their feelings of lowness or inferiority.
Secondly, after insight into the unconscious dynamic is acquired, (and this is not easy), one needs to begin to have the intention to have fun and light hearted. This is what they mean by “taking time to smell the roses.” In the examples given above with Jimmy Connors, the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods, they were all lucky enough to have a good support system to bolster their mood and sense of joy. Connors had Pancho Segura to offer solace, while the Williams sisters had very supportive parents. Tiger Woods spent countless hours with Jay Brunza, a sport psychologist and also had very supportive parents. Their support systems kept the love of the game alive in them by providing solace when needed.
I work with many professional athletes and when they enter slumps it is often because of a combination of overwork, anger and unrelenting pressure. Our sessions are geared towards relaxed casual conversations and as they learn to relax and have fun in therapy they are on their way to having fun and actually enjoying tennis once again. Tennis is a game; it is supposed to be fun, enjoyable and is one of the pleasures of life. It is a sad irony that those that are often the best in their craft wind up having the least fun. And when that happens, slumps, injuries and illness are on the way.
So try to remember that your goal in tennis is to have fun. Try playing with people you have fun with. Try joking around more. Try laughing more. When you begin to instill fun and playfulness in your game, you will see that winning takes care of itself.
Dr. Tom Ferraro
For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.