A few weeks ago I was at my tennis club, waiting for the start of my match. On Court 1, two singles players from a higher division were competing. It was a fierce match with excellent shot-making. Ten or fifteen of us gathered by the court, enjoying the show.
At the end of one point, the visiting player called out “Stupid b—!” The home team captain sitting by my side stared at me slack-jawed for a moment. After a laugh, we decided the player was probably berating herself for losing that point.
But very soon after, things took an ugly turn, with the player coming completely unhinged. She approached the net, cursing at the opponent and then at us spectators, one of whom had commented about a line call. It was a stunning moment. Eventually, the home team captain was able to get the match back on track and finished. (And I’m happy to report the home team won.)
It’s pretty rare that I see a McEnroe-type player on court. At the recreational level of play, outbursts like these are just silly and embarrassing to everyone. Win or lose, no one’s going home with the giant check. Or even a small check.
But just because the stakes are small doesn’t mean the emotions are. Even at the league level, we all still experience the fear of losing, the anger over a bad line call, the panic as a lead slips away, the pressure of being watched, the desire to win. A few people manage to laugh and joke their way through a match, but almost every player I know runs through the full gamut of emotion.
On Monday I posted about the Borg vs. McEnroe movie. What made their rivalry so compelling wasn’t just their different playing styles but their different temperaments. Borg exuded icy cool–to the extent he exuded anything at all. And McEnroe was–well, McEnroe, in all his explosive glory.
Which approach is better? The movie seems to suggest McEnroe’s, or that it at least comes at less personal cost. But both men reached number one in the rankings and won multiple Grand Slam titles. And even McEnroe burned out in his mid-20s. Perhaps there’s not one right answer for everyone.
As for me, I tend in the direction of Borg. Anger and irritation derail my game, so I’m far better off cultivating detachment. My partner knows this. When she sees me getting irked at something the opponents are doing, she says, “Get back in your bubble.” It makes me laugh and defuses the tension.
But too much equanimity isn’t a good thing either. Emotional edginess proves your passion, your fire in the belly. Without those, how do you will yourself to win?
So maybe we need to be a little of both. A little cool Swede, a little brash New Yorker. I could probably use a little more McEnroe.
And that “stupid b—” woman needs a whole lot of Swede.
What about you? Are you a Borg or a McEnroe–or something in between? Do you try to cultivate calm, or do you try to psych yourself up before a match?