ANGER AND ITS TRYSTS WITH CHAMPIONS
Psychologists define anger as “an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.” They also say that anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings and channel them towards positive activities or motivate you to find solutions to problems. However, excessive anger can be harmful and should be avoided. We often view the outbursts of anger and passion on a tennis court with a highly coloured lens wherein it can hardly ever be a positive reinforcement for an individual and almost always detracts from their performance and concentration in their match. But what if these screams, curses and fights (with themselves) were some of the most important factors for success of a player? Would they truly succeed if you were to take that emotion away? Would their achievements have been tempered due to an absence of temper? These are just a few questions one has often wondered about and the answers aren’t very straight forward and things aren’t as cut and dry as they may seem to be.
John McEnroe asking chair umpire Ted James at Wimbledon in 1981 if he was serious over a disputed line call was seen as a temper tantrum of a brash and young star from the United States. In actuality, no one could deny at that point that he had burst onto the scene and ruffled a few feathers by being unapologetically good at his game and almost unbelievably consistent with his performances. His results from 1979 through to 1984 are still some of the most awe-inspiring achievements by a tennis player as his game not purely defined by singles success but also his prowess in doubles.
He would win 7 singles majors during that period and 8 doubles slams, making winning an irrefutable part of his brand. He would later say in an interview, “IIf I was to cut off my anger to half of what it was, I would have won one-tenth of what I did.” To the casual reader and regular fan, he would sound extremely pompous and self-obsessed but to John, it was all a part of the process.
Growing up in an era of Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, one, a highly moody individual and the other, a literal iceman, rarely ever having a bad word written or spoken about him, McEnroe had to struggle to carve out an identity for himself on the tour and to him, his outbursts were simply a show, a performance of sorts which helped him focus all the while fooling others into believing that he had lost his marbles.
One can surely agree that at times, his anger got the better of him. For instance, the way it happened in Australia in 1990, but what still remains a glaring fact is that it was one of the reasons why we still talk about him today as one of the greatest players of all time. It was his ability to harness his emotions and make them work for him and not against him which was, and still is an example to any player who finds himself/herself losing their heads on a tennis court.
This year at the US Open, Daniil Medvedev too showed that this theory held true when he was roundly booed at the Flushing Meadows for snatching his towel from a ball boy. The Russian talked about how he would surely have lost in the third round to Feliciano Lopez and gone home, had it not been for the motivation that he gained from all that antagonism from the crowd towards him. To him that was the biggest motivator of all, a desire to prove the world wrong, a wish to succeed where lesser mortals might fail.
There have been others such as Andre Agassi and Marat Safin famed for their tempers, but still both of those legends had their own manner of overcoming their perceived demons and still going on to achieve great things in their careers.
It truly is a matter of perception and management because what maybe a bane for one can be a boon for the other and that is what the history of this most individual of individual sports teaches us. One has to make an effort to connect with themselves at a deeper level and almost try to block everything out in order to have that conversation with their subconscious selves because in the end, it’s just you and your racquet at this side of the net while the opponent and the crowd isn’t. It is not about how anyone else sees the game, but more about how one can ensure that whatever resources are available to them are utilized optimally because the margins of success and failure are so miniscule at the top.
The greatest athletes all have this single-minded focus to win, come what may and to get to that point, each person has their own path. Some are as serene as Roger Federer while the others are combustible like John McEnroe; what is vitally important though is the fact that in all this struggle, there cannot be a definitive approach which is regarded as the best.
Never does the ‘one size fits all’ analogy work in sport and maybe as a society, it’s time for us to introspect and be more understanding with an individual at the top of their game, regardless of their previous misdemeanours as behind every reaction is a cause and after every reaction, there is an effect.
Perhaps there is still hope for Nick Kyrgios after all.