Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Anxiety and the professional tennis player

A year ago, I wrote about my concern that professional tennis players' mental health issues may be under-addressed. One of those issues, anxiety, is worth a more thorough exploration, since its prevalence is obvious among many players.

We see it all the time--choking, getting tight during a match, losing successive "winnable" matches, alternating between firing aces and hitting a series of double faults. Dinara Safina, aka Thrill Ride (on this blog), perhaps the WTA's most quotable player, once said, when asked about her failure to be mentally tough: "If I would know explanation, then of course I would do it on the court." She also said: "...First to find the reason what's going on, what are the mistakes, and then to work on them. Not to go blindly on the court and killing your ass for like five hours. Sometimes it makes no sense."

And it does "make no sense" until a player addresses the anxiety that is behind repeated errors, choking and erratic serving. Anxiety is natural to all of us, but--like every other emotion--too much of it creates problems. Anxiety among tennis players (and the rest of us) has many causes:

1. Childhood trauma
This is undoubtedly the main cause of excessive anxiety.  A child who feels unsafe because of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or because of poverty or war or constant re-locating, will grow up to be an anxious adult.

2. Adult trauma
Living through traumas such as accidents, assaults, natural disasters and war is likely to create posttraumatic anxiety. Having unresolved past trauma (such as childhood trauma) makes someone more likely to develop symtoms.

3. Poor coaching
A coach is like a parent. If s/he manages the player through constant criticism, harsh words or lack of praise, the player will respond with anxiety about her performance. (Safina knew a thing or two about that.)

4. Left-handedness
Left-handed people, as a rule, feel more fear than right-handed people. The "fear" part of the brain, on the right side, is reversed--and therefore dominant--in left-handed individuals, who are more apt to be afraid of making mistakes.

5. Cultural expectations
Certain expectations are placed by our cultures on various groups. These expectations can involve gender, nationality, profession, etc. Not "living up to" these expectations can create anxiety. To make things worse, these expectations tend to be very unhealthy, and ignore the individual's right to evolve at her/his own pace. They also tend to reflect values that are harmful to human psychological growth.

The good news is that anxiety is fairly easy to reduce. The bad news is that people often do not seek treatment, or the only treatment they receive is from medication. I don't know how much (good) anxiety treatment pro tennis players are getting, but I suspect it isn't enough. There are a number of treatment modalities (I use them in my own practice) which can significantly reduce anxiety and create the relaxation response in its place.

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