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On Playing with Emotion

    Many successful athletes perform at an extremely high level without revealing much emotion until afterwards.
  • Pete Sampras and Roger Federer both were criticized early in their careers for being “boring.”
  • Tom Brady was almost scarily calm as he drove the Patriots downfield for their first Super Bowl win.
  • Fedor Emilianenko is often described as the top fighter in the world, but is just as often compared to a robot.

  • As a college tennis coach, I consistently encourage my players to work to minimize their emotional reactions to each point, and especially to things that are beyond their control, such as court conditions, their opponents’ personalities, and random bounces. Why discourage emotion? We’ve all seen pumped-up athletes do amazing things when their emotions hit a peak! Certainly this energy can be harnessed!
    My answer is that emotion is fickle. Inciting emotions in a sport like tennis must be done EXTREMELY carefully because once we are dependent on our emotions to carry us, we lose the ability to analyze and adjust with our normal sensitivity. And when things start to go wrong emotionally, it’s hard to swing them back. I recently saw a clip of the first time that Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams played at the US Open, back in 1999. Clijsters was, at the time, an unproven young player, vying for a huge win over the favored American. In the third set, she broke Williams to go up 5-2 in the final set. She punctuated the last point of that game with a big overhead, then pumped both fists in what could only be called a “pelvic thrust.” Then she did it again. 
    At that moment, I said to myself, “Wow. That’s over the top. Where’s her focus?” Clijsters was excited, on the precipice of her biggest win, and she was already mentally celebrating. She embraced the moment and did what felt great. Unfortunately, in terms of competition for the day, that was about it for Kim. In the next five games, she lost nearly every point, and she looked lost. Serena hit a couple of good shots, and Clijsters got swept away as the emotional wave came back the other way.

    One last thing: as with many aspects of sport, the optimal management of emotion varies a lot from sport-to-sport, and there is a gulf between individual sports and team sports. With a team sport, players can feed off of each others’ emotion positively, and work to help each other stay focused. However, even in team sports, emotion causes distraction at the same time it adds energy. Here’s what I wrote yesterday (October 18, 2009) while I was working on this piece:

    I’m watching Florida versus Arkansas even though I’m not a huge "big-time" college football fan. The Gators are heavily favored, but are struggling right now. Arkansas has put a lot of pressure on quarterback Tim Tebow and earlier forced him to fumble. Halfway through the second quarter, Tebow picked up a huge 4th and 2 at the Arkansas 10 and the Gators looked like they were going to tie the game at 7. After the play, Tebow got up and started yelling and pumping his fists. The crowd loved it! They started to cheer! But, wow, literally nine seconds later, the camera cut away and he was still yelling and pumping his fist. It’s a nice play Tim, but you haven’t scored yet! The next snap was a bad one, Tebow couldn’t get the ball into the running back’s hands, the back tried to scoop it up instead of falling on it, and Arkansas recovered the fumble. I predict the Gators start winning when they put more energy into their focus that their celebrations.

    Florida eventually got back in the game with a long pass play (aided by a total defensive breakdown). The game finished with a narrow Florida victory, and it cost them the #1 spot in the poll that determines national rankings. I’m not sure there’s a “right” or “wrong” in terms of criticizing Tebow here. I think his team depends on him for leadership and that sometimes demands that he fire them up if they’re lethargic.

    In terms of the amount of physical energy required for sport activities, blocking in football is amongst the highest. Players must move at high speed with the most power they can muster for a relatively short amount of time. So if your job is to push someone away as hard as possible, it helps to have a team leader yelling and getting your energy high. The problem is that there are a multitude of jobs that players have to do, and the three people that were supposed to handle the ball (which requires more precision than power) for Florida on the play after Tebow’s run all messed up: the shotgun snap from the center was a few feet to Tebow’s right, Tebow didn’t catch the ball cleanly and looked like he never quite controlled it as he was trying to hand it off, and the runner may have been too early to the ball, didn’t receive it properly, and then didn’t have the presence of mind to fall on the fumble. It was a sloppy play all around. Would they have been better off if their quarterback was more composed before the play and encouraged them to play calmly and execute? I’d argue yes, but there’s no way to prove it for this play.

    Addendum 12.14.2009
        Great energy/momentum swing in the Patriots game yesterday (against the Carolina Panthers, a 20-10 victory for the Pats). The Patriots have been struggling over the past few weeks and had a noticeably quiet crowd. The announcers were talking about how it was the most lifeless game they remember in Foxborough. The Patriots are widely regarded as being much better than the Panthers, but started slow in the game and fell behind 7-0. With the score tied, the Patriots got the ball on their own 4-yard line. On second down, Wes Welker caught a pass just before getting absolutely blasted by a linebacker. He held onto the ball to bring up 3rd and 2. For those of you who are not that familiar, Wes Welker is one of the smallest wide receivers in football, but is known for his quickness. He gets open with regularity and often is able to squirm for an extra yard or two. Sometimes he takes big hits, but usually gets up quickly. In this case, he got up  and caught a pass for the first down on the next play. As he walked back to huddle, in a rare move, he was yelled and waved his arms in the traditional motion that signals for the crowd to make more noise. Suddenly, the stadium came to life! Welker was fired up and caught 4 more passes as the team marched down the field and scored a touchdown.
        Looking at what I wrote about Tim Tebow, I feel like I have to explain why I liked this show of emotion by Welker but ripped Tebow for something similar. First, I’ll admit a bias for the Patriots. Second, I want to make sure that I acknowledge that there tends to be bias towards the successful drive, so that could play in as well. But here are the big differences:
        -Welker is not the quarterback, so he wasn’t responsible for the team’s focus in the same way that Tebow was. He also wasn’t going to handle the ball to start the next play.
        -Welker was operating in the circumstances of his team really needing an emotional lift (Two straight losses for the first time in years, suspended players because of tardiness, lack of energy in bad weather). Tebow’s team was struggling, but they were still undefeated, not yet fighting for their season. Emotional swings are fickle, so they are best used when you’re desperate.
        -Welker wasn’t celebrating so much as imploring an emotionally flat fan base and team.
        -His imploring was shorter. It never made me feel like it was going on too long.
        -Welker kept his focus and continued to make plays on the drive. He’s a pro, not a student, so he's better able to pick his spots.
        -It’s also possible that it’s more “forgivable” because he was shaken-up from getting knocked down on the previous play.

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