Tennis is one of those sports that can provoke all kinds of emotions in people, especially as someone is winning or losing a point every minute of the match. I would say that one of the biggest areas I have developed in is helping players manage their emotions for positive effect.
Emotions are a part of our survival instincts and date back to human creation. Over the years, we have evolved our emotional development to suit our environment but for the same reason…to survive. Where maybe emotions were very raw in the times of Cavemen, today we use emotions to express ourselves and signal to others how we are feeling. People use emotions to get what they want but also to prevent others from attaining.
One thing we should not do is ignore emotions or prevent them from being exposed. Like with muscles, unless we train them, then they won’t develop. When I see a player upset, angry, frustrated, crying, happy, shouting for joy, smiling etc. these are great signs of the emotional state the player is in and usually have a correlation with how they are playing.
Children can be very emotional for a variety of developmental, biological, environmental, and psychological reasons. The stage of their brain development means that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control, and reasoning, is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s. This means children naturally have a harder time processing and regulating their emotions. With this, we must recognise signs and help the players to also be aware. A great coach will be able to see when the player is about to hit boiling point and then at 97 degrees, step in and work with the player in that moment as the emotions are raw but they’ve not gone beyond the point where rational thinking has imploded.
With very young children they have limited vocabulary so they often don't have the words to express how they're feeling, which can lead to frustration and emotional outbursts. It is really important that parents and coaches build close relationships, which will come from spending lots of time with them so that they can understand the signs and patterns that lead to emotional reactions. With this, the adult is able to nurture that relationship into a great position of trust that will grow into a greater sense of responsibility for the child e.g. if I behave badly then I am not only letting myself down but also my parents or coach. This is another big reason why players shouldn’t keep swapping coaches, as it takes years to build these relationships and they are more important things than just forehands and backhands!
As children grow, they undergo significant hormonal changes, especially during puberty, which can affect mood and emotional responsiveness. As adults we have to be aware of this, but we still can’t tolerate unacceptable behaviour if we want to guide them to be great adults. I think that we have to show love even when you are feeling like you want to tell them how bad they are. Our emotional response is as important, if not more, as when you show a genuine interest in the child they are more able to express themselves e.g. why they are feeling angry or frustrated. When you have a conversation about feelings, you are enabling them to regulate their anger better and you are able to respond in an empathetic way that is from their point of view. An example of this maybe when a player calls a ball out when it was in. The person who has had the call against them is going to be a bit cheesed-off and because they can’t overrule this decision unless an umpire is watching, then they need to reflect from a position of power not weakness. In this situation, I would explain to the frustrated player that cheats will cheat because they are scared of losing to you within the rules of the game. The player should use that position to take advantage and confidence that what they are doing is going well. They also have the option to request that the ref comes to the court to watch the match and at that point the opponent will implode as they have no way of cheating and you are taking control of the situation.
Children often mimic the behaviour and emotional responses they see around them. If they're frequently exposed to emotional reactions, they may replicate those behaviours. Luckily in tennis we have so many wonderful ambassadors of the game which conduct themselves impeccably and I can say the same about many other sports like Rugby, but in my opinion, this is where football lets itself down, especially when you see how professional players conduct themselves on the pitch with play acting, surrounding the ref etc. Consequently, we see poor behaviour from some groups of fans in the crowd, which in my mind both are interlinked.
Children might use emotional reactions as a way to get attention, especially if they feel neglected or if they've learned that such behaviour gets a reaction. We’ve all seen that kid in the supermarket that is kicking-off, but the worse thing is to pacify them with a treat because you know they will do exactly the same next time. As children grow, they encounter a lot of "firsts" – first day at school, first time away from parents, first conflict with a friend, etc. The novelty and uncertainty of these situations can evoke strong emotions. As a coach or parent, my awareness of emotional reactions goes on high alert when there are new situations, so I am able to react timely. When I take kids to a National Tournament for the first time or their first trip abroad without parents, I know there is a high possibility they will be feeling insecure.
As part of their development, children test boundaries to understand the world around them. Emotional outbursts can be a part of this exploration but especially with very young children, their lack of understanding of future consequences won’t come into play when they do emotionally react. For this we need to prescribe firm boundaries that are appropriate for their age and stage and reward or discipline with the same consideration.
We all have basic needs like hunger, tiredness, or discomfort which can make us more emotional. Again, with younger children, they may not always recognise or communicate these needs effectively. Children are sensitive to their environments. Factors like family stress, school pressures, or even sensory overstimulation can heighten emotional responses. They may also show physical responses for example excessive blinking or speech impediments.
At Team Stony Tennis, we have created an inspirational and positive environment with many role models. We have teenagers who are regularly helping out at sessions and hitting with younger players, as well as the senior coaches. It is imperative that they perform with the highest levels of conduct as children are particularly susceptible to catching or mirroring the emotions of those around them. If they're surrounded by stressed or emotional people, they might manifest similar emotions.
Particularly in very young children, they often believe that the world revolves around them. This can make them more prone to strong emotional reactions when things don't go their way. Recognising and understanding the reasons behind a child's emotional state is the first step in helping them navigate and process their feelings. Over time, with guidance and maturity, most children learn to better regulate and manage their emotions.
I have had great pleasure writing this article and I hope it has been of great value. I love the daily challenges my job gives me as it’s another chance to influence someone in a positive way, even if it doesn’t feel like that for them at the time. As always, please reply to the email if you want to comment about anything I have discussed or if there is anything you think I can do to help.
Director of Tennis