Tuesday, September 2, 2008

To Throw, or Not to Throw?

Andy Roddick's recent racket hurls at the U.S. Open beckon the question: release the rage or hold it in? The exploration involves both moral and psychological issues. For Roddick, his moments of mayhem have helped him defeat his opponent. As a model of composure, he has been as unsure as the the levees in New Orleans.

His second round recap from ESPN:

Andy Roddick smashed his racket not once but twice, leaving it a mangled mess that matched the state of his game at that point.

Facing a big deficit, staring at what would have been a big upset, Roddick suddenly changed everything against a younger, less-experienced, less-accomplished version of himself at the U.S. Open.
And his actions from Sunday in the New York Times:
It was sometime during the third set that Andy Roddick's racket met its demise. As he whipped it to the ground, little blue shards splintered onto the blue hardcourt, the latest victims of Roddick’s frustration. It was not quite the twisting, mangling punishment he had given the tools of his trade earlier in the United States Open, but on Sunday, he did not have as much to be upset about...

...Less than 30 minutes after he littered the court with racket crumbs, he completed a straight-sets victory over the 31st seed...
I had a chance to observe a current pro as he trained at MIT two days before heading to New York for the U.S. Open. His practice was focused and intense, every drill, every point played as if it were the last in a championship match. As I watched, I was impressed with his concentration. He meticulously practiced his serve with his hitting coach

Then he proceeded to fault, I suppose a very unsatisfactory one in his mind. With that miss, in a shocking show of frustration, he grabbed another ball and took an controlled, yet uncontrolled, swing and blasted the ball over the MIT dorm that overlooked the tennis courts. He smacked the ball as if the target was the Harvard boat house that sits on the Charles River.

And then, as if he had released every ounce of energy that evoked tantrum times as a toddler, he was calm again. He drove the next serve right by his partner for an ace.

The incident made me think about the frustration-aggression theory, in that once provoked, an emotion can build to the point of such aggravation that it can drive an athlete to change his persona, if only for a brief bit. However, in that 60 seconds, a violent phase can ensue and cause even the tamest human to display anger, by the whack of a ball with brutalizing force or the hammering of a racket into the ground…a matter that toys with one’s mental toughness and a situation that beckons one to "shape up or ship out".

Roger Federer was once asked about the controversial behavior that may seem minimal, yet is quite long lasting in memory:
Federer used to love that kind of show but is now campaigning to stamp the practice out. He said: "For kids watching, I want them to have a proper example. I enjoyed watching Goran, McEnroe and those guys throwing racquets. I thought it was funny. But at the same time, I don't think a tennis player needs to act this way.

"I think there are different ways and I hope that kids get inspired by this more than throwing racquets. But then again, I think it's okay, too, to throw a racquet here and there. It's not a problem."
What is interesting from a developmental perspective is that Federer was not always in control of his emotions; he discovered how to control and motivate himself in other ways. He even took a Michael Jordan stance, and would tell himself that he is in front of thousands of people who have never seen him play before:
I was very emotional. I was never the angry person, more the sad and disappointed person. I would cry a lot after losing matches; I would throw my racket in disappointment. It was very hard for me to accept missing three, four points in a row. The first one I could sort of accept. The second one would be like, well, now you better not miss the next one, but if I did, then the racket went flying. I'd have to scream or something, because it just wasn't acceptable. But as time went by, I started to relax. You get on center courts around the world, people are watching, and you're like, "Well, now I can't throw my racket," because it's embarrassing. Today I'm much more in control of myself, whereas before it was a weak point of my tennis. People would say, "If you can get to him mentally, you've got it." And now it's become a strong point in my game.

It was never easy for me. Because people were constantly saying I was talented and that I was going to make it, I always had that burden. It was like, if I make it, then I'm only doing what's expected of me, and if I don't, then I'm a disaster because I missed on a great career or wasted my talent. I also had a hard time working out. I would ask, "Why do I have to do this? I'll just be tired tomorrow." But I think by asking a lot of questions, I was able to learn. And then over the years, through hard work, my game started to become really fluid. I never really thought it was that way naturally, because I always felt I had to make a great effort. My technique was always sort of nice, but I was shanking a lot of balls, and I really had a tough time keeping the ball in the court. But by getting stronger mentally and physically, my game started to evolve, and all of a sudden I found myself where I am right now, dominating the game.
Now, just a year before the interview with Billie Jean King, Federer faced a youthful Rafael Nadal and the former showed off his heaving ability (yes, you can see the ordinarily centered Roger unravel in the video below).

Normally known for his serene presence on court, Federer did not turn the match in his favor until he became angry.

At the end of the ninth game of the third set, after missing a break-point opportunity, Federer uncharacteristically slammed his racket to the ground.

"I was really angry, so I threw it out," Federer said. "I was very disappointed. I was missing one opportunity after the other. I really felt like I'm climbing uphill all the time, and I had an opportunity and I missed it again, and I just had enough.

"Who knows, maybe it did me good, and I kind of woke up."

Nadal, ranked No. 31 in the world, felt that he was getting under Federer's skin.

"It's surprising to see Federer throw his racket, but it makes you think you're closer to victory because he's frustrated," said Nadal, who plays left-handed but does everything else right-handed.
In his own words, Federer admits to his tossing of strings, although a Gladwell Blink second (a fleeting, yet significant feeling) reminds the tennis star that certain actions are not the brightest, particularly as they relate to his own behavior and his pocket (not that he has to worry about affording new equipment):
I’ve broken a few rackets over my career, but only very few intentionally. It mostly happened out of anger and not because I wanted to break it, which I think is a big difference. When I throw it I try not to break it. Rackets are expensive, after all – somehow that always crossed my mind before it left my hand!
Considering these examples, it is safe to assume that more rackets will be committed to the air and the ground. Amateurs, however, need to consider the consequences, perhaps from a "Don't try this at home" perspective. Roddick and Federer have managed to use aggression releases to their advantages, though a perfect, positive correlation between racket tossing and winning is doubtful. The pros have demonstrated their resiliency, their capacity to quickly recover from a negative thought and its resulting behavior. By no means, though, do they advocate for their volatile actions. Competitiveness can get the best of them, at least for a few seconds.

It seems best to continue on the track of regulated intensity without obtrusive eruption. Unless, of course, society alters its views and racket throwing becomes categorized as some sort of art form.


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