Why is tennis so frustrating?

Everyone who has ever played tennis has also been frustrated by it. Anyone who has ever watched a tennis match, particularly between younger athletes has seen it, the dropping of rackets, the smashing of tennis balls, the negative self-talk and shifts in body language.  Frustration and anger are common in sports or physical performances, but during my time as a provisional psychologist at Lifetime I found myself asking whether they more common in tennis? And if so, what makes tennis so frustrating? Being new to tennis and working with tennis, I quickly learnt that there are many factors and stressors a young tennis player must deal with that are unique tennis.

Firstly, to understand frustration in youth tennis you first have to understand emotions in teenagers. Which is no easy task. Teenagers are notoriously bad at regulating their own emotions, but there are reasons for this. Without getting into scientific details, the development of any human brain happens from the inside out and back to front. So essentially the areas of the brain involved with emotions are developed before the areas of the brain that are associated with logic and the regulation of emotions. Most parents would agree with the idea of their teenagers only having half a brain. So, if you ever get the feeling that teenagers are being overly sensitive or reacting too emotionally it’s because their brains are not finished and as such teenagers feel emotions more strongly than adults. Subsequently, this makes understanding the emotional reactions of teenagers harder as the intensity of the emotion is will be considerably different between a teenage brain and an adult brain. So, when a coach or a parent asks a player “Why are you being so emotional?” it’s often that the adult in the situation can not relate to the emotional intensity of the teenager because they themselves would experience that same situation in a very different way. Now why is it important to know this? Because when we discuss why tennis is so frustrating and what are the stressors of tennis it is important to recognise that these stressors will create a different experience for a teenager than they would an adult.

Another factor that should also be considered is the extra stress put onto players when playing in an individual sport. In team’s sports teenagers often use teammates to help regulate emotions by providing another person to share the experience with or exchange encouragement with.  A good example of how individual sports increase the stress onto players can be seen in the contrast between singles tennis and doubles tennis. At my time at Lifetime, players continually report being less stressed for doubles matches because they “have a partner”. Moreover, players acted differently in doubles matches, often being more in control of their emotions and enjoying the matches more. In contrast, an individual sports player can feel like they are on an island, with no one to prop them up or calm them down they have to do all their own emotional regulation. As a result, playing individual tennis heightens the stress for young players.

Curious to know more about the unique stressors of tennis I looked for any research that related to stress and tennis. I came across an interesting list that ranked common stressors in youth tennis.

  • Receiving negative comments and body language from others (particularly from relatives or coaches)
  • Opponent cheating
  • Losing a tie-break
  • Receiving a bad call from the referee
  • Making a double fault
  • Losing the first set 0-6
  • Injuring myself during the match
  • Playing in bad weather
  • A loud, annoying crowd

The level of importance of these factors will vary between players, but the two most commonly mentioned stressors in youth tennis were receiving negative comments and body language from others (particularly from relatives or coaches) or the opponent cheating. Neither of these two factors were something I would have considered stressors before I started working at Lifetime but now at the completion of my placement I have a better understanding.

So why is tennis so frustrating? Youth tennis creates an environment where young players are put into situations that are going to be emotionally stressful and players are going to have to deal with those emotions all on their own.  So it is actually very normal for young players to experience frustration and anger in the face of all the stressors tennis provides.

So why do we do it? As with anything in life we get better at it with time and practice.
Therefore, having players avoid situations that create stress means that players have less experience in dealing with stress. Subsequently, the players own personal development is slowed.  In all forms of life both on and off the court there will be stressors and things that are outside of our control. However, our skills in dealing with these stressors are very much in our control and every time a young tennis player sets onto the court they are practicing their own processes of dealing with stress (even though those processes aren’t always pretty).

Written by

Michael Pastorello

Masters of Psychology (Sport & Exercise) (Candidate)

University of Queensland.