When things are going your way in tennis, it’s pretty easy to have a positive mindset. When your footwork and strokes feel fluid, the ball looks like a grapefruit that tees up perfectly for you on every shot, and your unforced error count is low, you tend to feel loose, relaxed, happy, and confident on court. Tennis is so fun!
But then the breeze picks up. Your partner suggests you turn this friendly set into a ladder match. Spectators show up to watch. You break a string and don’t have an extra racquet so you have to borrow one. All of a sudden you’re not feeling as calm, and the negative thoughts start popping up.
If this happens to you, don’t worry, you’re completely normal. Humans evolved to think and feel negatively.
What is the Negativity Bias?
At a basic level, we can think of all of our behaviours as being motivated by either a positive stimulus (we want something) or a negative stimulus (we want to avoid something).
Imagine you’re a cave person alive millions of years ago. Your goals, instead of being to increase your serve speed and finally learn an effective drop shot, would have included things like not getting killed by a tiger (negative stimulus) and having food to eat (positive stimulus). These goals are actually given an order of priority in your brain, subconsciously. Having food is less important than not getting killed in an acute event. You can, at least for awhile, try to find food again tomorrow, but not if you’re dead.
That is, it was more important to avoid the negative stimulus than it was to achieve the positive stimulus.
So our brains evolved the negativity bias. Those cave people who were on the constant lookout for danger – interpreting every bump in the night as an intruder – lived to pass on their genes. Those who just rolled over and went back to sleep while the intruder approached weren’t so lucky.
The negativity bias says that, given equally intense positive and negative stimuli, we’ll focus on the negative one. This causes us to do three things:
- Overestimate threats
- Underestimate opportunities
- Underestimate our capabilities to cope with threats.
The Negativity Bias in Action
Let me see if I can come up with an example or two of this happening to me:
I’ll be up 5-1 in a match and if I lose the next game I become afraid of losing the set. I become tentative, afraid of taking risks and making mistakes. I’ll suddenly feel like it was just luck that got me those 5 games and my luck is clearly running out.
…I dwell on everything that’s going wrong with my game plan instead of looking at the various opportunities I do have. I’d planned on attacking her backhand but she’s killing me with it. This is stressing me out and preventing me from seeing how my volleys are working and focusing on getting to the net.
…I tend to perceive my opponent’s capabilities to be greater than mine. This doesn’t only happen with players at a higher level than me. I’ll overlook any areas of the game where I have a clear advantage and focus on areas that I perceive a relative weakness. Instead of being confident that I can dictate points with my forehand I’ll focus on the possibility that she’ll hit high balls to my backhand side where I’m weaker.
…An opponent keeps hitting short balls, not letting me play my baseline game. I underestimate my ability to hit volleys and am apprehensive when approaching, leading to slow footwork and missed chances.
…After every match I ruminate on the missed shots and poor decisions, no matter the outcome. And going into each match I think about everything that will likely go wrong.
…Instead of appreciating that the rain held off, I focus on how the wind is going to throw off my timing.
I could literally go on forever. These are just a few examples of how my negativity bias (I would have made an excellent cavewoman!) emerges in tennis.
Only Part of the Problem
The negativity bias is only one of a few “forces” that affect our ability to stay calm and confident on the court. As I explored in my post on the neuroscience of fear in tennis, our mindsets and behaviours are also affected by our experiences.
Our social, cultural, religious, and family upbringings helped shape our brains and set up neural networks that fire when certain stimuli are present, causing us to respond to events with habitual thoughts and behaviours. Even as adults, our brains are constantly changing (this is called neuroplasticity). This means we further cement habitual thoughts and behaviours, and we can work to form new neural pathways if we want to develop new thoughts and behaviours.
Can we Overcome the Negativity Bias?
The negativity bias is evolutionarily hardwired into us, and I’m learning that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. I spent a lot of last off-season reading about how we can use neuroplasticity to “rewire” our brains and develop new, positive, thought patterns. Kind of like how you can change the habit of pulling your head up at contact in your forehand with dedicated practice, according to some experts you can change your habit of thinking “I can’t do this” to “I can do this” with enough practice.
An interesting and enticing thought in theory, but is this really possible? If it is, I haven’t been able to do it.
Other books I’m reading say that the evolutionary negativity bias is simply too strong to overcome, as are many of the neural networks we’ve formed over the course of our lives. For instance, if you’ve spoken english your entire life, even if you start speaking nothing but japanese from now on, your english might become a bit rusty, but you won’t forget it. If you see some english writing, your brain will automatically read it and you’ll understand it, much as you may try not to. Those neural pathways are just too strong to deactivate.
But even if we’re stuck with our genetically encoded negativity, I don’t think this means that we need to continue experiencing paralyzing fear on the tennis court that robs us of the enjoyment that comes with playing our best and reaching our full potential. We might just need to play our best and reach our full potential while still feeling pretty negative at times.
I’ll be exploring this further in an upcoming post. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you been able to overcome your negativity bias, or at least quiet it down?