Investigating the Fear Response in Tennis and How our Subconscious Gets Involved
I find this topic so interesting because my thoughts and feelings on the tennis court, and my consequent behaviour and performance, are so at odds with how I think, feel, behave and perform in virtually every other aspect of my life. I really want to understand why this is and learn how to change it.
In my non-tennis life, I’m a pretty laid-back person. Yes, I’m analytical about things (Exhibit A: this blog). I sometimes have difficulty making decisions both big and small, and at times I ruminate on the past and worry about the future.
But none of these tendencies really stress me out. When I’m planning dinner for the family and can’t make an easy decision about what to have I don’t get cold sweats or tight muscles and I don’t inwardly (or outwardly) berate myself for being a bad decision-maker, cook, or person. I don’t feel the urge to smash my santoku knife on the floor. In other words, they don’t activate the fight-or-flight stress response in my body.
On the tennis court it’s another story altogether. I have a great fear of competition. Just thinking about an upcoming tournament makes me feel uneasy. Driving to the courts to play a match I can feel a jittery sensation in my body that continues while I warm-up and play. I find it hard to concentrate during matches, my racquet feels foreign in my hands and I can’t seem to execute my shots. My feet become glued to the ground. Worst of all is the running commentary in my head – “I’m such an idiot for trying that shot, I’m definitely going to lose this game, I’m the worst tennis player ever.”
Logically, I know that the results of my tennis matches and tournaments aren’t a big deal. When I’m not actually facing competition, I have a strong desire to improve and value this over winning. I repeatedly tell myself that the outcome doesn’t matter. But I can’t seem to convince myself and anxiety about the results creeps in.
This doesn’t only happen in matches. On the practice court, I’ll get a similar (albeit less intense) feeling if I’m practicing with someone new or I feel like I’m on display (i.e. if people are watching). This interferes with my ability to concentrate, to stay relaxed, and to improve.
I’ve done a lot of reading about tennis psychology over the years and have found some great resources. My two favourites are The Inner Game of Tennis and Fearless Tennis. Last year I wrote a post on how meditation can help us in tennis and discussed these resources.
But more recently I’ve been reading about neuroscience – the science of the nervous system – and I think that there are some concepts here that are helpful in explaining our tendencies to get anxious on the court. More importantly, though, by understanding how our brains interpret and react to stimuli, we can learn to change these reactions.
This post will cover some of what I’ve been reading on how the unconscious parts of our brains contribute to fear. In future posts I’ll be examining what we can do about it.
The books I’m reading on this are listed here. I’ll be looking more closely at some of them in upcoming posts. If you struggle with nerves on the court and don’t know why, reading these might help explain things.
- Rewire your Brain by John B. Arden
- Nerve by Taylor Clark
- Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson
- Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza
- The Fear Cure by Lissa Rankin
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
I want to say that I’m no where near an expert at this. My research into this has really just begun, and I’m finding that the science itself is ever-evolving, which leads to inconsistent information from source to source. As this article puts it,
The neurology and cognitive science that has replaced psychoanalytical notions with evidence-based ideas demands constant revision and is nuanced and complex. So any book trying to bring us up to speed must do so with restraint, even as it attempts to excite and entertain.
With this in mind, let’s get started with some background on the brain.
The Brain – Conscious and Subconscious Processes
Scientists’ knowledge of this organ, which is considered to be the most important in the body, is still developing. Our ability to study the brain is improving with the development of new techniques and technologies. New discoveries on how our brains interact with the rest of our bodies and minds are constantly being made.
Generally, we think we have free will over everything we do. But do we really? Sure, you decided to eat an orange just now, but did you decide to digest it? Could you tell your digestive system not to digest the orange? Well the thing is, you actually can, to some extent, control some of your automatic bodily functions like digestion, but not directly. And the decision to eat the orange itself (as compared to eating something else or eating nothing at all) was contributed to by both your conscious and unconscious processes.
And what about on the tennis court?
- Do you decide that it’s getting a little hot so maybe you should start sweating? Nope, your body just does this automatically in response to your internal temperature rising to cool you down.
- You’re facing breakpoint. Your heart rate speeds up and your mouth gets dry. This frustrates you because you’re telling yourself to stay calm, but you can’t help getting nervous.
- You’re at practice and your coach tells you to keep your head at the contact point when you hit the ball. You tell yourself to do this before the balls are fed, sometimes between every shot. But your head keeps coming up anyways.
In all of these scenarios, your subconscious processes are getting involved.
The concept that we’re aware of some of our processes, thoughts and actions, and not others, are often discussed in terms of our consciousness. Our conscious thoughts and actions are those that we are aware of and have at least some control over. But it’s also generally accepted that we have subconscious and/or unconscious processes (for simplicity I’ll group these together and call them subconscious). These are things that happen automatically in our brains and bodies without our conscious control.
I like this quote from the book NeuroLogic by Eliexer Sternberg to describe the two states:
The unconscious system in the brain pieces together fragments of our perceptions, anticipating patterns and filling in gaps when necessary… to devise a single, meaningful interpretation. It tells a story. The conscious system experiences that story but can also reflect on it and question it.
I’m starting to realize that I can’t think myself calm on the court. As I said above, I know consciously that my life isn’t in danger if I lose a tennis match. But I’m learning that unconsciously it might be a different story. My unconscious interprets events around me, often initiating processes in my body without even allowing my conscious brain to get involved until after the fact.
When the subconscious brain gets involved in interpreting events, which it pretty much always does, we can end up behaving in a way that our thinking minds would deem irrational (I can think of a million ways I act irrationally on the tennis court).
In this post, I’m particularly interested in how our subconscious brains get involved in fear. So how does this happen?
Fear and Our Subconscious Brains
1. Our fear centres (amygdalae and related structures) are in the unconscious parts of our brains
Our amygdalae scan our internal and external environments constantly, looking for potential threats. When a threat is sensed, they tell our autonomic nervous systems (that governs involuntary processes like breathing and sweating) to turn on our stress responses (fight or flight). Hormones including cortisol and adrenaline are released and we experience the physiological changes that prepare us to fight or flee.
Our conscious brains get the chance to give their input only after the stress response has already been initiated. We get to interpret the threat in more detail, consciously, and report back to the amygdala whether or not the threat is credible. The stress response is turned off when the all-clear signal is given by the amygdala.
The reason for the response being initiated before the thinking brain is involved is that thinking is too slow. Our brains would rather we act first, think later.
2. Our brains tie emotions to experiences to help us learn from them
This is a key part of the biological purpose of emotions. Our brains want us to remember things that caused us pain and things that caused us pleasure so we’ll know whether or not we should do them again in the future. Thus, things that cause us to feel strong emotions will be remembered much better than things that don’t.
The amygdala scans our memory banks to see if a stimulus matches any fearful memories. If a match is found, it sounds the alarm. So our stress responses can be activated if we sense something – a sight, touch, smell, taste, sound – that reminds us of a negative experience, even if the stimulus isn’t indicative of a threat at all.
These memories, which don’t require conscious thought, are called implicit memories. They’re the same types of memories that allow us to remember how to type on a keyboard or ride a bike. Useful for things you don’t want to forget but problematic when you’re trying to overcome a fear that’s associated with a negative implicit memory. Implicit memories are stored in – you guessed it – the amygdala, so all of this happens unconsciously.
You can’t tell your amygdala not to sound the alarm when playing with a doubles partner who publicly berated you in the past. If you were sufficiently upset by the incident, your amygdala might try really hard to prevent you from playing with her again.
Remember that the amygdala sounds the alarm at the first sign of a threat, without really being sure that the threat is real, so you get false alarms with the memory fears as well. As Taylor Clark says in his book, Nerve,
the system is imprecise, but the fear memories the amygdala lays down are deep and persistent. With a single bad experience, we can become conditioned to fear things that are totally harmless.
And adding to the problem here is that we often won’t really understand why we’re fearful since the triggers can be fairly benign. Perhaps your doubles partner called you after that last match to explain she had a really bad day and apologized profusely for yelling at you. So, at least consciously, you’d forgiven her and didn’t expect it to happen again. Now you’re experiencing the stress response during your next match together, but you don’t know why. Your lack of control over your own body can increase your anxiety and you can even become angry at yourself for feeling this way.
3. Cells that wire together, fire together
This is a common term in neuroscience that refers to the way your brain reorganizes when you have new experiences. According to the book, Rewire Your Brain,
The more you do something in a particular way, use words with a specific accent, or remember something about your past, the more the neurons that fire together to make this happen will strengthen their connections. The more the neurons fire together, the more likely it is that they will fire together in the future.
We’re all familiar with the way we need to use focused (conscious) attention to learn a new skill – say, a forehand – and then with repetition it becomes habitual. Eventually we don’t need to be aware of the components of the stroke, we can execute it subconsciously. The brain is always looking to form habits so that it can free up resources for other things. You can read more on how this applies in the physical realm of tennis in this post on deep practice in tennis.
But we’re less familiar with how this concept applies to thinking too! Our thoughts are actually very similar to our actions from our brains’ perspectives. A motor movement involves neurons firing together. Over time, the neural pathway gets more efficient and the movement becomes more subconscious. The exact same principle applies to thoughts.
So the more negative thinking you do on the tennis court (and if you’re anything like me you do a lot), the easier it becomes to think negatively and the harder it is to break the habit of thinking the same negative thoughts over and over again.
And negative thoughts can lead to negative emotions. Both of these can activate the stress response. Which then creates even more negative thoughts and emotions and the cycle continues.
These thought patterns develop over the course of our lives as our personalities are shaped by our experiences. They’re not easy to turn off since they’re built into our subconscious. They aren’t something to feel bad about, but we should recognize that they can cause us major problems because they underlie our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
4. Our amygdalae have negativity biases that cause them to overperceive threats and raise a lot of false alarms
Our amygdalae are on the constant lookout for negative stimuli and readily dismiss positive stimuli. This is an evolutionary tendency that kept us safe in the wild. This makes it hard for us to think positively about our successes on the court and very easy to think negatively about our weaknesses. More on this in a future post.
Why Would We Perceive Tennis as a Threat?
The points above help to explain how negative thoughts – which become habitual with repetition, and are associated with negative emotions – activate and perpetuate the fear response. But why does tennis bring up negative thoughts in the first place? I know that for me, I’m more negative and fearful on the tennis court than I am anywhere else. What is it about tennis that brings out my inner pessimist?
This is a tough question to answer because it’s different for everyone. Our tendencies to perceive the world and react as we do are shaped by evolution, genetics and experience. While our genes and our experiences vary widely from one person to the next, we do share tendencies as humans that evolution created to keep us safe back when our lives were in peril much of the time.
Contribution of Evolution
As humans, we share some innate evolutionary tendencies such as wanting to belong, avoiding pain, and competing for resources and mates. These vary in strength from person to person and are also altered by genetics and experience.
But, silly as it may sound, tennis can cause fears of rejection, of not fitting in, and of appearing weak. These are basic human fears that all people experience to one degree or another in their lives. Tennis – where we’re pitted directly against an opponent, often with no one else on our side of the court – can result in our innate fears being triggered, without our conscious awareness.
Contribution of Culture
Adding to these fears are those induced by our experiences, which are largely affected by the culture we live in.
In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach points out how our western culture creates pressure to perform. She says,
We learn early in life that any affiliation – with family and friends, at school or in the workplace – requires proving that we are worthy. We are under pressure to compete with each other, to get ahead, to stand out as intelligent, attractive, capable, powerful, wealthy. Someone is always keeping score.
If asked, many of us would say we play tennis for fun, to learn a new skill and challenge ourselves to improve, to meet new people with a common interest, to get fit, etc. But even if we think these things at a conscious level, our subconscious could very well be thinking that we want to win and to look good doing it. Our western culture values performance, and it’s tough to not let desire to perform infiltrate your subconscious.
If you have a subconscious belief that, for example, your self-worth depends on your ability to play tennis, or on having others look up to you on the tennis court, then playing tennis becomes much more than a game – it becomes an arena where your self-worth is put to the test. Scary stuff!
Your amygdala senses fear, sounds the alarm, and the stress response gets turned on and then stays activated because your habitual thought patterns make it hard for your conscious brain to turn it off.
Basically you believe the threat to be real at a subconscious level. This is why you remain nervous throughout a match. Your conscious mind is saying that the result isn’t important, that you don’t mind making mistakes in the process of learning, or that you don’t care what anyone else thinks about your game, but your subconscious mind can’t be convinced – it’s been conditioned – through evolution, genetics and experience – to think that way.
My key takeaways from what I’ve read so far:
1. Fear is perfectly natural on the tennis court.
Our brains have evolved to keep us safe, and the fear response is a key part of that. There’s no point in getting angry at your fear response for overreacting or misperceiving threats.
The brain would rather have many false alarms than one missed true threat. Sure, this might be inconvenient when you’re facing match point and your fine motor skills diminish, but if you saw something moving out of the corner of your eye, unconsciously jumped back, and then realized the moving object was a bus hurtling towards you, you’d be grateful for your fear.
2. Everyone has different wirings in their brains, that are constantly changing with every experience, that cause them to think, feel and behave differently
This wiring is a product of their genetics but also of their experiences, including their thoughts and feelings, over the course of their lives. So you might be starting with a more anxious personality, or you might perceive some things as threats that others don’t, but you do have the ability to change the wiring of your brain and change your perceptions. I’ll be looking at this concept further in future posts.
3. This stuff isn’t easy to change
Much like changing your technique, thought habits are hard to break. Many of us have spent a lifetime thinking the way we do, and this is built into our subconscious. We can’t simply choose to turn off our fear responses. And we can’t simply choose to value improving over winning if we’ve spent a lifetime valuing winning over improving.
Where to Go from Here?
I think that I’ve struggled so much with tennis psychology because I believed that I should be able to choose my mindset.
I thought that once I knew, consciously, that my fear was irrational, I’d be able to make it go away. But this hasn’t been the case.
And I’ve become increasingly frustrated with my inability to conquer my fear. It’s almost like I’ve started to fear the fear itself. I don’t go into matches worrying that I’m going to lose, I go in worrying I’m going to be afraid.
But the thing is, my fear isn’t irrational. It’s part of how my subconscious perceives the world around me. So it’s not my fear response that needs to change.
Instead, I need to either:
- learn to perceive the world differently subconsciously (which some books say is possible)
- learn to accept my fear as it is and work with it instead of against it (which is what other books say is the only way)
Or maybe I need do a little of both. After all, tennis will always be uncertain, there’s no getting around that, and uncertainty is scary. But perhaps I can learn to spend less time caught up in negative thoughts and emotions on the court, which would just make tennis so much more fun.
Regardless, both paths take time and effort. I’ll be exploring this more.
If you’re struggling with fear and frustration on the tennis court, and you’ve been working to change this but haven’t been able to, I hope you find this helpful in explaining what’s going on.
Please tell me if you think I’m misinterpreting any of the science – this is written “in pencil.” I’d also love to hear other perspectives on this if you care to share.