The Golden Rule of Tennis

(Just for honesty's sake, I must confess that during my playing career I did some things in tournaments that were almost as counterproductive as this Tarango story--though they were less dramatic. So I am by no means taking a 'holier than thou' attitude. Under sufficient pressure, most of us are capable of rather foolish actions.)

The great champions are different

John McEnroe had a similar fiery temperament, but his situational judgment was usually able to retain its ultimate rationality even in the throes of emotionality and outcome uncertainty.

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Because at some deep level he sensed that he was going to win, he was able to comprehend where the line demarcating disaster was and exert enough self-control (although it didn't look like it) to avoid crossing it.

He got into emotional twits where he made unreasonable demands, berated linesmen and umpires, and threw matches into confusion, but he usually benefited from this behavior. His behavior intimidated linesmen into giving him the benefit of the doubt on close calls; it disturbed his opponents and put off their games; and McEnroe stimulated himself with adrenaline and often played better.

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One year he did manage to get himself defaulted in the Australian Open, but he said after the match that he had been unaware of a recent rule change where the authorities had cut down by one the number of abuses a player was allowed before default. The progression toward default had formerly been 'warning,' 'point penalty,' 'game penalty,' 'DEFAULT,' but this had been changed to 'warning,' 'point penalty,' 'DEFAULT.'

McEnroe simply miscalculated and thought he could afford one more penalty. In contrast with Tarango, McEnroe may sometimes have looked like an uncontrolled, irrational wild man, but all the while he was carefully counting his penalties so that he could stop himself before he went too far. McEnroe didn't often forget where his interests lie.

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McEnroe was cunning in other ways about expressing his frustration and anger. He knew cursing and abusing umpires would lead to code violations. So instead of cursing them he would say things like, "You are so low that words can't describe how low I think you are!" Of course this is every bit as insulting and hurtful as cursing the person, but it made the code violation difficult to pin on him.

We are often not as rational as we should be

Human beings are supposed to be rational creatures, but too often our emotions drive our actions while our reasoning abilities are relegated to the back of the bus.

This is frequently the case in tennis matches because the one-on-one aspect of tennis competition makes it an inherently stressful and emotional situation.

More: How to Stay Emotionally Detached in Tennis

Errant emotions during match-play tempt us to forget our objectives (winning the match) and engross ourselves in anger, personal antagonism, defeatism, excuse-making, or other counter-productive but stress-reducing mental states.

Keeping in mind our Golden Rule test of "Will this help me win?" can help ward off such debilitating and destructive mental states.

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