• Hugh Lawrence

Broken racquets and highly strung players

Now the Australian Open is over I thought I’d make some coaching observations about player behaviour and ask questions about what coaches were doing.


First, contrast the classy post-match interviews of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Osaka with the ill-tempered and classless behaviour of Zverev, Kyrgios and Tomic. Second, does it matter?


In my view, it matters a lot, for a range of reasons. From a ‘modelling-behaviour-to-young-players-inspiring-us-all’ perspective, it does nothing. The game’s administrators have a right to ask that participants put their best foot forward in these pinnacle events. For every one of the 128 players who make the main draw, there are hundreds who don’t make it and thousands who would love to even be in the first round of 128.


There will be those who make the main draw once and never again. There are those who make the main draw multiple times but, time and again, fail to advance to the round of 64. So, Zverev, Kyrgios and Tomic, get a grip (not just on your racquet) and respect those who aspire to be where you are, to have sponsorship deals, to be coached by the best and enjoy the spotlight – just once.


The next reason, the waste of their talent. Part of elite sport is dealing with loss. Elite sport is a world where winners are few and losers are many. To be the best, athletes must learn to control stress and anxiety levels, to accept for that moment, not meeting expectations. We know from well-established research the stress factors lead to sub-optimal performance, for example, mental errors, self-awareness, the weather, the opponents. We know a lot about the physiological response to threat to your self-image (perceived or real) – the fight and flight response is but one: sweating, raised blood pressure and so on. And we know that management of these responses is learned, therefore it must be taught and therefore practiced.


Kyrgios, “If I don’t play, I don’t play. Like, I’m available. That’s all I got to say. Like, what do you want from me?” Tomic “It’s all Lleyton. I’m going to say it honestly. No one likes him any more,” Tsitsipas “That wanker has f***ed me, f*** your house.” Utterly without class gentlemen. Contrast with Djokovic talking about meeting challenge “I think that’s probably the biggest secret of my success, if I can say, or probably any other athlete, is self-belief, always digging deep in the moments when you’re facing adversity, digging those moments of complimenting yourself, visualising yourself as a winner, trying to be in a positive state of mind. It’s much easier said than done obviously.”


So coaches, what’s happening? Substantial research since the 1980s, suggests that coaches are largely unaware of their own behaviour on the training floor. However, we are still short of studies of professional coach behaviour. Recent negative reviews of elite sport coaches worldwide have not occurred in a vacuum. Decades of focusing on player behaviour, not so much on the ‘adults in the room’. But in the research that does exist, coaches continue to emerge as some of the most influential socialising agents on athletes.


In 2016, researchers Chen et al observed, “There is evidence that moral disengagement is positively associated with antisocial behaviour and negatively associated with prosocial behavior in a sport context. Therefore, moral disengagement may play a mediating role in the relationship between contextual climate and athletes' moral behavior.”


Otago University’s Ken Hodge and co-workers drew similar conclusions in a 2015 paper. The researchers are onto something, but will coaches pay attention?


Post Script

And while we’re talking about class, more from Djokovic after his 15th Grand Slam win

“I would like to say hello to my family, starting with my wife and son and daughter. I hope they've been watching. At least, they said before the match they would watch!

Trophies are even more special when I have someone so dear and special to me in my life to share it with. They are dearest people on this planet. I love them very much.

I want to thank them for unconditional love and support. I try to always remind myself and not take that for granted.


(photo source New York Post)


References

Chen, Z.; Wang, D.; Wang, K.; Ronkainen, N. J; Huang, T. (2016). Social Effects Of Coaching Style On Prosocial And Antisocial Behavior Among Chinese Athletes. Behavior and Personality; Palmerston North Vol.44, Iss. 11, (2016): 1889-1900.

Hodge, K., & Gucciardi, D. F. (2015). Antisocial and prosocial behaviour in sport: The role of motivational climate, basic psychological needs, and moral disengagement. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37, 257-273.


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