Of the many reasons why bad conduct results in bad performance, the one I will call your attention to is that it is a total waste of energy, an athlete’s most precious and finite resource. When you are freaking out about the last point, you’re well on your way to losing the next one. And furthermore, when you are squandering your energy that way, you are draining your tank and re-fueling your opponent’s, who notices and capitalizes on your little tantrums. So, in the energy economy of competition, bad conduct is a lose-lose scenario. In this article, I am going to call your attention to the three most prevalent conduct errors I witness and provide direction about how to channel your energy more effectively. When you fall prey to them, you are scattering your energy. When you avoid them, especially in tough times, you are husbanding your energy.
- Imprecating: You hit a ball into the tin, out of court, or fail to retrieve an opponent’s winning shot, and yell any or all of the following: “OH, MY GOD!!!” “JESUS CHRIST!!!” “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!” “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??!!” “WHAT THE (expletive deleted)??!!!” Sometimes these outbursts come in singlets, pairs, or as a tricolon crescendo. In this scattering error, you appeal to some absent tribunal, some Olympian counsel for answers as to why the universe has turned suddenly inimical. Zeus snickers, “foolish mortal, plaything of fate,” as you go on to lose the next several points and petition the divine ever more vociferously. The first fix for this error, which aims at husbanding energy, is to keep it inside and find a way to transfer the negative energy to positive. Follow this husbanding routine: note the mistake and validate the frustration to yourself (“Damn! A tin. That’s a mistake.”) Then, give yourself, again, to yourself, an encouraging correction (“Get the next point!” “Hit it higher!”). In moments of extreme frustration, pace around the service box, tie your shoes, check your strings. But do so, all the while being clear that you are re-focusing your mind for the task at hand and giving yourself a pep talk. Don’t use that time to continue wallowing in your misery. Following this routine will minimize the damage from a mental error, get you back on track, and, most importantly, save vital energy for when you need it most.
- Disputing. Things are not going well. You have lost the last few points and the whining din of negative self-talk has become deafening in your ears. Because you haven’t succeeded in re-focusing the mind, you become disputatious. You question the referee’s calls, doubt your opponent’s retrievals, question appeals for lets and strokes, since obviously these things must be at fault for your poor play. These external disputes are signs that inwardly things have continued their downward spiral. That is, you are externalizing an internal struggle, all the while leaking and sputtering energy willy nilly. The husbanding fix here is a bit tricky. It requires some mindful attention to the self-chatter. Has it become whiney, harsh and tinged with anger and righteous indignation? If so, notice it and nip it in the bud! Give yourself a quick scolding (“Come on! Snap out of it!”) and then administer a pep talk (“Let’s play a couple of really strong points.”) Even if you don’t win them, commit to changing the cognitive landscape toward the positive. If you lose an entire game in negative talk, make sure your primary intervention during the game break is on the cognitive thermostat.
- Storming. Things have reached their nadir. Now, when you lose a point, instead of just imprecating or disputing, you storm in the following ways: ball abuse: kicking the ball, slamming the ball into the tin after the point is over; racket abuse: nicking the side wall with a violent swing, throwing the racket into the corner, or even breaking the racket on the wall. You also abuse reality: change the score, claim that a ball retrieved on the 2nd and a half bounce was up, swear that the opponent’s ball was out even though it was two feet inside the line. In this frame of mind, a conduct warning or stroke can be the best signal that you have really lost your tether to the rational world. The referee is trying to give you a lifeline back with that warning, though you take it as further proof of all the forces arrayed against you. When things have reached this point, often a strong intervention from the entourage is the only fix. A coach can help. S/he can speak truth to the madness (“You’re going to lose if you carry on like this.”) and get you focussed on the present (“Just play one point at a time.”), as well as give you a good strategy. But just as often, words don’t penetrate the rabid frenzy, and a parent provides the best intervention, who, after warning you once, will default you from the match if the tantrums don’t stop. No doubt, this is the nuclear option, but it should be left on the table for players who can’t manage their own behavior. Of course, if a parent doesn’t step in, a good referee will oblige by awarding your opponent a conduct match, the ref’s nuclear option.
In this piece, I have outlined three forms of bad conduct, all of which betray poor cognition. I have also written with an eye toward young athletes, but we know well that athletes of all ages fall into these traps. And, while I have focused on squash, these remarks apply equally well to all sports. Indeed, to all life. An important thing to recognize about poor conduct is that it violates the two main injunctions of good sport cognition: that you stay present and that you focus on the things you can control, not those you can’t. When we are in a bad mental framework, and letting that framework ooze all over the court, it is because we are perseverating on past moments, as well as on negative rather than positive inputs. Secondly, we can’t control referee calls, an opponent’s good play or bad shenanigans, but we can control our own conduct and play. A huge step toward being able to control these two variables is by controlling our emotional response to the challenges of the moment. Controlling emotions saves energy. Freaking out squanders it. It is only by husbanding our energy rather than profligately scattering it that we avoid getting mired in the hellish quicksand of bad cognition and can get down to the more joyous and liberating business of floating like butterflies and stinging like bees.