Serena Williams loss in the US Tennis Open: A stress and coping analysis
Stress levels from the pressure of competing in a major final, such as a grand slam in tennis, can be extremely high and even a small distraction can have significant detrimental consequences on an athlete´s performance, and potentially their well-being. As an example, this week’s highlights on the US Open appeared to mainly focus on Serena Williams’s code violations during the women’s final.
Acknowledging that tennis can be one of the most physically and psychologically demanding sports, being able to cope with the demands of the game while remaining in control of thoughts and emotions is an important and difficult skill to master. The women’s US Open final on Saturday is a perfect example of how a sequence of events during competition can increase stress levels and impair performance. In this final, Williams was issued three violations by the umpire, Carlos Ramos, including a coaching code violation, smashing her racquet onto the court and verbal abuse to the umpire.
The question being asked by many since the event - is Serena´s behavior acceptable or not? The discussion so far has incorporated several different pertinent arguments, including gender roles and morality in sport. It is important that these matters are considered and evaluated in an attempt to develop sport environments that can promote gender equality and safe moral values. However, and notwithstanding the merits of wide ‘zoom-out’ viewpoints, this blog addresses these events from a tight ‘zoom-in’ perspective using evidence from the field of stress and coping.
Observing the events through a stress and coping lens, the first penalty for a coaching code violation (coach giving hand signals during the game) seems to have been perceived by Serena as a surprise and unfair decision and may have triggered persistent negative ruminative thoughts, such as the umpire not being fair. The subsequent emotion affected her ability to focus on performance, leading to the following violations of smashing the racket on the court, and the angry confrontation with the umpire, Carlos Ramos, that ensued. Research (Nicholls and Polman, 2007) suggests that when confronting uncontrollable stressors in sport, such as a decision from an umpire, effective coping strategies should allow the athlete to re-focus on aspects of the situation that they can control such as their technique and performance. Yet, it seems that Serena may have struggled to refocus on aspects that she could control and instead allowed her negative thoughts and emotions to prevail resulting in impulsive behavior.
From an applied sport psychology perspective, it is important to reflect on the coping strategies that help athletes effectively regain composure and control over thoughts and emotions without disrupting performance. Recent research conducted at Carnegie School of Sport (Kaiseler, Poolton, Backhouse, & Stanger, 2017; Stanger, Chettle, Whittle, & Poolton, 2018), suggests that certain emotion-regulation strategies - such as mindfulness (capacity to pay attention to the present moment thoughts and feelings without being judgmental) or reappraisal (changing negative thoughts to positive ones) - can be useful for helping athletes cope more effectively with immediate stress and decrease disruptive ruminative thoughts.
There is no doubt that Serena Williams is well aware of effective coping strategies to tackle stress, and this recent event is a one-off in her career. Nevertheless, it is important that sport practitioners learn from this incident to consider how challenging it is for any athlete, let alone highly successful and experienced athletes, to apply stress and coping theory during competitions.
- Kaiseler, M., Poolton, J.M. Backhouse, S.H., & Stanger, N. (2017) The Relationship Between Mindfulness and Life Stress in Student-Athletes: The Mediating Role of Coping Effectiveness and Decision Rumination. Sport Psychologist, 31, 288- 298 ISSN 0888-4781 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.2016-0083
- Nicholls, A.R., & Polman R.C. (2007). Coping in Sport: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25,11-31 DOI:10.1080/02640410600630654
- Stanger, N., Chettle, R., Whittle, J., & Poolton, J. (2018) The role of pre-performance and in-game emotions on cognitive interference during sport performance: The moderating role of self-confidence and reappraisal. The Sport Psychologist, 32, 114-124. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.2017-0001
Mariana is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Carnegie Faculty since January 2014. She teaches at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and her main research interests are in the applied field of stress, coping and emotions.