The Wrap Around with Dr Z: Issue XIV – Anger on the Court

Posted on Jun 23 2020 - 5:19am by DV

Photos taken on 2018-02-10 at Las Vegas Athletic Club Central during R48 Pro Handball Tournament.

Wrap Around with Dr. Dan Zimet, Sport Psychologist

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Anger on the Court

Dr. Z, I find myself constantly berating myself on the court, often necessitating repeated visits from the vulgar police to the court. How do I turn this negative self-talk into positive self-talk, even when things are not going my way?

BG from PA   

When I’m asked why there are eighteen holes on a golf course, I give the answer that best suits my understanding of the game.  That’s just enough holes to experience every emotion.  Sport takes us through a wide range of feelings, from exhilaration to frustration.  Unlike other emotions, anger in sport is a mixed experience that has beneficial as well as harmful effects.  When properly tuned, anger supplies a burst of fuel.  When improperly tuned, it causes poor concentration, over aggressive play, impulsivity in decision-making, and unsportsmanlike conduct.  Anger leads to black-and-white thinking and a willingness to take retaliatory action that disregards the future consequences of those actions. 

Athletes with poor anger management become their own enemy.  They’re not just competing against an opponent; they face an enemy within.  That’s an impossible battle to win.

In this issue of Wrap Around we will look into the role anger plays in sport and what we can do to better manage ourselves under frustrating conditions.  The goal isn’t to avoid anger.  It’s to learn how to make our emotions work for us, paying particular attention to how they’re expressed.  While the subject will not be addressed here, it is important to understand that some athletes will deliberately act angry or incredulous to manipulate and negatively influence the referee or an opponent.  Since this type of behavior is within an athlete’s ability to change, I’ll only offer my personal opinion that taking a ‘win at all costs’ stratagem is a choice that denigrates the spirit of sport.

What is the purpose of anger?

From an evolutionary perspective, anger was a very important emotion when it came to life or death situations.  It quickly redirects our internal resources towards resolving a threat to our survival.  The power and aggression endemic to anger is perfectly suited to situations that are, in fact, life-threatening and short-lived.  An example is getting physically assaulted: you either killed the wild boar attacking you or died in the attempt.

Modern life is far more complex as it’s rare to experience the kinds of direct threats our ancestors endured.  Rather, we are constantly bombarded by ambiguous threats that linger, causing ongoing stress to a system designed for rapid resolution.  For this reason, chronic stress has become an epidemic contributing to serious problems to our mental health (e.g., depression and anxiety), behavioral health (e.g., violent outbursts and aggression); and physical health (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke).

What happens when we get angry? 

The biological response of anger starts in the Amygdala, a small, almond shaped part of the brain that gets tripped when we interpret an event as unjust, aggravating, demeaning, or terrifying.  Together with the Hypothalamus, Pituitary Glands and Adrenal Glands, stress hormones flood the body and brain, including cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.  These hormones cause a number of changes, such as increased blood pressure and heart-rate.  Glucose is released, causing a surge of energy.  The thinking-brain shuts down and the action-brain takes over, resulting in rapid and bold decision-making with little regard to consequences.  The digestion, autoimmune, and sex systems, which normally draw a vast amount of energy, shut down.  Energy courses through the respiratory, vascular and skeletal-muscular systems, giving us power, heightened senses, and partial immunity to pain.

Anger is sport

Anger is a common byproduct of intense competition and all athletes should anticipate and prepare for its eventuality.  In fact, learning to manage intense emotions is a reason why sport is helpful to child development.  Coaches often refer their athletes for anger management after conflicts, such as on-field aggression, excessive personal fouls, or heated arguments with staff or peers.  Coaches know that anger problems need to be addressed quickly; they are both a symptom and a cause of toxic relationships and an unhealthy team atmosphere.

Athletic anger starts in many ways.  For many there is a mounting burden of stress and frustration brought about by underachievement or time-constraints, which leaves an athlete feeling overwhelmed, insecure and isolated.  Unfortunately, athletes often fail to seek positive support to emotional problems, since an atmosphere of machismo and invulnerability permeates sport at every level.  The vulnerable athlete feels keyed-up all the time, their anxiety or sadness over the problem blurring into an anger that causes sleep disturbance, poor concentration, and irritability.  They may turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to calm their constantly frayed nerves.  They are caught in an escalating cycle, which both magnifies the issue and compounds the anger.

Other athletes may not experience chronic anger, but their on-court mentality makes them prone to anger during competition.  These athletes are often perfectionistic, rigid thinkers who are over-invested in performance outcomes (win/lose mentality).  Dr. Jim Taylor, a prolific publisher in the Sport Psychology arena, notes that anger can be a defensive emotion that protects an athlete against painful self-perceptions including: low self-esteem, an identity overly invested in sport performance, having an outcome focus (high expectations/pressure), perfectionism, fear of failure, or stunted emotional maturity. 

In sum, many anger problems can be boiled down to these factors:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Frustration with performance and achieving goals
  • Unresolved personal issues (e.g., emotional insecurity)
  • High stress burden such as feeling overwhelmed by pressure
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Poor communication skills
  • Rigid, perfectionistic thinking style
  • Seeing aggression (verbal, physical) as an acceptable form of social dominance
  • Poor self-awareness of one’s own emotional states
  • A tendency to project blame onto others

Managing anger. 

Outside the court, it seems obvious that optimal performance requires the management of your emotions during competition.  That’s easier said than done.  Resolving anger problems starts with understanding three underlying principles.

First, anger stems from an interpretation of an event, making it highly subjective.  What feels angering to one person, may cause no stress whatsoever to someone else.  This means that if we can change how we interpret an event, we can change our emotional response.

Second, most of my anger management clients perceive their anger as happening suddenly.  They’ll say, “I go from zero to a hundred in a second.”  But that’s not what actually occurs.  Anger is the inevitable outcome of living in a pressure-cooker of stress.  Angry people are often set-off by minor events because they’re constantly on a hair-trigger.  When the temperature of a pot is near boiling, the smallest addition of heat tips the scales.  If we can find ways to reduce the heat, we can lengthen the time it takes to hit a boiling point.

Third, it’s your responsibility to control your emotions.  Nobody makes you angry.  It’s true that people are frustrating, but ultimately only you are responsible for your behavior.  We live in a world filled with aggravating circumstances and they’re not going to change for your benefit.  Referees make ‘bad’ calls.  The ball takes bad bounces.  Opponents make ‘lucky’ shots.  If you want to succeed, be prepared to accept these eventualities gracefully.

Expect to get angry.  Mitch Abrams, author of Anger Management in Sport: Understanding and Controlling Violence in Athletes, rightly points out that that anger is a natural part of intense situations.  He states that it’s erroneous to ask, “Will I get angry?”  A better question is, “How will I handle myself when I get angry?”  While subtle, this important shift in mindset can help you be prepared.  Rather than thinking, “I hope I don’t get angry,” say to yourself, “When I get angry, I’m going to…”  The latter mindset takes control of the situation and your response to it.  It sets an expectation that frustration is inevitable, and when it happens you can be prepared to ameliorate it.

Know your triggers.  Spend some time reflecting on what sets off your anger.  Make a list of triggers and the specific fuel that has set you off in the past.  By knowing your hot-buttons, you can anticipate anger before it escalates, giving you a head start on managing yourself.

Know when you’re angry and your level of your anger.  Anger gets expressed in your mind, body, and behavior.  Common body experiences of anger include feeling hot or flush, muscle tension, quickening breath, sweating, tightness in the chest, jaw or neck, shaking or trembling, feeling dizzy or light-headed, and an elevated heart rate.  You’ll note that many of these symptoms mirror a normal response to intense exercise, making it difficult to differentiate anger from physical excursion.  However, these physical reactions are accompanied by angry thoughts that include, “this isn’t fair;” “how dare he/she do that;” “he/she is making a fool out of me;” “you’re embarrassing yourself;” “he/she’s taking advantage of you;” or “you can’t let this go, you need to do something about it!”  Behaviors that accompany anger include: yelling, hitting something, acting impulsively, taking risks, and acting intimidating, aggressive, mean or nasty.

Take inventory of yourself.  This is an exercise I do with every client struggling with anger management.  Draw a scale from zero to five along the margin of a piece of paper.  Try to write a word or two about the; 1) Body experiences; 2) Thoughts; and 3) Behaviors at each point on the scale as your anger escalates from zero (the absence of anger) through five (enraged; overwhelmed by anger).  For example, you may feel a tingling flush on your face when your anger is a two, but by the time it gets to a four you feel hot, keyed up and tense.  At a zero your thinking is calm, patient and reasonable but at a three you have a tendency to interrupt people, your attitude is hostile and impatient, and your voice gets loud.

Know what to do.  Knowing where you are on the scale is essential to knowing what techniques can work to reduce your anger.  As a rule of thumb, the lower you are on the scale the larger your number of options.  When your anger is low you can talk through the problem, seek social support, reframe the issue, write out a cost/benefit analysis of various solutions, get some exercise to clear your head, distract yourself, do some deep breathing, prayer or meditation, and so on.  None of these techniques is likely to be effective when anger is at a five.  In fact, when anger is at its height, you need to walk away.  Only then should you take deep, calming breaths, and talk yourself down.

Role play situations that anger you.  You practice shots in order to execute them under specific conditions and you train to make sure you have the strength and endurance to compete, but do you prepare for challenging mental situations that arise during competition?  Review your on-court triggers, recalling past situations that led to angry outbursts.  Replay them in your mind and try to insert techniques that could have helped you stay in control.  Make sure to start at the beginning, when your anger first started to escalate.  Try discussing the situation with a trusted handball companion who may also be able to offer novel ideas.

Learn skills before you need them.  How many times have you heard people say to walk away or take a few deep breaths when you’re angry?  While cliché, these techniques really do work if you’re able to apply them.  Call a time-out, pace around the court, or if you can, take a glove/shirt change.  Talk yourself down.  Breath through the anger.  Observe other players as they are controlling their reactions on the court and notice what they do.  Remind yourself that rage is never worth it.  Tell yourself that it’s just a game.  I often say to myself, “this is what you do to relax and have fun.  Are you doing that right now?”  When you’ve calmed down, channel that energy into motivation and positive intensity to fuel your competitive drive.

Change irrational or unrealistic expectations for yourself, other people, or the world.  Harboring rigid or perfectionistic expectations of yourself or others is a set-up for disappointment that may lead to anger.  There is a difference between high, achievable goals and unattainable goals or goals that are outside of your ability to control.  So long as you fully apply yourself, set goals that have at least an 80% chance of success.  Focus on your effort and growth/development, not on your failures and mistakes.  Pay attention to how your cup is half-full.

If you feel constantly let down, disappointed or disgusted by the behavior of others you may have unrealistic expectations for humanity.  At times the world is a frustrating place.  People can be selfish, oblivious, ignorant, and annoying.  If you let yourself get spun up over the little things, you’ll be angry all the time.  Always ask yourself whether a battle is worth it and learn to rapidly let go of the aggravations that don’t have to become important. Reduce the amount of your internal conversation that is critical of others, and instead focus on the good.  Make a conscious effort to be accepting and warm.  Remember that relationships are overwhelmingly important to our well being, and we tend to get back what we put out into the universe.  Negativity breeds additional negativity.

It’s only a game.  Is winning more important to you than it needs to be?  Try adopting a flexible, creative, or broader perspective about your game.  I used to play a lot of golf and became frustrated when my handicap refused to budge.  I’d get angry on the course, which made things worse.  Everything changed when I asked myself why my handicap mattered to me.  What I enjoyed about the game was the challenge, being with friends, experiencing nature, and the joy that came from hitting the occasional great shot.  Since then, I’ve tried to adopt the attitude that my experience of golf should have less to do with my score.  A positive experience stems from a positive attitude.

Find meaning in your frustration.  There is immense satisfaction in playing well under adverse conditions.  Mentally strong athletes can excel when they are booed by fans, underestimated by opponents, or having a bad day.  A match is composed of numerous small battles, and the score is only one of them.

Having a bad day?  Stay with it and see if you can turn your game around.  Bad days are opportunities to practice letting go of mistakes; to make adaptations to your game since your typical style isn’t working; and to test your ability to stay competitive when you’re despondent.  Sometimes all you can expect from yourself is to give your best effort on every point.  By changing the metric on how you judge a performance, you can change your attitude.

Perfectionism.  Rigid or perfectionist thinking sets up an athlete for frustration and then anger.  There’s no such thing as perfect play.  Handball is a game of percentages, and when playing against someone at or above your level, you can expect your percentages to drop.  Superior players find and then pick on our weaknesses.  They control the flow of the match, retrieve balls we think are winners, punish poorly executed shots, and give fewer offensive opportunities.  Against skilled opposition it’s unrealistic to expect flawless play.  To stay effective, let go of errors and move on to the next point with focus and positivity.

Leave your personal life in the locker-room.  Create a space between handball and the rest of your life by having a routine that prepares you physically and mentally before the first serve.  This becomes particularly important when our lives are stressful.  Do some mindfulness exercises or meditation while you’re warming up to clear your mind of everything except playing handball.  Sport is an escape from the rest of your life, an opportunity to have freedom from responsibility for everything outside of chasing the little blue ball. This concept can also be helpful before every point.

Know why you’re on the court.  For some athletes, winning is everything and any tactic that increases that opportunity is fair game.  For the majority of us, the prospect of winning a National title isn’t as important as our legacy with the community, enjoying the experience of playing, and living up to a moral code of integrity on and off the court.  Remember that when the last point is scored, you’ll be standing outside the court with your opponents.  Invest in your legacy as a competitor by keeping the big picture in mind.

Does your anger extend outside of handball?  One of my most frequently cited quotes is the Buddhist proverb, ‘Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.’  Angry people are often in denial that it’s their problem.  Anger is the fruit of unresolved issues that rarely lie dormant in our minds, the branches weave into everything we do and think, quietly infecting our lives despite the best of intentions. 

Consider taking a deeper dive into the issues that might underlie your anger, and be kind and patient with yourself in the process.  The healthy regulation of suppressed or overwhelming anger takes time to develop.  Speaking to a professional counselor can speed up the process.  If you’re more into DIY, buy a book, workbook and journal.  Reading about anger management, particularly when accompanied by systematic self-reflection, goes a long way.

The healthy expression of anger is the responsibility of the person experiencing it.  If you want to stay at the top of your game, learn how to channel anger into productive motivation and energy to get a helpful surge.  If you’ve had problems with anger on the court, consider doing something about it.  While it’s hard dealing with someone else that’s angry, being an angry person is a miserable life because you can’t avoid yourself.  As spoken by Confucius: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Musings from the Masters

Dave Dohman, Munster, IN.  b 1956, Handball Hall of Fame, 2009.  Nine National Open 3-Wall Doubles titles, 29 National Masters titles.  Prefers 3-wall

This is one issue that has diminished with Father Time. As a young man starting to have some success in tournament play, I found myself periodically dealing with negative thoughts while playing. Most of those past thoughts questioned poor choice of shots, erroneous strategy or simple hand errors. Like many self-analyzations, I knew I needed to either change my approach or be consumed by negativity.

I adopted two simple yet key action plans, one physical & one psychological: 1] remain silent and take 3-4 deep breaths until the negativity had subsided.  It’s amazing what a little fresh oxygen can do to change your thought process and clear your mind. 2]. Forget about it and get back to the game plan, which I have found to be the harder of the two action plans.

Handball being a game of eliminating mistakes (see Jim Jacobs’ training video) miscues will always be a part of the game. Training, conditioning, and practice games can add a tremendous amount of confidence, which in turn eliminates negative thoughts.

Am I still making mistakes during a match with some negative reaction? Absolutely. I also find myself able to smile about them a lot more than I did some years ago.

LeaAnn Martin, Bellingham, WA., b. 1956, Handball Hall of Fame (2010), 20+ National and World titles in singles and doubles, played 4-Wall.

Believe it or not, I can suggest one simple (and short) thing. Instead of thinking and dwelling on what you did wrong (e.g., missed target, poor serve, bad choice of shot), think of what you need to do. Forget the mistake you just made. Think of what you should do.  “See” in your mind the great shot you need to make. See the serve you want to hit.  See the perfect pass. This does a couple of things. First, it takes your concentration off an error, and secondly it creates positive visualization.

Vern Roberts does another thing. When he makes an error, he will say (often out loud), “I did not do that!” It’s pretty funny to be in the court with him when he does that. We have played some fun doubles, and when I hear him say that, I say, “The hell you didn’t! I saw you!”

Cesar Sala, Bronx NY.  b 1977.  Six National Open 1-wall titles (2 singles & 4 doubles), 1 Worlds Singles small ball.  Prefers 1-wall small ball.

Managing anger can be tricky, especially during high-pressure situations. I’ve had my share of both failures and successes using anger during game situations. The most effective way that I’ve used anger has been to propel my training.  The timing and how much of it you use during a game are very important because of how volatile it can be.

Anger has provided me strong rushes of adrenaline that have helped during times of fatigue, boredom or a lack of interest in a game. More often than not, I’d get a charge of energy when an opponent would say or do something like cheat or play dirty/physical. I’ve also had times where the officiating has led to anger. During years that I really trained hard I was able to sustain intense energy surges and I felt I could keep tapping into it as needed. When I was out of shape or not playing as much, it helped but to a lesser degree. The surges weren’t as strong and didn’t last as long.

There are also negatives to using anger as a motivator or energy boost. For one, you burn up more energy, which can lead to fatigue. That has happened to me where I pushed too hard for too long, and I would burn out. Another negative is you can lose control of it. Once it turns into a blinding rage, there is no longer a practical use.

One of the biggest negatives is that it can put you in a very unhealthy mindset.  I remember winning a bunch of tournaments and tough matches where it felt like I was arguing with everyone. I would find the smallest thing to get me more aggressive, and it worked! The problem was that I was a miserable person. I was winning but I was unhappy, which was a strange place to be. The winning was feeding my ego, but at the same time it was damaging my perspective. After the games I’d pick apart what I did wrong and I’d remember all of the calls I disagreed with and who made them so I can monitor who was a good vs bad ref. The best way I can describe it is like using negative energy vs positive energy. The negative energy can create some memorable moments but it can also consume you.

That is why I think anger is best used as a motivator for training, at least for me. It gets me in the gym when I get frustrated about something or someone. It doesn’t have the negative effects that come with using it during games. The more I train the better. As far as games and tournaments go, I still use it sparingly. However, the best I’ve ever played has been while I’ve been in a peaceful state of mind, when I find joy in just playing and figuring out the puzzle at hand.

Albert Apuzzi, Brooklyn NY.  B. 1955.  Handball Hall of Fame, Twenty National Open 1-wall titles, 32-time Open finalist.  Prefers 1-wall small ball

Sandler was my partner in a one-day doubles tournament and he started arguing over a line call. I told him the ball was obviously good (not in our favor).  He replied that he knew, and was arguing to get himself motivated.  His arguing, which negatively affected our opponents, had a double purpose.

Players need to know themselves and their opponents. And what effects different amounts of pressure will have. Although we may think of sports as purely a physical competition, this is not true.

Practicing under pressure situations helps a player perform better under them.

Vern Roberts Jr., Tucson, AZ.  b 1954.  Handball Hall of Fame, induction 2002.  Preferred to play outside (prior to replacement parts)

Whenever things aren’t going well, either my fault or the other player’s, I’d re-examine the game plan.  While re-thinking the plan, it’s always best to slow things down and correctly do the simple things to regain some confidence and see what else might work that day.  Of course, it helps to remember a game where you made a big turnaround, either in your play or the score. 

Your play and games do turn around, but not if you stay in a negative funk.

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