Despite Nick Kyrgios’ awe-inspiring talent and unwavering self-belief…It appears clear that significant psychological hurdles stand between him and the fulfilling of his immense potential.
The loss of concentration during some matches…
Frequent intense anger…
His verbal abuse of others…
His occasional lack of effort…
Here’s my take on why I think at least in part, Kyrgios’ has developed an addiction to behaviours that serve to reduce fear/anxiety common to competing.
The 5 Behaviors…
1.) Appearing to Lose Concentration
Players can reduce difficult internal experiences without realizing to distract themselves away from the task at hand.
When we experience difficult predictions or judgments to do with competition outcomes, or difficult feelings and physical sensations to do with those thoughts such as anxiety, we may automatically shift our attention on to something else to avoid those difficult experiences.
This often appears from the outside to be poor concentration skills, which could be the case, but sometimes players unintentionally distract themselves to avoid the natural difficulties that come with maintaining attention in the moment when challenged.
2.) Exaggerating the Difficulty of Injuries
Players can come to use excuses to reduce difficult thoughts and feelings surrounding competition. While excuses help us feel better they don’t help us play better.
It’s important to recognize that players usually don’t do this on purpose. And there is ample evidence to show that emotional pain can manifest as physical pain as well.
But excuses are also a common way that we all reduce the difficult internal experiences we have in some situations without realizing. It’s simply not as personally painful when we can externalize and rationalize disappointment or worries as being outside our sense of self.
3.) Intense Anger
Perhaps the most common way that players unintentionally reduce difficult internal experiences to do with competition experiences is through anger. Acting angrily does a great job of reducing all difficult internal experiences common to competition.
For example, as a player starts losing it’s natural to experience both frustration and anxiety.
When players automatically become caught up in these difficult internal experiences their performance likely worsens which in turn increases frustration and anxiety further.
At some point the player might act angrily by throwing his/her racket to release the internal experience of frustration.
But not only will this action reduce frustration in that moment but it will also reduce the player’s anxiety.
By throwing his/her racket the player has now learned an even more attractive lessen than reducing frustration. His/her brain also now knows this, “The more angry I act the less nervous I feel”.
And since anger feels better than fear, when a situation triggers a player’s fear of losing, he/she may automatically come over time to use anger as a way of reducing the experience of fear.
4.) Interpersonal Conflict
An extension to anger is interpersonal conflict.
By this I mean when players become verbally abusive towards others such as the umpire, the crowd, or their coach/support team.
This is an even more powerful fear reducer than non-interpersonal anger (e.g., throwing racket) because the social aspect of interpersonal conflict has been shown to strongly trigger the release of endorphins which is a stress reducing chemical in our brain.
So by acting angrily players can reduce the internal experience of frustration/anxiety. But anger still feels bad and we tend to perform poorly because we’re caught up in it.
This can often lead to our brains searching for a way to also reduce the anger, which leads to our 5th example of how players can come to reduce difficult internal experiences.
We can stop trying…
Even though anger does a good job of reducing many other more difficult internal experiences, most of us would still rather not experience it.
When a player stops trying, it may signal that in that moment he/she is no longer willing to tolerate any difficult internal experiences, including anger.
When we give up, the pressure, the anger, the pain, the helpless feelings, the embarrassment are all reduced. Unfortunately, it comes at a big cost: the chance to win.
In Isolation Any of These 5 Behaviors Could Come from Several Sources…
For example, concentration lapses can be just that.
And Kyrgios may have been experiencing extreme back pain at times.
And his display of frustration may have been pure frustration.
But when we see these behaviors in combination, it’s highly likely that at least in part, they are serving the purpose of reducing anxiety in the moment and also avoiding the potential pain that comes with losing.
I hope he’s not hampered by this super common player challenge moving forward, so we all get to enjoy his freakish talents in all their glory as he continues to develop.