February 14, 2003, Newsletter Issue #61: Why Do Emotions Drive Tennis Performance?

Tip of the Week

Players from the past such as Borg and Evert were renowned for not showing any emotion. But, ask them today and they`ll tell you that, although we may not have seen it, they were churning inside!

Today, Agassi, Hewitt, the Williams Sisters, as well as top collegiate and high school tennis players must understand their "Ideal Performance State", originally introduced by Dr. Jim Loehr, Sports Psychologist, in his book, "Mental Toughness Training."

Research has shown that the components of the "IPS" were the same regardless of the nature of the performance. Tennis players, other athletes, business people, artists all described the same basic elements: physical energy, mental clarity, and emotional calm. Most revealing of all, though, was the pivotal role of EMOTIONS. The IPS partly states of body (relaxed muscles, high energy), and partly states of mind (mental calmness and alertness), but it`s the emotional state (enjoyment, freedom from anxiety, optimism, self-confidence) that is critical, all-pervasive link.


This simple truth is a function of the way the human body works. Neurophysiologically and biochemically, the limbic system, which is the seat of human emotion, is literally the link between the body and the mind.

This system, a collection of glands and processing centers at the core of the brain, acts as a central switchboard for the central nervous system connecting the brain to the network of nerves throughout the body. Messages from other parts of the body are transmitted to the brain through the limbic system, and when the brain responds, again, the impulse goes through the limbic system. This function is a communication performed through the secretions of two categories of chemicals; neurotransmitters, which carry impulses or signals across gaps between nerve cells, and hormones, which are carried through the blood stream to glands and nerve centers.

One thing most athletes should understand is that they`re physically and chemically different when they change emotional states. Emotional states aren`t something extraneous--they`re at the core of your perceptions and responses. When you go from happiness to anger, from nervousness to calm, or from boredom to excitement, you change your biochemistry. This, in turn, affects your alertness to what is going on around you, your perception of those events, and your physical reponses to those events.

Physiology of Energy

The key to performance is energy fueled from the positive emotions. Energy, both mental and physical, result from the combustion of glucose and oxygen (one can make a comparison to the combustion of gasoline and oxygen in the cylinders of an automobile engine. The BRAIN uses a huge proportion of the body`s energy relative to its mass, requiring tremendous quantitites of glucose and oxygen. While representing only 2 percent of the body`s mass, a fourth of the blood supply is being used by the brain at any given point. OXYGEN is supplied to the body via the respiratory process. As blood goes through the lungs the hemoglobin in the red blood cells picks up oxygen molecules inhaled from the atmosphere and carries them to the muscles and to the brain. GLUCOSE is a simple sugar derived from a variety of foods, and is produced during the digestive process. As food passes through the stomach into the intestines, glucose is picked up directly by the blood as we need it. Our bodies don`t store glucose--whatever isn`t consumed immediately during digestion is converted to glycogen, a starch, and stored in the liver. Between digestions, the liver converts glycogen back to glucose at a steady rate determined by the body`s usual demand.

The Biochemisty of Emotions

Norepinephrine-both a hormone and a neurotransimitter, norepinephrine stimulates mental processes as well as pulse and respiration. Without any in our systems, we`re asleep. With too little, we`re lethargic and sluggish. With the right amount, we`re energized and confident, able to perform at our highest level. Yet, with too much, we`re angry, tense, and jittery.

Serotinin-a neurotransmitter, sertoinin conveys impulses between nerve cells in the brain centers responsible for pleasure and relaxation. The more the serotonin, the more of these good feelings; however, too much will cause us to become sleepy.

Endorphins-a neurotransmitter, endorphins block the transmission of pain signals from the body to the brain and stimulate the pleasure centers. Through the network of the nervous system, endorphins work the same way as opiate drugs.

Epinephrine-both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, epinephrine (adrenaline) is the fear hormone, providing energy by stiimulating the automatic nervous system--the result is a quickened heartbeat, a rise in blood pressure, and rapid breathing.

So, there`s your primer on the Biochemistry of Performance. Though you needn`t be an M.D. to understand what happens to your body during competitive stress, it is good to know the hows and why`s of your biochemistry!

Thanks to Mauricio Miranda for his assistance in producing this TipLetter.

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