It’s time angry players realize that mistakes are inevitable. (Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas)

We often hear players who become angry when they miss a shot  say that it happens because they are
perfectionists. Their standards are so high that they can’t accept errors.

When people label themselves as perfectionists, they do so with a hint of pride. It’s admirable being the type who will settle for nothing less than perfection. But the perfectionists that I know—the ones who get angry at mistakes on the court—more often suffer from an immature and distorted view of reality. They have not yet accepted the truth that they make mistakes because it is impossible to not make them.

Calling this trait “perfectionism” turns it into a virtue and allows them to continue getting angry at mistakes they can’t help but make. If they saw the issue as one of being immature and unrealistic, they would have to take action to correct it, which they are not prepared to do.

Of course, the characteristic has a positive side. Since perfectionists are never satisfied with their level of performance, they are driven to improve. They have an endless supply of motivation to work harder. On the other hand, since they are constantly focusing on their weaknesses, they often forget to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They overlook the bigger objective, which is to enjoy the game itself.

Calling this trait “perfectionism” turns it into a virtue and allows them to continue getting angry at mistakes they can’t help but make."

One of my teams at Pepperdine, where I was the coach from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, included a young French player named Charles Auffray. He had been a walk-on as a freshman and had a great deal of physical talent, but was emotionally undisciplined. He could hardly speak English when he arrived (I could barely understand him, at least), but he had somehow managed to pass the language and entrance exams. Auffray rarely slept and never studied, but got As in most of his classes.

On the tennis court, Auffray had a very short fuse. Despite his extraordinary physical abilities, he was prone to becoming wildly agitated when he was playing poorly. I could never seem to convince him that his game was subject to variability. I remember him coming off the court after what he considered a terrible performance. He was sputtering around with his broken English and French accent. (Some players get dark and ugly when they lose. Auffray, on the other hand, was a lovely guy with a good soul. His frustrated grousing was vaguely comical.)

I said to him, “Charles, I have the solution to your problem of making too many mistakes. It’s simple. The next time you play a match, go out there and don’t miss anymore!”

For a moment he just stared at me quizzically. Then he understood. I said, “That’s right, Charles. You can’t possibly do that. You make mistakes because you can’t help it! Accept the fact that you are not perfect and never will be, no matter what you do. You will always make mistakes, and the sooner you get realistic and stop getting upset because you don’t like the real world as it is, the better off you will be.”

I don’t know if it was this little talk or whether Auffray simply figured it out for himself over time, but he got better control of himself and ended up as the No. 1 player on the team and one of the best college players in the country. The last I heard, he was helping run  the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France—and undoubtedly wising up his young racquet-throwers on the foolishness of expecting to be perfect.