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Meltdowns in Sports: A Nuclear or Casual Occurrence?

You get angry. You scream at your homework assignment. You tell it things you would never want your mother to even suspect you said. Some of us jump on and kick the paper like we were a part of a scene from “The Sopranos.”

It’s frustration and it happens to all of us. Now just imagine that same tantrum, only in front of thousands of people in a public setting while it is broadcast to millions of viewers.

Professional athletes face this conundrum regularly. In the heat of a sporting event, athletes try to keep a clear head, and with so many eyes on them, any move can be seen as a sign of frustration.

A recent example is Serena Williams during the final of the 2018 U.S. Open. If you have not watched this sequence of events, I would suggest you do. It’s a compelling 10 minutes that led to Naomi Osaka’s ultimate triumph over Williams.

Starting with a thumbs up from her coach in the stands, Williams was penalized for a coaching violation. She then called the referee “a thief” for taking a point away and slamming her racket on the ground.

Williams called the penalty unfair. She said it was not the first time the call had been made on her during her career and mentioned how rulings like this weren’t enforced as frequently in the men’s games. This is where the media has stirred up much of its content surrounding the event, saying that Williams “lost her cool” or had a “meltdown.”

To me, the event was far from a meltdown. I saw this as an “in-the-thick-of-it moment,” an “athlete’s fit” if you will. Athletes are filled with so much energy in-game. When they use that energy towards another action besides physical performance, it can appear as overpowering emotion.

Sports fans, and social media users especially, like to exclaim Williams overreacted, and that she didn’t hold her composure. It can be dissected any way we want, but that wasn’t a meltdown.

Society wants to hold our athletes – the role models and idols – to high standards. The sport of tennis wants to do this to an even higher standard; keeping cool and composed is essential.
We can’t always expect athletes to hold their composure in high-pressure situations. We just need to let these athletes play on.

More and more recently, technical fouls and penalties have been assessed to players voicing vexations.

In some instances, it’s unfair to assess penalties. Williams received a penalty in the sequence where she slammed her racket on the ground. That’s alarming, but that’s so minuscule in comparison to previous acts of frustration in tennis.

In one match, Mikhail Youzhny responded to his error by beating his racket against his head, causing blood to pour down his face.

Another example is when a frustrated Marcos Baghdatis not only broke one of his rackets, but another one and another one and another one. He broke four rackets in one sitting. He unwrapped rackets, still in their plastic, just to demolish them. This is when it becomes too much, and in no way did Williams come close to that benchmark.

To me, a racket abuse penalty is unfair. Sometimes a player has to get energy out. Looking at some of the many instances on YouTube, breaking a racket is a lot safer than spiking the ball in the crowd or accidentally kicking a linesman or spiking a ball into the linesman’s face (you know, maybe the linesmen need to get out of the way).

And come on, if someone breaks a racket every so often, is it that bad? If someone voices annoyance, is it that horrible? It adds tension and shows real emotion.

Though Williams lost, you could tell that all the exasperation and drive fueled her to try and win.

John McEnroe was famous – maybe infamous – for being the “bad boy” of tennis in the 80’s, screaming at the refs and voicing his irritation. And boy, did he win with passion! It’s fun to watch and is exciting to see how much burning vigor these athletes have to play the game.

There seems to be so much at stake because of what happened in these last moments of the U.S. Open. It’s important to know what that moment meant to Williams. She didn’t expect to lose the match because of emotion. That doesn’t seem fair to me. It could be a case of a superstar not getting the call. Maybe it’s a case of a double standard.

So, before you yell at an athlete on TV for acting out or arguing with the refs, think about what’s going through their heads. It’s easy to say you would act differently, but once you truly step into their shoes, you may discover a sensible perspective.

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