Now that I am no longer coaching on a regular basis I am not around competitive tennis tournaments as much as I once was. However, in recent weeks I spent a significant portion of my days viewing a men’s and ladies futures event, a Junior National Championship and competed in a Men’s Open money tournament myself. I observed a lot of really good tennis but also some ludicrous behavior that does little to help these players or the sport of tennis. There appear to be certain behaviors that are embedded in our consciousness and culture at high level junior, college and professional tennis in every part of the world, that we don’t seem to question, and accept as the norm despite there absurdity. I would love to say I wasn’t guilty of conforming to many of these cultural norms, but I will hold my hand up and say I was every bit as ridiculous at times. Here are a few examples:
1. Having a sarcastic response to when the crowd applaud a mistake due to the fact that they are supporting one player more than another. The player on the receiving end of a partisan crowd will usually clap their racket and say something along the lines of “That was a really great shot I hit in the net, yeah well done, keep clapping”.
2. Acting like you are a tough guy. I always get a kick out of tennis players acting like they are tough and up for a fight if their opponent says “C’mon!” at the wrong time or gives them the fist pump and stare down. Message to all tennis players: You chose to play a non-contact sport for a reason. You want no part of physical contact so stop pretending like you are tough!
3. Responding with wide open arms like you are measuring an elephant’s trunk and saying “It was this far out” when your opponent questions a call that was 6.7 millimeters out.
4. Saying “The score was closer than it looks”. You just lost 6/1 6/0, the score was not closer than it looked, the score is the score. You got one game, it is okay to say you got your butt kicked, and that your opponent was much better than you. Just because eight of the games went to deuce, and you had three breakpoints does not mean it was a close affair. Your opponent was the better player on all the points that mattered most, and for all you know, the games that went to deuce were because of your opponent’s boredom and inability to stay focused as they were winning so easily.
5. Stop saying you have the worst forehand ever or some other version of this (serve/footwork/volley). If you are playing at a high level, such as a national tournament or futures event, your ratio of made forehands to missed forehands is probably quite favorable towards the made column. You are going to miss a few forehands, get over it, it doesn’t mean you have the worst forehand ever, and no one is going to take pity on you, especially the 2.0 player sitting in the stand wishing they could hit a tennis ball like you!
6. Lastly, can we PLEASE stop taking bathroom breaks after we lose the first set? (Unless we REALLY need to go to the bathroom.) Coaches and parents; kindly stop encouraging this asinine practice. Every player I see now takes a bathroom break once they lose the first set because some “coach” told them this helps break their opponent’s momentum, and gives you time to regroup and gather your thoughts. And maybe this ploy actually worked once, or at least you think it did, and the coach felt validated by giving this brilliant piece of advice. So now the player does it every single time, not recognizing that they are going to win or lose the second set regardless of whether they take this ingenious bathroom break tactic or not. Isn’t this basically encouraging kids to cheat and take a break when they don’t really need to go to the bathroom? Aren’t you promoting the fact that they are not capable of gathering their thoughts in a two-minute changeover and need an extra minute of a bathroom break to take their 10 deep breaths? Well Dave, the pros sometimes do it. Well you are not a pro and just because they do it doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Learn to handle losing the first set in the allotted time and don’t succumb to what everyone else is doing, I assure you they are not getting the upper hand!
Good grief, I need a bathroom break now just to cool off from this rant!
I encourage all tennis players to increase their consciousness around these responses to adversity on the tennis court, and understand what is helping them play better, and what is hurting their chances at playing their best. Your self-talk matters, I don’t believe like many, that it always has to be positive in the heat of competition. I believe that it has to be determined. I can be hard on myself in a way that takes energy away from my game and distracts me from my goal, or I can be hard on myself in way that refocuses me and makes me demand more from myself mentally and physically. They bring about two very different states of being.
It is incredibly difficult to change your thoughts or behaviors if you are not aware of what you are doing. By just copying others or surrendering to the same patterns you have always followed you are doing little to nothing to improve your mental game. Which of these scenarios above that I have listed are you guilty of conforming too? Can you just start with these actions and become aware of when you are acting out in these ways; try to stop them and divert your attention back to the thought patterns and actions that will in fact help you play better. Maybe you can make your own list of behaviors that you believe are not helping you perform at a high level, and start working on them one by one to eliminate from your game. If you want to stand out to college coaches, or are already playing on a college team, this is one sure way to separate yourself from the competition. Coaches want to recruit and coach mature competitors, not toddlers that throw their toys out of the crib when things are not going their way.
Increase your self-awareness and in turn you will become a more resilient competitor and person. I have found reading about mindfulness, practicing meditation and writing in a journal the best ways to increase my awareness around my thoughts on and off the court. Learn to control your mind or it will most definitely control you!