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Playing Not to Lose?

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Ron Waite, USPTR

I’ve wanted to write this month’s column for a very long time. The other day while playing with one of my students, we were discussing a particular point. As part of his response, he said to me: "I was trying to win the point…I didn’t want to fall into trying not to lose the point." This made me very proud.

So, I am finally going to put into writing my thoughts about this important approach to competitive play.

First, it is absolutely imperative that each player fully understands why he/she plays the game of tennis. Are you doing it for simple exercise and social interaction? Are you a competitive person who enjoys the challenge of sport? Are you a talented player who hopes to in some way benefit (scholarship, ranking, club trophy, etc.) from playing? These are just some of the reasons that people decide to play this wonderful game. Sometimes, people just like hitting balls and never want to compete? In a past article, "Why Do You Play Or Want To Play Tennis?" I addressed this question of why people play tennis in some depth. I encourage you to read it.

Let’s assume that you are a player who likes to compete in this wonderful game. You would like to win more than lose…you would like to earn the respect of accomplished players…you might want to advance in the club ladder, beat a perennial opponent or improve a USTA ranking. You work hard at your game. You practice, you keep in shape, and you seek new knowledge on how to play better. You are doing all the right things that a competitive player should do.

You are in a match. Your opponent is certainly worthy. Let’s assume that she/he is a more highly ranked or seeded player than you. You win the spin of the racquet and elect to serve. You are nervous, which is normal, but you win your first serve. As you walk over during the changeover, your mind says to itself, "Whew, at least I won’t be 'bageled' in this set!"

This is a classic example of a mindset that emphasizes not losing as opposed to winning. There is a world of difference between these two mindsets!

Here’s another example. You are in a tight match. You and your opponent are on serve and the end of the set is near. A tiebreaker seems likely. You don’t want to lose any games. So, you begin to play cautiously. Note that I used the word "cautiously," not "smartly." Your strokes lose pace without any increase in the height of the ball’s path. You begin to hit drop shots from deep in the court. You direct the path of your balls rather than hit through the ball and finish properly. Whether you realize it or not, you have just moved into the "I don’t want to lose mindset."

In another of my previous columns "Type "A" or Type "B" Player?" I speak to what I call Type A and Type B players. Briefly, a Type A player is the player with good strokes who simply wants to hit the ball and to dominate his/her opponent. There is no real thought going into her/his points. Rather, he/she is a pattern player. They do the same things all the time. In their minds, the skills that they possess should be enough to beat all opponents. So, their coaches will often say, "Just play your game." More often than not, this is well founded advice.

Type B players are those with lesser skills and power, but more cunning. They use their heads on the court. They usually approach the game with the plan of "helping the opponent lose." They probe and probe until they find the crack in the opponent’s armor. Sometimes, they are even the dreaded "pusher!"

Type C players are rare. They have the attributes of both A and B. Andre Agassi started out as a Type A player. Brad Gilbert taught him to be more of a Type B player. The end result? A Type C player.

Well, one thing you need to know is what type of player you are? If you are Type C and are reading this column, I am more than flattered.

So, how does one maintain the "I want to win" attitude that is so necessary and avoid the "I don’t want to lose" mindset which is so crippling?

Well, the first step is being able to put both wins and losses behind you. When I walk off the court, I literally will not allow myself to think about whether I won or lost. Later, I will probably reflect on what I might be able to learn from the contest, but that is when the thrill of victory or agony of defeat cannot set in.

If you listen the pros being interviewed after a match, without exception they will not project results beyond the next match. They take it one match at a time. To get to this manner of thinking, the player must be able to put the past in the past and stay in the present. I know this is easier said than done. But, it can be done if you force yourself to think about something other than the win or loss, immediately after a match.

What I do is simply try to relax my body…regardless of the result. Sure, there may be people who ask you "Did you win?" Certainly, this question is posed immediately after a match by some. My response to this question? "Nobody lost today!!!" In fact, this is true. Every time I am privileged to walk out onto a court, I am a winner. If you are playing the game of tennis, you are a fortunate person. How can you truly lose when you are doing something that can be so much fun?

The collegiate players that I coach will often times ask me, "But, coach. How can I have fun if I am losing?" I respond with this, "Imagine that you are injured and cannot play tennis for a full year. Would you rather this, or would you rather be able to play, despite the losses?" If they honestly say that they would prefer the injury, I don’t want them on my team.

Loving the contest is part of having fun! If we won every time we played, would we really love the contest? Would the game be fun?

Some of us put too much self-identity into our tennis games. Believe me. I am not going to get a wild card into the U.S. Open. Win or lose at tennis, I still have another life!!! If your whole life is centered on tennis, I hope that you are on one of the pro tours. If you are not on one of these tours, you are going to be a very unhappy person.

You must remember that tennis is a game!!! Sure for Maria Sharapova it is a job and a game. But, for the 99.9% of us who are not pros, it is simply a game.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are the "tennis elite" among this 99.9% who look down upon those who play and lose. When I took up this game at age 39, I started to compete in USTA tournaments. At this time, there was no NTRP. I lost 22 straight matches. I had a local Division I collegiate player, who not only beat me, but had to remark that I had lost the first 18 points. Three years later, I was ranked 4 in New England in the USTA 5.0 class.

Those who are in this "elite" will never progress beyond their present levels. They do the game an injustice by their arrogance and mean-spirited nature. Guess what? The arrogant collegiate player mentioned above is a teaching pro in the area. He’s watched me practice many times, but he has never asked me to play. Anytime I have asked him to play, he has a reason to prevent it.

I have played tennis with (notice I did not write against) some gifted people. These truly skilled players have, at times, smoked me!!! Never has anyone of them ever had anything negative to say to me or about me.

My point is simple. Let tennis be a game. Don’t let tennis become you!!!

When playing in a match, there are some things that I would suggest that you keep in mind while competing. Again, in one of my previous articles "The Big "MO!!!", I presented readers with my view of Bob Love’s brilliant approach to playing points. I think Bob Love’s approach is well founded, and gives players an "approach" to playing each point. For some, Bob’s concept of conversions may be confusing or undesirable.

In coaching my players, I offer them the following "algorithm." If you are clearly ahead in points in a game (e.g. 40-15 or 40-0), go for an aggressive point. Serve big. Hit your weapon shot with authority. Increase the angles of your rally shots. Take a chance to win the point in a forceful manner. If you do, the opponent is psychologically demoralized to some degree, and you have won the game. If you lose the point, the opponent is probably still a bit demoralized by your approach, and you have not lost the game. When points are close (e.g. 30-30, 40-30) play smartly. Notice that I did not write play safely. Smart play is going for your shots when it is clearly desirable. Smart play is making certain your first serve goes in the service box…but placed toward the weaker wing of the opponent. Smart play is waiting for opportunity to strike while playing percentage tennis. If you don’t know what percentage tennis is, hopefully, my previous column "Percentage Tennis...the odds are in your favor" will clarify this matter.

With respect to game score, I have similar advice. If you are up by more than a break, you must try to play more aggressively. You want to punctuate the advantage in your opponent’s mind. Go for bigger serves. Serve and volley on points. Hit with more pace. Run your opponent "coast to coast." If you win a game in this manner, your confidence soars and your opponent’s confidence diminishes. If you lose, you are still up a break.

If you are on serve or you have a single break, play smart games. Place your serves well. Make the first serve go in the box. Bide your time during rallies until a genuine opportunity presents itself. Play percentage tennis.

Now, my advice is the same if you are on the up or down side of any of the above situations. If you are down (15-40), chances are your opponent will play safe…not smart. I like to see my players go for an aggressive point in this situation. If they lose the game, they do so trying to win. If they win the point, they may change the momentum of the game.

If you are down two breaks in a set, chances are that you are going to lose that set. Be aggressive. Rebuild confidence. Show your opponent that you are not willing to throw in the towel.

Now, I must state that there is a difference between being aggressive and being stupid. Aggressive suggests that you know your limitations but push your game to these limits. Stupid tennis is just that. Trying to do something that you normally cannot.

Regardless of this advice, you are going to lose games and lose sets. Sometimes you are going to get smoked!!! Sometimes the "lesser" player is going to beat you. Think of tennis as a continuous process…which, in fact, it is. Each of us has the rest of our lives to improve our games. If we don’t keep trying to improve our games, we will eventually lose interest.

As a final practical piece of advice, I would suggest practicing playing what I call 10 point games. I learned this in Europe and believe it to be a most useful practice component.

Play an 8 game pro set with your hitting partner. However, each game must be played with a minimum of 10 points. To win a game, one player must have scored a minimum of six points. If a player gets to 6 points, the remaining 4 points must be played. If the two players arrive at a score of 5-5 in a game, an extra point will be played. The receiver decides whether the serve will be given to the ad or the deuce court. Whoever wins this 11th point wins the game.

To win the set, a player must win at least 5 games. If a player wins 5 games, the other 3 games must be played. If the two players arrive at a 4-4 game score, a traditional 12 point tiebreak is played to determine who wins the set.

The advantages to this practice method include the following:

  1. In 8 games you have played a total of 80 points! If you need to play the tiebreaker, you have at least 7 more points to play. Believe me. This is a lot of points to play.
  2. If the set is decided before all 8 games have been played (e.g. 5-1). Each player is in a unique position. He or she can play a totally different style of play. For example, if you are normally a groundstroker, you can work on playing serve/volley or chip/charge.
  3. There is still a competitive spirit and associated "tension" for at least 5 games. In fact, the competitive aspect of this practice regimen involves at least 50 points.

If you are in shape and looking for a longer workout, you can play the best of three sets in this manner. Believe me. If it goes to three sets, you will be tired!!!

Most important to me, this practice method involves competition, but frequently, it forces a player to continue to play after winning or losing the set. This is healthy. Why? Well, either the winner or loser can simply "tank," or the winner or loser can continue to "fight." In reality, this is a mental choice that we all have to make in matches…whether we are winning or losing.

Think about the Federer/Nadal Wimbledon final this year -- it was a war!!! Both players were out to win. Neither played "not to lose." I suspect that a rivalry has been created that will entertain us for some years to come.

You, too, can learn to "want to win." The first step is not being afraid to lose. If you are like many players, you will play many, many sets before you pass. Tennis truly is a game for a lifetime.

Change your thinking. Divest your persona from your tennis game. Play the points and games appropriately. Practice a little differently. I assure you that your mental approach will change and your love for playing will be enhanced.

Every time you play this marvelous game, you are a winner!!! And, every time you play, you become a little more of a tennis overdog!

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

Turbo Tennis Archives:
1996 - 2002 | 2003 - 2014


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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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