Our whole culture puts a huge premium on winning. Quite likely the first question a high school player is asked after a match is “Did you win?” The question comes from parents, friends, and teammates alike. It’s just assumed that what matters most is the match score and that “won” or “lost” is the final word on whether the you were successful.
Not so fast. Scorecards are a false measure of success. Tennis players have no control over whether the opponent across the net is a stronger or weaker player. Therefore players have little control over whether they will win a particular match. The only thing a player can really control is whether they give their best effort. It’s quite possible that a player will play the best match of their life and lose, or play a terrible match and win.
Tennis players have way more control over the following dimensions and these are the true markers of success:
- Giving your best effort
- Improving skill-wise
- Helping others improve
- Bringing top fitness to the court
- Showing good sportsmanship
- Exhibiting positive attitude on-court
- Being a loyal teammate or an uplifting doubles-partner
Tennis at its fullest is a process of becoming a better player and a better person. Winning or losing a match is actually a very small moment in this process. It’s better to ask a player an open-ended question like, “How’s your tennis going?” because this sport is so much more than a score.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that winning a match is more fun than losing. And winning a close third-set tiebreak keeps a smile on my face for at least 3 days. There’s a part of us that enjoys winning, but a fuller perspective is needed, especially after frustrating losses.
What’s my Goal?
“Make the Varsity team.” “Be with my friends and have fun.” “Win more than half my matches.” “Get to the State Tournament.” “Play without fear.” These are all legitimate goals. High school tennis is geared so students can pursue social goals, top-level competition goals and everything in between.
Some goals are unrelated to wins and losses or match scores and that’s fine. Tennis provides a great space to have fun with friends without stressing about scores. Lots of players come out “just to give it a try and have fun.” Most high school tennis players fit this profile. And it turns out most adult league players will tell you that’s how they started.
If you are reaching your tennis goals, you can stop reading now. But some of you are different. Something about tennis grips you. Being a tennis player is part of your identity. You feel like you were born to play tennis and you have an inner desire to get better and see how far you can take your game. You want to compete at a higher level. You want to know what it’s like to rip shots down the line and hit spots with a feared first-serve. You can see yourself working your way through the draw at the Sectional Tournament. You want to become a really good tennis player. If this describes you, or at least sounds intriguing, then keep reading.
Most high school tennis teams in the Northwest Suburban Conference have at least 3, sometimes 7 or 8, players who have taken on the identity of year-round, first-sport tennis players. At some schools nearly the entire Varsity roster trains year-round. They typically train at Daytona Golf Club, Life Time Fridley, Life Time St. Louis Park, or Public Indoor Tennis. They regularly play USTA junior tournaments, UTR events, or USTA Team Tennis. The top players in our Conference regularly take private lessons.
These players make a big commitment to tennis and their families pay a good deal of money for their opportunities. I’m familiar with this because my wife and I spent thousands of dollars on our son’s and daughter’s off-season junior tennis — and we don’t regret a penny.
Q: Why on earth would a family pay a lot of money for year-round junior tennis development?
A: To fulfill a kid’s desire. To instill the special kind of confidence that comes from steady improvement. To give a teenager the sense that they are really good at something. Tennis is well known as a life-long sport, but I believe tennis is particularly well-suited for navigating adolescence and early adulthood. And then there’s college admission and possible scholarship money, and in a few cases that can be part of the reward, but I think that’s secondary and certainly the wrong reason to pay for lessons.
Tennis instruction can be expensive — I know that from personal experience. But if the player’s desire is strong enough, families will adjust and the Osseo Tennis Boosters may be able to provide some fundraising opportunities for a player to help pay for lessons, tournaments, or camps.
My goal here is to offer high school players some information to help you grow your game and become a more competitive player:
- Join the USTA. (United States Tennis Association). Membership includes a great magazine and tons of on-line resources including instructional tips and e-newsletters. A junior membership is $20/year; adult and family memberships are available too.
- Create a UTR (Universal Tennis Rating) account and sign-up for UTR events where you will play several rounds with people in your skill level, usually a one-day or half-day commitment.
- Books to read: The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey, Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert, Open by Andre Agassi, Smart Tennis by John Murray.
- Watch tennis on TV -- Yes, I’m recommending screen time! Listen to the commentators, especially the retired pro players; Paul Annacone, Lindsay Davenport and Darren Cahill are my favorites. Don’t just watch the ball. Instead, watch the foreground player’s footwork.
- Attend Gopher tennis matches. Matches are free at Baseline Tennis Center. Both the Men’s and Women’s teams offer an exciting brand of top-level collegiate tennis. Get there at the beginning to see the doubles competition. Follow the teams on Twitter or check their websites for schedules.
- There are a lot of tennis instructional videos and videos of classic tennis matches available through USTA membership or at the Hennepin County Library.