Being A Team Player

What could be better than playing on a adult league?  In an individual sport where singles players claim most of the glory and team play usually means doubles, just two people, it's got to be way cool to get together with other players and pool your skills and efforts to try and win as a team.  Right?  Well, sometimes.  If you're on a winning team, the camaraderie can be quite special.  Moments are shared that will never be forgotten.  Friendships are forged that can last a lifetime.  But what if you're on a losing team and you're losing more than your share?  What if you're an experienced player that keeps getting paired with inexperienced ones, and you're not winning that way?  Or what if you never seem to have the same partner for two matches in a row?  What if a better player nabs your partner, and you're left behind, feeling divorced?  What if your captain keeps playing you low on the lineup because she plays her friends in the higher spots?  What if you're new to the team and you're not getting played enough?  How do they expect you to improve if you don't get match experience?  Well, in these instances, team play can be maddening.  And if you're a teaching pro that's nuts or brave enough to take on the job of setting partnerships and lineups for league play--my advice?  Keep a bottle of whisky, preferably single malt scotch, right by the phone.  You're going to need it for those evening calls when the complaints come ringing in.

Locally, most of the leagues are dominated by doubles play, so I'm going to talk about team tennis from that point of view.  I want to address where I see the problems, and where there's hope for some solutions.

Almost But Not Really Kinda Like a Ladder

What makes league play so fraught with problems?  It's a ladder that isn't a ladder.  Ethically and by rule, high school and college tennis teams have to play in order of strength; they aren't allowed to stack their ladders, and there are only a certain number of spots.  To determine placement of teams top to bottom, some form of a challenge system is used.  The players that win the most are ranked accordingly until the spots are filled, and those players or teams get to play in matches.  The bench was invented for those players that don't win the challenge matches.  For those relegated to the bench, the burden is on them to get better and break into the lineup.  They're not supposed to whine or complain.  It isn't the coach's responsibility to give them playing time if they haven't earned it.  And it isn't the job of the better players to help them along.  In fact, for the health of the team, it's the job of the better players to keep their shoes planted firmly on top of the heads of the lower players.  The better ones don't want to give up their spots and wind up on the bench themselves. 

But league tennis is mostly played through private clubs.  Everyone pays the same amount of dues and, accordingly, has a right to expect the same member privileges, including playing on league teams even if their skills are on the low end of the ladder.  There isn't a bench; the very thought isn't permitted.  So team captains and courageous pros who set the partnerships and lineups have to balance two sometimes conflicting demands:  the need to the team to win versus the need of everyone to get playing time.  It ain't easy.

Problems usually rise up from the bottom.  Players at the lower end of the ladder have to give way to stronger players if the team wants to have a chance of winning.  That seems reasonable enough.  However, if you're at the bottom of the ladder and trying to get better, how can that be accomplished if you don't get playing time?  It's a classic Catch-22.  And when you do get to play, you're paired with an equally lower-end player.  How are you supposed to win if you don't get a strong partner?  And if you lose, you know it's likely that you won't get picked to play any time soon.  Predictably, there's bitterness, talking behind backs, nasty email chains, feelings hurt, friendships strained, and that place where we go for recreation, our favorite club, well, you can stir the tension with stick as soon as you walk through the front door.

That Messy Thing Life Messing With the Team

Other problems plague teams besides balancing the need to win with the need of everyone for playing time.  Players get sick, injured, divorced or move away.  They change jobs and aren't available to play.  Suddenly team captains are scrounging for players just to fill the roster for a match, begging, pleading, praying.  Other players don't want to come to team practice or clinic because they don't want to get stuck playing with those on the lower end of the ladder.  Team morale suffers.  And some other players, out for themselves, leave as soon as their matches are over and won't stick around and root for the teams still playing.  Group A is thick as thieves, scheduling social matches, but they won't ever invite players from Group B.  Who knew tennis was a political sport?  Player X refuses to partner Player Y.  Something about a line call some years ago or a blown overhead.  Player Z says she's only available for the first round of matches at 9 AM, though the top spots play at that time and Z isn't really a top player.  In fact, between the general vagaries of life, natural disasters, economic upheaval, bodily injury, egomania, social intrigue and romantic drama, along with car pool obligations, doctor's appointments, kid responsibilities and the passport and shots required to attend those matches miles away, the idea that a team could consistently field strong lineups and stick together for six months of league play and win, man, that's almost whimsical.  When a championship is won, it's nothing short of a miracle, especially when, on top of your own team's crazy politics, there are other teams competing against you with really good players.

What's a team captain or a pro to do?  There aren't any easy or perfect solutions.  But here are some ideas and strategies to help promote team play.

Figure Out What A Team Means

I've coached a lot of adults for whom league tennis was their first experience with team sports.  Thankfully, that's increasingly less true; however, just because someone has been on a team doesn't mean they have a clue about what it means to be a team player, particularly adults, used to assuming they're in charge of their lives and setting their own, individual goals.  Put a bunch of such folks together on a team and you can get some decidedly bad juju.  Everyone's out for themselves.  No one knows how to think of what their team contribution or responsibility is, and usually, no one is around to tell them that they need to think this way and how to go about it.  But it isn't astro physics.  The basic idea is that the group comes first and individuals come second, for, bottom line, if the group doesn't succeed, the individuals don't.  Group activities are where this consciousness starts:  team practices, team clinics, team lunches or parties, team scrimmages.  The more often the team members meet as a team, the more likely they have a chance of developing team spirit.  And, really, that's what it's all about.  Why play team tennis when you can go out and play tournaments?  Because when a team clicks, when the players start to focus their individual energies on the team's success, a camaraderie and spirit forms that just can't be beat.  There's nothing like it. 

That means that teams need to decide at the beginning of each season what the individual contributions to the team need to be.  Practice should be obligatory.  You can't really impose a financial burden and insist on clinic attendance, but team practice should be mandatory:  no practice, no play.  And don't wait to the end of the season to schedule a team lunch or party.  Schedule a couple during the season, as well.  Have fun together off the court.  If there's time, particularly before the season begins, play some scrimmages against other teams, and play everyone on your roster.  Find activities that contribute to a sense of team belonging and appreciation.  Captains and pros have as their first responsibility promoting team morale.  Don't let it flag.  It can mean the very success of the season.

It also means that individual players have to examine their contributions to the team.  Team responsibility goes beyond being available to play.  In practice or clinics, for example, do you go out of your way to compliment a team mate for a great effort or shot?  Do you shout encouragement, offer a high-five?  And what about during matches?  If you play in the first round, do you ever stick around to cheer the matches that come on after you?  If you're in the second round, do you arrive early enough to cheer on your team mates already on the court?  After a match, if you know a team mate suffered a tough loss, do you take the time to call or send an email in order to cheer him up?  Teams are comprised of individuals, but they don't become teams until the individuals put the team first.

Hold a Team Meeting To Set Season Goals

The first thing a team needs to decide is how badly they want to win a league.  If last year, for example, your USTA team got to a regional championship round, and you've still got most of the same players returning, you might decide to go for the gold.  If that's the decision, in effect it means that lower-ranked players and teams won't get much of a chance to play, if at all.  The team will put forth its strongest lineup for each match not only to win but win as decisively as possible.  If, on the other hand, your team finished in the middle of the pack in your division of a local league, and you reasonably don't think you can win the division, your goal this year might be to move up a few spots, but, primarily, to make sure you don't go back down to a lower level.  Such a goal would open more room for lower-ranked players to get into lineups, though the team would still have to play their best players in the top spots as often as they were available.  Or, conceivably, you might find a new team, new to league play, deciding to give every player the same amount of playing time and that every player will get a chance to play a top spot, and just see how you do.  There isn't a right decision; there are, however, consequences for each one that require a decision get made and be out in the open for every team member to see.

Let's say your team votes to win the league and play the best players for every match.  You can bet, however, that the vote won't be unanimous, especially as it reflects the needs of the lower-ranked players.  And, as the season progresses, you might need some of those players to fill-in for matches if better players aren't available.  How does the team expect these lower-ranked players to stay happy or even stick around if they're told up front they won't be played and no effort is made to include them and make them feel part of the team?  Team practices and social events are key to this.  Make sure the lower-ranked players are welcomed to practices and get a chance to play with the better players.  Call them for social matches.  Take them out to lunch. 

And, most importantly, create a challenge system that allows the lower-ranked players or teams a chance to play against those above them.  Each team should have a clear and objective means that fairly gives everyone the opportunity to break in to the lineup.  Nothing is better for the health of your team.  Challenges keep the top teams on their toes and the lower teams a chance to move up.  Your pro can help you devise a challenge system.

Hire a Pro to Set Partnerships and Lineups

When I owned the business of a tennis club some years ago, I set the lineups and partnerships for all the teams.  To me, it seemed a simple business decision.  League play is one of the primary reasons people join tennis clubs, and it's one of the primary reasons people quit tennis clubs.  With so much at stake, why should a club member volunteer to captain a team, and, as a peer, be in charge of partnerships and lineups?  That's a recipe for disaster.  Teams do need captains, though.  They make the phone calls, send the emails, go to league meetings, divvy up responsibility for snack and drinks at home matches, contact opposing captains to reschedule rainouts.  It's a huge and important job.  Captains don't get thanked enough.  But they shouldn't be put in a position of determining partnerships and lineups if there's a chance that the team could hire a pro to wade into those murky waters. 

Once, as a team, a decision has been made as to how competitive the team wants to play the season, give the pro that direction and pay the pro for her time.  Hire her to come to a few matches and see the team actually play.  It's a job for a professional, and if you can find one brave enough to take on the responsibility, your team will find so much more harmony.  It won't mean the problems go away; there will still be hurt feelings and unsavory politics, but that's why we invented liquor stores, so that the pro can stockpile her libation of choice.  Over the course of the season, captains and individuals will need to communicate with the pro, let her know which partnerships are flourishing and which are floundering, who's hot and should be put at the top of the lineup, and who's grown cold and needs some time off or to have a match with less pressure at the bottom of the lineup.  But a pro can keep all such communications confidential and create an atmosphere where players are willing to state their feelings and needs, in and of itself, a great way to keep positive energy flowing.

Court a Partner and Snag That Guy or Gal

It drives me right up the fences when I hear that students are scheduled to play a league match with someone that they've never met.  I mean, this happens even at the A-1 level!  So many team problems could be solved if this haphazard partnering weren't the case.  Consider me on my professional knees:  for God sake, please, find a partner and make that guy or gal your own.  It's a team game, and especially at the high levels, matches can be won or lost simply based on which team plays better as a unit.  Not who's got the best serve or ground strokes, but which two people have the right chemistry, know each other's moves, have experience as to how they handle problems, believe in each other when the inevitable s__t hits the fan.  Of course, life being what it is, it isn't always possible to play with your partner for every match.  In the real world, team players should have a couple partners with whom they feel confident.  But ladies and gents, draw the line there.  Learn to play as a team; take lessons as a team; practice as a team.  If I were coaching a team where I had five committed partnerships for every lineup, I'd bet on them even against superior opposition.  And I'd know that the team politics and craziness would be at a minimum, for much that goes wrong comes from individuals not feeling wanted or paired.  It's worth the effort, even the risk of rejection.  But take that gal or guy aside and say you'd like to her or his partner.  Offer a courtship period, a few practice matches to see how it works.  In no more basic way can an individual make a team contribution than by committing to a partnership.  If it works, then you should feel comfortable letting your captain or pro know that you're hitched and you want to be played together.  Be flexible about where you're played in the lineup, but play as a team and challenge a team ahead of you.  There's nothing better for team health.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Misunderstood Rules and Customs of the Game