Mental Toughness
Part Five
Upping the Fun

I find it more sad than ironic that many recreational players lose sight of tennis as fun.  It's natural, I suppose.  If you're a player that's dedicated years to improving your game, have invested not only time but money, effort and no little portion of your self esteem, then jumping between the lines for a match can seem like pretty serious business.  For, though tennis falls under the larger category of games, all sports have winners and losers, and everyone knows which group they want to join at the end of the day.  Why go through all that effort--joining a club, buying clothes and racquets, paying for lessons, practicing, spending your time-off playing tennis--just to be a loser?  No, we'd do just about anything to avoid that, including getting angry with ourselves when we play and even dreading to get back on the court.

As well, the very time spent in getting good can be the enemy of fun.  Despite our efforts, the same damn problems haunt our games.  After all these years, we still can't hit a backhand like we want, still push that second serve, are still afraid to take the net or poach.  And though the climb from beginner to intermediate or advanced was steep and adventurous, now we seem to have reached a plateau, playing with the same people time and again, at the same level, against the same opponents.  Kinda boring.  Maybe golf...

Not me, baby!  I want to run around like a madman to hit that ball forever!  Every time I hear that pop of a can of balls opening, I get stoked.  I put those new balls up to my face and inhale that new ball perfume.  I feel fondness for my racquets when I take them out of the bag, like seeing old friends.  When I step onto the court, it feels like an adventure.  How will I play?  What strokes can I count on, which ones do I have to protect?  What strategy is going to work?  And when I first break a sweat and feel my body getting into it, it's off to tennis land, a trip I've been taking since I was kid, and that was a hell of a long time ago.  But it still feels like so much fun!

In this tip, I want to share some things I've been taught and others that I've discovered that helps keep my attitude about the game squared away.  And, I'll share some things to do on the court that can help keep the game fun.

Play

In the sentence, "I play tennis," play is the verb.  It's what you do.  But is it?  Do you really play?  You may play to win, you may play hard, you may play as often as you can, but, if you're a typical tennis player, my guess is that your sense of play is too narrow.  It has to do with the result, whether your win or lose, and the risk that you may not.  Those concerns can definitely get your heart racing, but they are also the exact issues that discourage us and are, I believe, inherently contrary to fun.

Play has to do with surrendering our sense of ourselves and our normal behavior.  Take a look at any self-respecting kid with half an imagination.  She plays dolls, she plays house, she plays dress-up.  He plays Spiderman, soldier, cops and robbers.  They both play rock stars and millionaire, spy and safari.  Without any effort or self-consciousness, they pretend they're someone they're not.  They don't care if they look foolish when they do this.  They're just goofing around.  The fun is in acting in ways that they usually don't, in stripping away their normal identity and fabricating another.  Inside, they still feel like themselves; they haven't lost their bearings.  But they are definitely not themselves, and that's fun.  That's why kids love Halloween so much.

As recreational players, games and sports offer us similar opportunities, to play with all our hearts to win, but against a result that doesn't have the consequences that we face in normal life--just for a little while, just for fun.  I've got a game for you.  Take a level surface and draw the lines of a rectangle, say, 78' long and 36' wide.  I don't know why.  I'm just making it up.  Oh, yeah, put a net in the middle, 36" high at its center.  Just for the hell of it.  Then make some other boxes within the big one.  That's for the serves.  Your serve, however you do it, has to land in the correct box.  You get--let's see--two tries, because I'm feeling way generous.  Then you bat the ball back and forth over the net.  You score.  But let's screw with everyone's minds.  Let's call the points 15, 30, 40, Game!  Weird, I know.  So what?  It's just a game.  It shouldn't make sense anyway.  What's the fun in that?  Anyway, you run around like a chicken with its head cut off and you win as many points and games as you can, and if you get six games you win the set.  It's called a set just because it's called a set.  Win two of them, you win the match.  So okay, goofy, I know.  But what the hell?

When we step between the lines of the court, we enter artifice, distinct from our day-to-day lives.  The rules are clearer and, at the same time, more arbitrary.  This shot is in; this is out.  Let serves are do-overs.  The return of serve must be hit on the bounce; everything else can be hit on the fly.  You can't step on the line before you serve, can't take a running start to serve, can't serve from outside the court's boundaries, even though that would give your opponent one hell of an advantage.  You score.  At the end, there's a winner and a loser.  To me, this seems pretty different from day-to-day life. 

Your car and another drive toward a parking spot.  If you let the other driver have the spot, are you not competitive enough?  Have an argument with your wife, who's wrong or right?  Are you sure you want to win that argument, because if you do, likely you're going to lose and wind up on the couch. Your kid tries his absolute best to understand algebra but struggles.  Do you call him a loser?  Sports may remind us of the will to succeed, of the need for teamwork, of rewards only achieved through hard work, but sports are not like life.  In fact, finally what's fun about games is that they are different than life.  For one, they don't mean a damn thing, except whatever value we ascribe to them, and that could be zero.  Yet we step between the lines, accept the rules and regulations, and try our best to win.  Some people, understandably, think that's silly.  But what they might not appreciate is that it's fun.  What's fun about it?  The trying.  Playing as hard as we can to win, when winning has no real value other than it's fun to go after it.  The social element is fun.  The physical, athletic element is fun.  The mystery of the outcome is fun.  Play the game that way, and the game can be fun even if you lose. 

But if you play the game and measure the activity solely by the result, whether you win or lose, tennis ultimately will cease to be fun.  Then it becomes like life.  The winners get the good jobs; the losers don't.  The lucky ones get beautiful spouses; the unlucky ones don't.  Some struggle and are rewarded with recognition and success; others struggle and seem to accomplish nothing.  Life may require that we recognize these facts, just or unjust, and life may reward or seem to punish us, and there may not be any way around that.  But sport can be a way around that, just for the fun of the commitment and exertion that the game requires.

Walking the Tightrope

My Coach Joe was the first one to tell me of The Zone, a magical place that allowed me to play my best tennis.  Naturally, the keys to this kingdom were secret and hidden, and I could not go whenever I chose.  What would be the point of that?  The Zone wouldn't be magic if it were easily accessible.

I first played in The Zone as a senior in high school, after I'd played dozens of tournaments as a junior.  I played number one for my high school, and we were facing the number one team in the state.  Not only had this team never lost a regular season match or a state championship match, they always won 7-0 (five singles, two doubles).  I had to play the number one kid.  No way I could beat him, not a chance in hell.  And I knew my team wasn't counting on me.  We were all scheduled for slaughter.  So I walked on the court thinking I'd work on some of things Coach Joe had me practicing.  I'd be off the court in a jiffy and still have time to hit the Dairy Queen for a shake.

I don't remember the first set.  I didn't remember the first set even after I'd won the match.  I do remember waking up in the second set, ahead 4-2.  Naturally, I got nervous, knowing the impossible was within reach, that I could beat this guy who'd never lost.  And, of course, as soon as I woke up, I started making mistakes.  But the kid was so frazzled by then, he imploded.  He lost his temper and gave me the match.  And then I knew:  playing in The Zone meant playing with all my heart but at the same time not caring about the result.  What allowed me to win was that for the first time I walked on to the court assuming I was going to lose, and that there was nothing I could do about it.  I never thought once about the end result.  I may have entered The Zone through a dubious back door, but it got me into the kingdom, nevertheless. 

That's the tightrope we walk if we want to play well and have fun.  With everything that's in us, we have to try to win and not care if we don't win.  It seems like a contradiction until you remember that it's a game, and games are all about play.  Games permit the absolute seriousness of trying to win becase, especially as recreational players, losing has no serious value or consequence.  That's what's meant by the statement, "it's just a game."  So we do it, run around to hit a ball just for the fun of running around to hit a ball.  Even adults are allowed to be goofy now and then.  But it ain't easy, is it?  Nearly everything we do in life is stacked up against the end results.  And it takes the fun right out of us--serious business, this thing called life.  We forget how to recreate.  We forget how to play.

Following are some ways to remind yourself that tennis is fun, to remember how to play the game.

Play Practice

Practice  If you think practice is drudgery, you're missing a great chance at having fun.  The practice court doesn't score.  The players don't leave winners or losers.  They exit the court having given it their all trying to be better tennis players.  Me, I'm an old-school player.  In singles, I hit cross-court, trying to use the low part of the net and the long part of the court.  It's smart, but part of the modern game is driving the ball down-the-line.  I love to practice that!  It's so contrary to my instincts.  And, man, does it work when it works.  Of course, when I try it, I hit wide a lot, and a good many into the fence.  But I'm getting the hang of it! Get on the practice court and stretch your wings.  You can't lose!

Invent Your Own Scoring  Scoring adds risk and--possibly--more fun.  If you feel like you must score to get anything out of your time on the court, it can help keep things fun by inventing new games.  In singles, for example, play Deep Ball.  After the serve, any ball that's short is a loss of point.  Or, play Deep Ball with double points.  If a ball lands short on your side, you get a point automatically; if you follow it into net and win the point, you get two points.  First player to 13 wins.  Trade serves after every five points.  In doubles, do the same.  Practice staying back as the server and receiver, but try to work your way in by making your opponent hit a short ball.  Same two-point possibility if you do get the short ball, come in to net and win the point.  Add another element to doubles play, the loss of point if you hit down-the-line, and loss of two points if the net player ahead of you puts the ball away if you do hit down-the-line.  Or, to increase steadiness for both singles and doubles, no point can be won until the ball has crossed the net four times.  You get the idea.  Take charge of the game; invent your own rules.  Double bounces are okay, playing the ball off the fence is okay.  Whatever you can think up.  The game will seem different, and fun!

Shake Yourself Up  Feel like you're in a bit of a rut?  Switch it up.  In doubles, walk up to the net and change racquets with your opponents.  Play a set with a foreign stick.  Make it work.  In singles, play tiebreakers where you have to run between every point.  Run to pick up the balls; run to change sides of the court.  Play as quickly as you possibly can.  You'll be surprised how instinctively you might start to hit the ball.  In doubles, play the opposite return side than is your usual.  In singles, play a set with only one serve--single faults.  In doubles, every time you have the lead, hit down-the-line, lob or drive; break the damn rules.  In singles, run around your backhand every chance you get.  The point is, our fear of losing makes us conservative; we don't want to experiment and undermine our chances of winning, so we play the same way all the time.  Loosen up, dudes and dudettes!  Just for the hell of it.

Play in Fun Leagues  Here, in Marin County, there are great opportunities to play competitive tennis in fun formats.  In the summer, there's Twilight Tennis, which mixes evening, team play with dinner, drinks and socializing.  For singles players, there's the Marin Open Singles League, which utilizes USTA ratings to determine levels, but doesn't require an official USTA rating, and finds men and women playing opponents of the same sex and the opposite sex.  You go to different clubs and public courts and meet new people.  And recently, the USTA created the Combined Doubles Leagues.  It, too, uses USTA ratings, but the outcome of the matches don't have an effect on your rating.  Look for venues like these.  They're great for keeping your toes in competitive waters but also for reminding you that you're out there to have fun.

Give Back to the Game  Know a junior that wants to play some tennis?  Get on the court with that kid!  Give him or her a half hour of your time.  Share your knowledge.  Be encouraging; put a smile on that face and you'll put one on your own.  What about those B and C players at your club?  They'd die to play with you.  So play!  Just one set.  Dial back your game a bit to help them.  Win, but let them get a glimpse of how a better player hits the ball.  While you're at it, given that you know you can turn up the juice and win at any time, give yourself a glimpse of how relaxed you feel, how much fun it is just to whack the ball around when the end result isn't haunting your game.  It's an act of generosity to aspiring players and, surprisingly, to yourself.

This list of suggestions could be endless.  Bottom line?  If you're a serious player, you need to figure out how to keep the game fun, and it isn't easy.  Success, end results, they're out there and they're real.  And they can take the fun right out of tennis.  The implications are huge.  Play is at the heart of the game.  It's what makes it exciting.  It's what brings us back to the court, hungry and happy to hit that ball.

c Keith Shein

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Being a Team Player