Doubles Clinic
Part Seven:
Partnership Communication or Watch Your Mouth!

As compared to the solitariness of the singles player, doubles offers a unique opportunity:  a partner who can help lift your game.  But, too often, partners bring each other down, making it seem like it's three against one on the court.  And often, this deflation of our partners isn't intended.  We're not aware that our shoulders have slumped and how this body language might be devastating to our partner.  We shout, "C'mon, let's go.  No more unforced errors!" and we don't grasp that this is heard as a negative judgment when we meant to be encouraging.  Or we don't say a word, and our silence is interpreted by our partners that we have lost faith in them. 

Finally, this difficulty in communicating shouldn't be surprising.  It's never easy, not even with our wives, husbands, kids and friends.  So, under the pressure and adversity of match play, communication is harder still, especially positive communication.  Some of the difficulty is purely individual; one partner might like to talk between points, need it to settle down, while her partner finds talking disruptive of her concentration.  One partner might think about changes in tactics, while her partner doesn't like to think, at all; she "just wants to play."  These pairs probably aren't destined to become good partnerships.  But even assuming you've found a partner you really like and who likes to play with you, knowing what to say and when to say it can be very tricky, indeed.

In this tip, I'm going to talk about some do's and don'ts of partnership communication.  But before we get into specifics, let me try and simplify the issue.  At the most fundamental level, there are two things that I want to communicate to my partner.  First, if I hit a bad patch and I'm screwing up when she's playing well, I'm not going to quit.  Ever.  I'm going to hang in the match and try to play out of my slump; she can count on it.  Second, if she's playing badly, I've got her back.  Always.  I believe that she won't quit.  I believe in her.  Even if we wind up losing.  I'm convinced that if partners can communicate these feelings to each other, they'll build trust.  And once there's trust, the bumps and knots and twists and tangles of other communication can be dealt with.

Take Personal Responsibility

It's easy to give a high-five and a smile to your partner when you're kicking butt.  It's when things get tight or you're losing that  partner miscommunication occurs, a time when positive communication is needed most.  The first step is to take individual responsibility for the fact that your team is losing.  That may seem wrong if your partner has just double-faulted the game away, and all you've done is stand there at net without hitting a ball.  But things will only turn around if the team succeeds, and you're part of it.  If, in any way or to any degree, your partner senses that you're blaming him for the loss, you've just killed the team's chances of winning--not him because of his mistakes, but you because of your attitude.  Even if it isn't your unforced errors off the return, blown overheads and broken serve that are the apparent problems, your job as part of a team is to help get rid of those mistakes and create a positive climate for a win.  Just as a singles player can blame no one but herself for a loss, a doubles team must look to each other as a pair, and to do this, each must take individual responsibility to be at his best.

Don't Blame Your Partner for your team's problems, even in your thoughts, but especially in your words and manner.

Do Know Your Partner well enough to understand how you can be of help to him when he's playing badly.  Everyone's different.  He might want silence, a pat on the back, or for you to tell a joke.  Be able to give him what he needs.  And let him know what you need, what helps and what doesn't help.  How is he supposed to know unless you tell him?  This means that if you're being paired with someone for a league match or a tourney with whom you haven't played, you need to talk before the match.  Team communication in doubles is one of the primary reasons the telephone was invented.

If players have the good fortune to develop an ongoing, successful partnership, a whole range of issues become understood by the pair regarding effective communication.  For example, what information do you cover after the warm-up and before the match begins?  What do you talk about on the change-overs?  What key words do each of you respond to in order to bring back a lost focus?  Who's most comfortable being the team leader and suggesting tactical changes or point-by-point risk taking? But the most important thing to know about your partner and for her to know about you is how you can be encouraging during down times in the match.  You have to work at it.  It's like couples therapy--at least what I've been told.

Watch Your Body Language

Humans are wonderfully expressive creatures, and not just with their words.  Our faces and bodies communicate feelings, too, and often it's a glance, frown or shrug that begins our communication, a little dialogue hors d' oeuvre before we shout, "Dude, do you know how badly your game sucks?"  And often, these twitches, pouts, head shakes, eye rollings, teeth grindings, racquet stranglings, and stomps come before we've even realized we've got something to say, or when we're trying not to say anything.  Ask a poker player; these physical expressions are called "tells," because they often say things we really don't want to disclose.  We know better; we just can't help our little upset selves from acting out.  We're leaking at the seams.  We're all wet.

Control of your body language requires mental toughness skills, an area I want to talk about in more detail in another tip.  But for our concerns here, the only feelings you want to express are the will to win and the positive belief than you can.  Period.  It's not such an easy thing to do, especially when you've lost the first set and you're down a break in the second.  Nevertheless, you have no choice.  Why give up?  Where's the fun in that?  Why let your opponents know that you're crumbling?  Discouraged players express such negative feelings because they're already off the court, the loss a foregone conclusion in their minds; they're trying to prepare themselves for what they think is the inevitable.  The reason we act out with bad body language is not simply because we're frustrated with our play but because we're trying to soften the blow of the defeat.  Don't go there.  Hang in.  It's a tennis match, and anything can happen before the last point is over.  If you leave mentally, you don't give yourself or your team all the chances you deserve.  And if you do lose, c'mon, like I said, it's a tennis match, just one, and it's just a game.

Mentally tough players project confidence even when they're frightened and not confident.  They lie, pure and simple.  It's an act.  But the odd thing about acting is that if you carry yourself a certain way, you begin to feel a certain way; acting as if you're confident will produce confident feelings.  That's why we call actors actors, and not pretenders.  Yours truly uses Chris Evert as a model.  I so admired her steely stare.  The more she was pushed, the more she narrowed her eyes, stuck out her chin, pursed her lips and glared at her opponents.  The look said, "Now you've pissed me off.  You shouldn't have done that."  It always sent a chill down my back, and I was in my living room watching a TV!  On the inside, Evert had to be feeling other things, especially when Navratalova got her number and began to pound her, match after match.  But you never saw anything but pure, unadulterated confidence in the face of Chris Evert.  When I'm down, I visualize that face.  That's the only face I want my opponents to see.  That's the only face I want my partner to see.  Those confident feelings are the only ones I want myself to feel.

Don't communicate anything negative, ever.  No frowns, no slumping shoulders, no head shaking, no pouting, no whining.

Do project positive body language.  Pull your shoulders back, keep your head high.  Don't avert your gaze from your partner or your opponents.  Stay on your toes.  Smile at your partner.  Give her a high five.

Watch Your Mouth

It's one thing to speak, but actual communication is a whole different deal, because it's not just what you say but what you imply.  For every statement, there's a possible subtext, and if your partner hears your words but seizes on an implication, intended or not, he may hear something entirely different from what you meant.  For example, your partner is missing his first serve.  You say, "Just get your first serve in, we'll be fine."  Listen to that last part, "we'll be fine."  You intend to be encouraging.  But this is what your partner says to himself:  "Not only am I playing badly, but my partner thinks I'm a moron.  Like I didn't know I was missing my first serves?  I knew that.  I don't need to be reminded of it.  I know the importance of a first serve.  He's blaming me for everything."  Wow.  Kinda different. 

Here's another of my favorites.  You say, "We're okay, no problem.  No more unforced errors.  C'mon, let's go.  No more unforced errors."  What could be wrong with this?  You've made a statement that includes the team, both of you.  You've stated it in a positive manner: "We're okay, no problem."  The problem is that there's a subtext in this language, which is:  "Partner, you're making too many unforced errors.  We're losing because of you."  You didn't mean to be judgmental, but you were.  You meant to include yourself in your exhortation, but I guarantee that your partner hears this as a negative judgment of her play, that you're blaming her.  Ouch.

Or how about this scenario?  You've just had the best tennis lesson of your life, and the pro completely fixed your ailing backhand.  You're brimming with confidence as you go into the match, and the lesson has paid off; you're killing your backhand returns.  But your partner is having trouble with his.  So you say, "I've just had this incredible lesson on my backhand.  The pro said that if I just follow through longer toward my target, I'll control the ball.  It works, it really works!  I think your finish is too short.  Try to lengthen it out, it'll work."  You've just paid close to a hundred bucks for this advice and you're sharing it for free to help your partner.  What a great guy!  What a bad, bad thing to say.  Because now your partner thinks that you believe that you're the pro and he's the bumbling student.  Double ouch.

Here's the cure to good verbal communication, though it takes some ingenuity to use and practice to master:  there is only one point of view, the team's, and only one pronoun that expresses this, the first person plural, we.  For example, your partner is making a ton of unforced errors off her return.  You say, "Man, I can't believe how nervous I'm playing.  We're having a hard time getting two balls back per point.  What do you think?  Should we go into The Wall, try to slow things down?  I'll go with whatever you feel."  You've included yourself in the problem.  You've asked about a solution, not dictated one.  You've communicated to your partner that you trust her opinion.  Way to go!

Don't blame, give advice, criticize, state the obvious, tell your partner what he needs to do, go silent, moan, groan, sigh, bark, yip, howl or say anything that isn't positive.  Please.

Do think and speak from the team's point of view.  If you have a plan or thought, include yourself in its expression; use the word "we" to state your mind.  Ask how you can help.  Ask your partner's opinion regarding strategy.  Look your partner in the eye.  Smile.  Be encouraging.

If You Must Explode, Clean Up After Yourself

Okay, I admit it.  All the above advice is good, but there are certain moments in a match that are so excruciatingly disappointing, we can't help but go rigid with anger, and scream.  Fine.  I think this is human.  I think your partner will understand this.  Unless, of course, you do two things:  scream in frustration at one of her mistakes or carry your frustration forward for the next five games.  It's one thing to shank an overhead on game point, lift your face to the heavens and shout what is hopefully not an obscenity.  It's quite another thing to do this when your partner double faults on game point.  The one is forgivable, the other will head you directly to divorce court for partners.  And the whole point of expressing anger and disappointment is to let it go, find release, not clutch it like the holy grail of tennis, because it isn't.  Hanging on to your anger, at yourself or your partner, is just a way to prepare yourself for losing; it's a way to quit.  You may think it expresses your desire to win, your commitment to the match, but really what you're communicating is your fear and frustration with losing.  Please.  You're not fooling anyone, even yourself.  Explode if you need to, but let your anger and disappointment go--and quickly!  That grimace and groan need to turn into a smile and a positive commitment to win.

Don't go nuclear when your partner makes a mistake, no matter how important the point.  And don't hold on to your anger.

Do express your anger if you need to when you make a mistake.  Then clean up after yourself, quickly, with a smile or a high five.

To Overrule or Not Overrule Your Partner

You're the returner's partner and she calls a serve out that you see hit the line.  And in a seizing instant, you're caught between loyalty to your partner and fundamental morality.  Do you do the honest thing and overrule her, though it will make her seem like a cheat?  Or do you keep your mouth shut so as to not upset your partner, and steal a serve from your opponent?  This can be a very tricky moment for you and your team.  And I wish there were a simple, comfortable answer.  There isn't.  But the bottom line is that in the adversarial confines of a tennis match, the only thing we share with our opponents are the rules.  Violate them, and you turn sport into a jungle.  No good.  It's also no good to "show up" your partner, shame him in front of your opponents.  So, here's the best that can be done.  Before the match, talk about such situations with your partner; have a plan.  When a possible overrule comes up in the match, hold up your hand and ask for time.  There isn't an allowance for time in the rule book, but do it anyway; this is to benefit your opponents.  Walk back to the baseline and tell your partner that you saw the serve in and you need to overrule.  Even if he's confident with his call of out, your confidence that it the ball was in constitutes confusion on your team, and that has to benefit your opponents.  Walk back to the service line, and say, "We're confused about the call."  This doesn't blame your partner or call him a cheat, and it includes the both of you.  Remember, then, the rule that applies here.  If your partner hit the return safely over the net and then called the serve out, a let is played.  Because his return was in, the call of out on the serve can't be construed to benefit your team.  If, however, the return was not made safely, the point belongs to your opponents.  No problem.  It's just one point, and your honesty will go a long way toward contributing to a pleasant atmosphere in the match, even if hotly contested.

Don't cheat.  For any reason.  Ever.  But, also, as much as possible, don't show up your partner. 

Do overrule toward the end of being honest.  But find a way to not to embarrass your partner.  Make the overrule a team decision and statement.

Communication: Do It Often, Do It Well

Take a look at a professional and a recreational doubles team and besides the fact that the folks from Planet Tennis hit the socks off the ball and the players from Planet Earth, well, don't, the other obvious difference is in communication.  A professional team talks between every point.  At the end of each point, the players meet and give each other a high five, even if they're just lost the point.  This may seem perfunctory, even meaningless, but it's not.  It creates intimacy; it helps keep the team playing as a team.  After the high five, there's talk.  The servers discuss where the serve is going to be placed and whether there should be a poach.  The receivers talk about where the return is going, assuming the returner can do more than just get the ball back.  Yet, recreational players hardly talk at all.  Maybe they don't want to seem like they're trying to act like pros, or maybe they just don't know what to say.  But if you've played against a team that actively communicates while you and your partner don't say a word, your silence gets rather loud.  The other team seems engaged, even conspiratorial.  Your team looks like two separate individuals that have no clue how to act like partners.  Toward the end of encouraging close communication, I even coach my advanced students who call poaches on the serve not to use hand signals.  I want them to talk, to stay physically close, to whisper their secret desires.

Don't say hello to your partner when you step on the court and not another word until good-bye.  Don't talk only on big points or plans to change strategy.  That infrequent communication can cause more pressure and tip your hand to your opponents.

Do get in the habit of talking between every point.  Besides the enhanced intimacy your team will feel, you'll be surprised how sharp your thinking stays if you're making a plan for every point.

If you're not communicating with your partner, you're not playing doubles, pure and simple.  It's not easy to do with someone you don't know well, a new partner.  But it's not easy for veteran teams, either.  It takes practice, and it involves the risk of exposing your vulnerability, letting a partner now how you feel and what helps and doesn't help when you're down.  It also involves the skill of listening, never easy, but especially tough when the pressure of match play can force a player way inside herself where she's only thinking about her own game.  Still, you've got no choice but to try.  Two singles players do not a doubles team make. 

c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Doubles Clinic Part Eight:
Breaking the Mold