Playing Against Tougher/Lesser Competition

Q. What is your opinion on less skilled junior's playing against more highly skilled players? I would like to play against some better players thinking that by doing so it would help my game. I've been told it would not be fair to the more skilled player. I'm willing to play against less skilled players than myself. I feel that playing up and down in regards to skill level would be a great way to increase the performance of all players concerned and would also improve the quality of the teaching program. What do you think?

A. I could not agree more. In the most ideal scenario, advanced juniors would play one-third of their matches against “weaker” players (so they can develop confidence and versatility), one-third of their matches against “stronger” players (so they are stretched to their limits), and one-third of their matches against players at roughly the same level (which will hone competitive instincts and match toughness).

Too often parents (or coaches or even players) insist that developing juniors “play up” all the time. This is short-sighted. “Playing up” is effective for some- the minority, actually- but ultimately it just teaches most players how to lose consistently. My coaching philosophy on players who consistently “play up” is that they had better be WINNING two-thirds of the matches that they play. If not, then they are getting too far from their ideal “growth zone.”

By the way, your willingness to “play down” is admirable, and your coaches (and parents) should commend you for your selflessness and leadership.

Q. By all accounts, my 15 yr old son has all the talent and skills to be a tournament winner. He wins against great players only to go on and lose against those far less skilled than himself. It's as if he's afraid to win the whole thing. Are there any books or classes, or anything else you would recommend for something as ambiguous as this?

A. Experience will be his best teacher. I do not exactly buy that he beats “great” players and then loses to weaker players. By that I mean that our results ARE how good we are.

If he loses to someone, on that day anyway, then his opponent was better. This sounds harsh, but by learning to accept defeat he will become more capable of learning from mistakes, and making the necessary improvements to his game.

If you believe that his losses to players who have inferior skills are chronic and that no progress is being made, then you might consider an appointment with a sports psychologist. I am a big proponent of leading students toward finding their own solutions, but there are exceptions to every rule.

Wish him luck and continue to encourage him regardless of his results.

Q. My 12-year-old daughter plays tennis and hits with topspin very well. She has played in tournaments and won some matches, but when she plays against girls of equal or greater ability, she doesn't seem to know how to make the winning shot. She rallies well, serves beautifully, but loses. We can't seem to put our finger on what it is she is or isn't doing. I know that's not much information, but we are puzzled.

A. Without seeing your daughter play, I can only paraphrase a famous quote from Martina Navratilova: we are what our results say we are. That is, if she cannot beat players then she is NOT as good as them. You should reassess her capabilities and evaluate what she needs to improve to get over the hump.

Tournament tennis is about playing well, and not simply hitting the ball well. Give her some time and she will figure things out.

Eliot Teltscher, the Director of USTA High Performance, often asks what is the opposite of winning? Coaches often reason that losing is the opposite of winning, but this is not the case. The opposite of winning is not competing and it is GREAT that your daughter is out there figuring things out for herself. Please tell her to hang in there!

Q. I’m a junior player and everyone tells me I have great strokes and I have a great complete game. I beat the players I’m supposed to, but when I play kids better than me I play a good match but on the break points and game points I tend to lose focus and I crumble. Do you have any tips that will help improve my mental toughness?

A. You might work on developing some good in-between point rituals to help you become entirely focused. When the going gets tough out there, you’ll learn to concentrate on the task at hand: winning the very next point. Mental toughness is essentially that.

It is common when competing to get caught up in the “what ifs” and “why did I do that” mode of thinking. Instead learn to focus your thoughts on those things that you have control over. If, under the harshest circumstances, you learn to channel all of your energies toward playing the “next point” to the best of you ability then you will be on your way. In fact, you will able to play to the top of your potential even against players slightly “better” than you.

Enjoy the battle and let the results take care of themselves.

Q. I just turned 15 and since I was 13 I have had a big problem in losing to lesser opponents. I will play fantastic before I go to a tournament and when I get there I play like crap (I’M NOT KINDING!!!). I was just wondering if you if you could help me. Thanks for your time.

A. Ahhh, James… no offense, but maybe these “lesser opponents” are actually better than you are. Tennis is pretty simple. As long as you win the last point in the match, then you are the winner. Breaking it down further, as long as you hit one more ball back over the net than your opponent, then you will always win the point.

I think that I understand your point though. You probably have “better looking” strokes than most of the players in your age-group and, perhaps, even struggle with your nerves during matches. Try to concentrate entirely on how to win the next point. Do not become concerned with the eventual result of the match, instead simply focus on the very next task at hand. This mindset might give you a better opportunity of fulfilling your potential out on the court.

Anyway… stick with it and enjoy the process.

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