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Player to Player: Captaining a League Team


Real Tennis Players - Like You! - Asking For, and Offering, Advice on the Sport They Love

Player to Player is USTA.com’s regular feature in which everyday tennis players are given a forum to ask advice on the sport they love – and their fellow players will dish out advice. We’ll post a number of the best responses we receive to our question of the week.



This week's question from Caitlyn:

Although I have played tennis for a number of years, I have never entered a tournament. I’ve looked at the USTA site for a listing of tournaments but am not really sure where to start. Any tips on selecting a tournament for a first-timer, tips on what to expect, etc., will be appreciated.

Please share your advice with Caitlyn by e-mailing Player@USTA.com and include your name and hometown.

Got a question of your own? Send that along, too!


Last week's question from Jason:
(Please note: There's no need to send additional responses to this question)

I'm going to be playing in my first league (a 6.5 men's combo doubles league) and have been designated co-captain. Can you point me in the right direction or offer advice on how to best lead a relatively inexperienced league team to success (in addition to regular practices)?


From Erine R., Montgomery, AL:

First, and most importantly, don't make "success" be about winning. There's so much to gain from league tennis that winning is merely the topping on the frosting on the cake! Camaraderie (the cake) and fun (the frosting) should be the top priorities and measures of success. Holding regular practices will inspire this.

As a new team co-captain, I encourage you to do the following in preparation for your match and season:

1. Gather contact info (phone numbers, e-mail) for each of your players. Put all their phone numbers in your cell phone (get one if you don't already). This will come in handy when players are running late or you are looking for subs.

2. Ask your players to provide you with dates they are unavailable to play. This will require you to provide them with all match dates and possible makeup dates. I use one e-mail to ask for contact info and unavailable dates.

3. Schedule your players to play before and after the dates they are unavailable. This will keep them from sitting out for long periods. To avoid confusion, only publicize the upcoming match lineup.

4. Keep track of the matches players played, backed out, were injured or otherwise unavailable. I recommend using a spreadsheet for this purpose.

5. Find out and spread the word about warm-up procedures. This can be confusing to new players and lead to pre-match butterflies.

6. Get with your league coordinator to learn the league rules and procedures for reporting scores.

7. Read "The Code," and get your players familiar with it. It provides guidelines for unofficiated matches. You'll find it online on the USTA website.

8. Treat your players as you would like to be treated by your team captain. I notify my entire team immediately of the match scores and the next match lineups. I provide them with a deadline to respond to let me know whether or not they will play as scheduled. This will give your teammates plenty of notice and you time to line up subs, when needed.

In the current league season, I'm currently captain of five league teams and the community coordinator for our tennis association. If you use the methods above, you'll find your job to be an easy one! Good luck and remember: camaraderie and fun!

There's more to tennis than tennis!

From Steve D., Mesa, AZ:

Some of the things that I have learned over the years of being a captain and co-captain:

1. Try and match players together and then keep them together as often as possible. If you have players who likes to stay on the baseline, match them with a player who likes to play at the net and will encourage the baseliner to come up there. Most doubles matches are won by the team that controls the net. Try to get your doubles players to communicate by having the net player call either the placement of the serve or whether they are planning to poach or not. Also who is going to get a lob or hit an overhead. In doubles, the net man is like a catcher in baseball.

2. A good start of all warm-ups is for the players to stand at the service line and hit volleys back and forth, slow at first then a little more crisp. This should last at least 5-10 minutes and will help build hand-to-eye coordination.

3. We have found the best way to take care of the fees is to calculate the court and ball fees, and then divide that amount by the number of players on the team. The amount per player is then small enough that no one complains.

4. We have practiced twice a week (three times, if we are in between league sessions) year round for years, and that has helped new players to the team improve dramatically and built a camaraderie that has taken us to Sectionals four times and Nationals twice in the last four years. You have to get your team in the habit of playing together at least twice a week to stay sharp.

From Jim M., Southern Section:

Forming the right partnerships is the key to increasing your team's chances for success. I am a big believer that there are guys whose shots fit best on the deuce court (cross-court topspins) and some who fit better on the ad court (slice cut and especially good overheads). The ad court should be the better player, as they get about 65 percent of the shots and receive most of the game-deciding serves. Finally, I often form new pairs after losses, as both players need to feel positive about each other.

On the practice side, I really like to put four players on a court and have then play one set with each partner. You can learn more about a partner's strengths and tendencies playing against them than with them, and you want to have many possible combinations of guys, depending on who is available for a particular match. Also, I never want teammates to actually beat up on another pair, as would be the case in an actual match. Often it turns out that one player wins with all three partners, and, of course, the rest will now understand why you put him in more often, or one guy loses with all three partners, and he understands why he will probably play less often.

From Crystal D., Loganville, GA:

My team captain uses a site called Tennis Point where players can provide the dates they are available to play, as well as register their confirmation that they will accept their assignment and place and time to be there. The site is located at www.tennispoint.com.

From Jean H., Milledgeville, GA:

Since you are co-captain, your duties will be determined mostly by what your captain asks you to do. As captain, one of the things I do before each match is check our upcoming opponent's previous matches to determine the win-loss records by level, then set my line-up accordingly. In addition to e-mailing the season schedule to all the players at the beginning of the league, I remind them weekly, by e-mail, where we will be playing that week. We drill weekly with a local pro, as well as having team practices. Anything you can do to keep your players well informed and make them feel like more of a "team," rather than individuals, will not only help your win-loss record, but the camaraderie will make playing much more enjoyable.

From Bill S., Pittsfield, MA:

I have been captain of our club's 3.5 men's team for about six years. My suggestion: over-communicate. Make sure everybody knows the who, where and when for practices, car pools and matches. Anticipate questions your players might have. The better you are at handling the details, the more the players can focus on playing, and the fewer problems you will have.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

At the 6.5 level of play, all of the players should be extremely skilled. Unless you are a trained teaching professional with experience working with high echelon players, your team should consider a contract pro for further development. As for leadership, that is a different matter. Being able to pool the resources each player brings is a great challenge. Being able to see past egos and pair teams that compliment each other to win points/matches is how the success of a team leader is measured. That’s why the U.S. Davis Cup team hires those with experience in both areas -- player development and management.

In closing, remember you are playing for the enjoyment of the game and all it encompasses. The moment that stops, find someone else to lead as quickly as possible. Then get back to playing or whatever it is that rings your bell. Nothing destroys a team faster than confusion brought on by poor leadership.

It is impossible to please 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. Your choices should be made for the betterment of the team. Make them, stand by them, and be willing to take appropriate action should they fail. Good luck.

From Sheryl B., Austin, TX:

1. Be sure you have enough players to not default matches. That is unsportsmanlike.

2. BEFORE playing the first match, tell (in writing) whether your philosophy is to play all the players democratically OR if you are going to "field" the top players every week. Depending upon which philosophy, you may want to charge them for the league with this in mind.

3. Hire a coach with weekly team clinics. The coach should decide the weekly lineup, not you. The coach should be a strategist for singles and doubles and not just a driller. He/she should come to your matches occasionally.

4. Decide, in writing, if the weekly team clinics are mandatory or the players can come whenever.

5. You, the captain, must be available via phone and e-mail at all times, i.e. OVER-communicate.

6. E-mail and call all your players one to two days prior to each match to make sure they have time, date and location of the match. They need to be there at least 30 minutes BEFORE the match time.

7. If possible, try to form doubles teams ahead of time. If not possible, remind them that they can play with anybody if they communicate.

8. Absolutely do not SANDBAG, even if other captains do. This is not good coaching! This is extremely unethical. Also, do not "break up" your best players and put them with a weaker player. This is also a form of "sandbagging."

9. Teach, by example, that you are ethical and are supportive of all players, even your opponents. Do not applaud for opponent's mistakes, etc.

10. Do not over emphasize winning. The wins will come when they work hard.

From Lisa, Boca Raton, FL:

The key to success is in communication.

1. Do your best to make sure that everyone stays well informed.

2. Be honest and fair. Poll your team to see if it has a preference of how to run the season. Most teams prefer to go for the win, rather than make sure every player gets the same number of matches. If the goal is to get the team to the post season, then that requires a different strategy than if the goal is to have everyone play. It is important for everyone to understand the game plan up front.

3. Be a cheerleader. Provide commentary and celebration about the results.


From Bryndel C., Hilo, HI:

Aloha. I have been a USTA League team captain for over six years, and I've learned that one of the first actions you need to determine is the goal/direction of your team. Will it be a team focused on winning the local league flight or a "just-for-fun" team? Knowing this will help your decision-making process on anything team related, such as recruiting, the start and the frequency of practices, competitive pairings, line-ups, etc. You can try to make it a combination of both, but this can admittedly become tricky if everyone is not on the same page and the team is later in a position to "take the local league title." Thus, once you've determined what your goal is, you need to make sure everyone is aligned with it, preferably before they commit to the team.

A "just for fun" team can be easier to captain, as you focus primarily on equal playing time for all players. For a team focused on being competitive, there are many things to ponder, but the real test of a captain's skill is balancing team goals with playing time for all players. A truly competitive team will have players that put aside individual goals to make sure that the team achieves what it had earlier agreed to. This type of team has good "role" players who step up when needed.

Jason, in your particular case, you mentioned that you are a co-captain. Has the other co-captain had prior League experience? If that person has, draw on that. Communicate with that person regularly. Also, get to know the individuals on your team. Really know their strengths and weaknesses, i.e., tennis skills, mental toughness, etc. Find out who are your "go to" players, those that give you the best chance of winning an individual match. This will help you during crunch time. Build your line-up around them. As the season progresses, give encouragement and commendation. Recognize the efforts your players give, particularly when it comes to those attending practices.

Regarding practices, make them regular, consistent and meaningful. Your players should be able to count on these, so plan them properly, and give directions on pairings and match-ups. Remember, team practices can help team camaraderie too. Communicate with your players via reminders of upcoming practices. It is a proven fact that successful teams and players do not overlook this key aspect of the game. They know that they have to put forth the effort to maintain/improve their game. I can confidently say this because if I had to pick one thing that helped my team make it to Sectionals for the first time during this past men's adult League season, it was their efforts in attending our regular team practices. My co-captains and I helped set the practice day, time and place. Then I used whatever form of communication I could to give them advanced notice of that practice. Barring things out of our control, such as the weather, they came to practice. For our team, it really paid off. In the end, there is nothing more enjoyable for a captain than to see the efforts of his/her players pay off on the court.

Just some of my personal thoughts that in my humble opinion might be able to help you. My best to you, Jason, and to your team.

From Eric R., Santa Rosa, CA:

Observation of each player’s individual strengths and weaknesses is key to choosing lineups and winning strategy.

Understanding psychology is key to pairing compatible doubles teams that play to each other’s strengths. Ex: An alpha-type net closer and overhead smasher pairs well with a "Steady Eddie" who can set them up vs. two erratic bangers, which leads to a boom-or-bust pairing.

Lefty/righty is a classic pairing in doubles.

Make sure to ask deuce or ad court likes and dislikes.

Try out pairs in practice matches with four game sets, then switch partners and track the results and compatibility. Some will clash as personality types. Ex: Two alphas may be better each leading separate doubles teams.

Stay positive in your comments about why you are suggesting certain pairings, even if there are negatives that also entered into your decision.

As captain, you have to be a leader but not a Capt. Bligh. Use diplomacy and keep your comments and tips practical. Keep your attitude up in adversity, and that will help keep the team positive. Relentlessly emphasize what the opponent’s weaker shots are by making a game plan part of every match, after assessment during warm-ups.

From Craig R.:

As a team captain going on my fourth year, what I found works best is to build a spreadsheet with all of the players on your team, including their contact information (e-mail and phone numbers) and any partner they prefer to play with. Across the time, I list all of the match dates, times and location. Once this is complete, I send the spreadsheet out and ask each of the players to let me know if there are dates they will not be available. Your team now has a list of all the team members and their contact information so they can call each other to play/practice. Once I receive everyone’s availability, I can block out the dates players will not be available. Remember, things come up, and availability can change, so it’s always good to periodically check during the season. I have a quick snapshot of which weeks I may have a challenge making full team.

Each week I put together a quick e-mail newsletter that lets everyone know how we did in the previous match (scores by match, and if I was able to watch the match, I’ll add a little commentary). I’ll remind the team about practice and, finally, post the lineup for the upcoming match with start time, and if it’s away, I include the address of the locations so they can get directions. I also include the names of the people who said they were available but not initially in the lineup and ask that they remain available until at least a day or two prior to the match in case one of their teammates scheduled to play is no longer available. By doing this several days to a week in advance, you also will receive e-mails from people who are no longer available to play.

Finally, at the beginning of the season, I’ll contact all of the captains to confirm match dates and times, and then about a week prior to each match, I will contact the opposing captain to confirm start time, location and that they will have a full team for the match. If it’s a home match and if there are any special club rules or stipulations (white shirts only, etc.), I will share those with the opposing team captain, also.

The real key to the success of being a good captain and building a strong team is communication. The most frustrating thing as a player is to not know if you are playing until the last minute or to not know what is happening on the team. It’s better to over communicate than under communicate. There are times during the season that I will send out two or three e-mails a week.

I also create a distribution list in my e-mail software. This makes it easy to communicate, and I don’t have to type in everyone’s e-mail each time I want to send something out. And I’ve found the rest of the team uses it, also. People who are interested in playing after work or on weekends will send out e-mails to the team to generate interest in playing.

Good luck, Jason, and to all of the other new captains. The job doesn’t pay much, but it can be rewarding and not that difficult if you spend a little time planning before the season starts and keep the team informed along the way.

From Anneliese S., Santa Cruz, CA:

It is very important to establish at the very beginning of the season what your team jointly defines as "success." Does "success" mean a winning record or going to the playoffs? Or does "success" mean that every player got a chance to play and feel a part of the team, regardless of team record? In my experience, the teams that fall apart -- unsuccessful teams -- are the teams that have not articulated and do not share a common team goal. There are any number of legitimate team goals. What is important is that YOUR team comes to a consensus about what your specific team wants to achieve. At that point, the steps to take to be "successful" should become obvious.

From Natalie H., Southern California:

I have captained several USTA teams, and I think it’s a good idea to have regular practice matches with each other and mix it up. Find out each player's preference so that you know who likes the deuce side or the ad side and who likes playing with whom. Some people match up better, so mix it around until you find out what teams play best with each other. When it comes to your matches, make sure that your team communicates with each other. The stronger player should play the ad side generally, and the stronger server should serve first.

Good luck this season!

From Kris C.:

If you take the pressure off the first lesson by telling them you are going to play for fun, they will have a better chance of winning. In beginner doubles, teach them to go deep to deep and short to short. That is, if you are in the back court, don't hit to net guy unless it is a second serve or you can pass him. This enables you to work your way up to net and keep your partner safe. This is easy, regardless of level.

Once this is accomplished, teach the guy hitting the ball to be the "aggressor," and have the other guy lag back a little, like to service line. Keep the guy hitting the ball being the aggressor, with the other guy lagging a little to cover the lob, and the team will likely have success because they will have a game plan. When the aggressor gets good and close to the net, that is when you do short to short and peg the net guy at his feet.

You will win if you do this.

From Nancy C., Rowland Heights, CA:

I've been captain of about eight teams in the last two years. There are several factors to being a good captain.

1. Find out your teammates strengths and weaknesses. I sent out a questionnaire to my fall team this year. It asked questions about their style of play. Do they like to serve and come into the net? Are they more comfortable playing the baseline? The big question is which side they prefer to play, ad or deuce. Don't let them say either. We all have a preference. Find out if they have played with anyone on the team and who they would like to partner with.

2. Communication is essential. As soon as you know the match schedule, send it to all your players. Dates, times and location of the matches. Then ask them if they know dates they CANNOT play. At the beginning of the week, confirm the match time and location and again ask who can play.

I don't know how many are on your team. Right now, my team has 20, which is too many. It is hard to get everyone on the courts. Luckily for me, we have 15 matches, so everyone will get to play.

After the match is over, send an e-mail congratulating the team, win or lose, for playing a tough match or a good match, etc. Everyone needs to know they are appreciated for their effort.

Don't be surprised if after a match one of your players says in no uncertain terms, "I will never play with . . . again." Just say, "OK, not a problem." Not every player can play with every other player. If you find a great combination, stick with it. The more I play with certain partners, the more comfortable I am on the court. I know what my partner can do, and she knows what I can do.

Setting the lineup is the next trick. I like to play my lineup straight up. You will find captains who will sacrifice their weaker players in one hoping to win the other two. If you are going to do that, talk to your team first and find out how they feel about it. No one likes to get killed in a match.

What I try to stress to my teams is simple. Yes, I really want to win and go to Nationals, but I also want us to have fun and play with integrity. I don't ever want one of my teams to be thought of as cheaters or whiners. I tell my teams that if they think their opponents are making really bad line calls to request a line judge. There are always people on the courts who can do it. That's all it takes, most of the time, to get them to make better calls. Just thinking that someone is watching.

Hope this helps.

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