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Finding A New Playing Group

Q. I’ve been playing tennis often and taking lessons and clinics. As a result, I’ve seen my level of play move up significantly. Now my issue is how to break into a new group of tennis players with a higher level of play without offending people I have been playing with for years that no longer offer challenges on the court. How do you back out nicely when people at a lower level consistently want you to play with them?”

From Valerie J.

Taking on new challenges is the natural order of growth, but it’s refreshing to know your dilemma is even a problem for you. Most people, to avoid confrontation, would simply find new tennis partners without so much as a “thank you” to the people being left behind. You are not doing anything wrong, and shouldn’t feel guilty by your desire to improve. And because you’re as nice as you are, invite them to do the same. The next time you play, engage them in a discussion about improving their skills. Come right out and explain how none of you are improving because you’re all becoming so used to the same tempo and moves from the same people over and over again. Suggest that maybe it’s time everyone mixed it up a bit more. Offer to continue playing with them, but explain it just won’t be on an exclusive basis anymore. Gradually, everyone will drift and there’s no harm.

The truth is everyone would benefit if they sought a higher level of competition, but not everyone feels the way you do about improvement. Those in your current tennis group who also want to improve will welcome your suggestion. The ones whose feelings are hurt are playing it safe and I would suspect are too afraid of taking on any type of challenges in life. Do you really want to continue hanging out with someone who’s content to keep you down at their level? Since you already know the answer, do what you have to do. Just always be cool and never move on at anyone else’s expense. If you’re a caring person, you’ll move on with grace and dignity and make those you’re leaving behind feel every bit as important to you as you are to them. Hope this helps.

From Scott H., Riverside, CA

Since taking up tennis in my 40’s I have had to move up to a higher level of playing on three different occasions. The first move was instigated by my relocating for a new job, so that doesn’t really apply.

On the other two occasions, I looked at how the players in my new group adjusted to my presence as a model for how I now behave. By moving up, I was at the low end of the talent spectrum in both instances. The other players were mostly tolerant of my presence (perhaps for no other reason than I was one further guarantee that they would have a fourth for doubles). As I improved, I tried to be as gracious towards the less talented members of our group as others had been towards me when I was first included in the new group. Your current group of friends who no longer challenge you on the court probably recognize your improvement even more than you do. They are complimenting you by wanting to still have you in their group.

Do not cut them out entirely. I have learned many of my best strategies and techniques by practicing them in matches that otherwise would not be very challenging. Use those playing opportunities to work on the weaknesses that show up in your game when you are playing up with the new group. Here are some examples:

• All overhead smashes must be hit to one alley or the other – nothing down the middle of the court.

• Every return of serve must hit the alley.

• Every backhand will be topspin (or slice).

• Every volley will hit the service T.

From Kafuko M., Uganda

I’m Kafuko from Uganda, 17-years-old and still in school. My best sport is tennis and I usually play that at school. I have a partner with whom I usually play and he’s good at it but usually gets a little nervous when we play a serious match and I end up winning. Many other students I meet want me to teach them how to play the game so that we can become partners, but my friend gets a little angry when I don’t play with him and instead play with amateurs. So I suggested that he come and help me teach them. We should work together. So I’m wondering why you have to break out of your rival group. If you feel they are easy for you, don’t tell them, instead play with them and make them feel good so they don’t give up. Or you can all become a group no matter the number. Besides, two heads are better than one.

From Linda S.

Give your old friends a chance to move with you by suggesting you all take lessons to improve your game. If they refuse, your may move on guilt free. If they improve, move on together.

From Robert G., San Leandro, CA, USPTA

Bear with me on this one. Remember science class? In the process of learning, you conduct experiments, get results then arrive at a conclusion. The same can be applied as you learn tennis. Think of your practice sessions as your lab. How? Here’s an example: Let’s say you are trying to learn a particular stroke or shot pattern. Playing against a lower level player allows you to practice them since you should be able to control the rallies more often. You can continue to do this until you build enough confidence to feel like you “own” the stroke or pattern. Still learning the same stroke or pattern, try to apply this newly found confidence against a stronger player. You will then be able to assess how much ownership you have of the shot or pattern. Depending on your assessment, you can either try to build more ownership by playing down again or prove to yourself that it is already a part of your repertoire by playing against players at or with similar abilities. To summarize, play down to experiment, play up to assess and play at your level to prove. The answer to your question? Backing out from playing against others who no longer challenge you may not be to your best advantage. As stated, they can help you with your development. On the same token, if you can’t break into a new group of higher level players, explain this idea to them. It just might convince them to let you in.

From Michael F., Dallas, TX

I would do this: Tell your group that you’ve been offered a fantastic opportunity to play in an advanced league. That you are really excited about it, and simply hope they won’t be offended that you won’t be able to play with them on a regular basis anymore. Tell them you would love to fill in and play with them when time allows (after all, you got better by working on your game against better players – give them the same opportunity). True friends and tennis players should understand your desire for new competition.

From Unknown

It is difficult to break away from a group you have played with for a while. I would suggest that you continue to play half the time with the old group and after a period of time they will request someone else to play in your place. Then you can play up more without creating any hard feelings. If they are truly friends then they will understand you need to develop your game at a higher level.

From David G., Austin, TX

Join a league that plays on the same day. You can excuse yourself periodically, until you “have to” beg out because of your team commitment.

Suggest that you all chip in for a private clinic with a teaching pro. After a few sessions, tell your partners that he suggests that you need to play better players to raise your game.

Invite another player to play immediately before or after your doubles match. Make sure the other player is noticeably better than your regular foursome. Casually mention that it’s fun to play her because she challenges you.

Suggest another player to add to the rotation that “really wants to play” and is at their level. You “don’t have the heart to tell her no.” Say that you’ll switch out with her every other week. Do all four.

From Jack P., Rockport, TX

Start playing a few times with the higher level group while still playing some with the old group. It doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” switch. This also gives you a chance to test the water with the higher level players to see if you fit in. This should make it a friendly transition, and no one gets their feelings hurt. Good Luck.

From Jade L., Phoenix, AZ

How to move up without offending your friends – in my experience it isn’t possible. No matter how you try to get out of it, no matter how nice you are about it, the people you are moving past will be bothered. The best advice I can offer is to politely decline when asked to play and understand when you hear negative feedback. If you take the high road and don’t respond, eventually things will work out and you can remain friends with everyone, yet play the higher level tennis you are aspiring and working towards. If the friends you have left behind are given some time, usually they will realize you were moving forward with your game and working hard to do so. If they never get it, they weren’t really friends and you are better off without them. It will always hurt when you hear the negative things people are saying – just remember they are jealous. They either don’t have the talent or the determination to advance their own game, but seem to have plenty of time to pick on those that do. And again – your true friends, or tennis buddies, will understand given a little time. This advice is from a player that has moved beyond friends and has been left behind by friends – so I’ve been on both sides of the question.

From Unknown

I understand totally what you’re going through. I was in your shoes a couple of years ago. Life has taught me that you should continue to play with your former group, just not as much. Because you are a true competitor, you have to have that next challenge. I play with my friends who are at a lower level about once or twice a month, and that’s fine with them because they eventually found someone else with the same skill level as them to replace me. So just follow your gut.

From Ralph D., a seasoned captain

Are you kidding, Katie? You are talking about tennis players correct? Well then, you’re going to offend them. We’re a touchy bunch, bottom line. Independent, competitive, ego-driven. Work from this assumption... all the people you think you are better than don’t think you are. Who knows, you might not be. And those above you don’t think you’re up to their level. Good luck, have fun. If you’re looking for camaraderie, play soccer or football.

From Jack M., Lynchburg, VA

You don’t have to stop playing with people you currently play with. But try and move into another group that will challenge your talents more. I would work on certain shots and being mentally tough when playing in the lower group. You may want to put your name on a sub list in the groups that are higher caliber or give them a call and set up matches so that they will get to know you and it’s clear that you want to play with them.

From Barbara, Stamford, CT

I don’t know of any easy way to transition to a new group, except by taking time out to play with the old group and then reduce how much you are available very slowly. I unfortunately have not done to well in this regard and have observed other women who have and this is the one characteristic I have noticed. Some women feel very indignant no matter what that you might not play with them anymore...particularly if they see you are improving. So you will need to decide if/where to “cut your losses.” But I have noticed that a gradual shift to new players while still taking time out for the old players seems to work. It is a great challenge if you work full time, but if the old players are friends it might be worth it. I’m speaking from mistakes.

From Sydney W., Los Angeles, CA

Recently I found myself in a similar situation to Katie’s. I had been playing at a community park for about five years and at first I found the other juniors there to be challenging. Recently I found myself to be the one challenging others, there was no one else left to challenge me. Changing from one group of players to another is difficult especially if you have a history with them. When I started playing with a better group of players, the people I used to hit with acted as if I offended them by not hitting with them any longer. I basically explained that I love hitting with them, but at this stage in my game I need to hit with people who are better than I am so that I can continue improving. Nothing you can say will escape the fact that you aren’t going to hit with them anymore on a consistent basis, so it’s best to just be honest.

From John M., FL

If I had to play with only people who challenged me, I would most definitely be home watching the tennis channel. The fact is there are always ways to improve your game with everyone you play with. I think it’s a big misconception that you have to play people better than you in order to improve your game. Personally, I will always play with anyone who just loves to play the game no matter what their level. This gives me an opportunity to work on other parts of my game in a more relaxed playing environment. Don’t get me wrong, I also need to play better people to hone my skills on returning serves and seeing different spins, but also I get to bring forward what I’ve worked on while playing lower level players. Keep in mind that tennis is great social activity, so you don’t want to be the person who’s too good for everyone. When better players see that you are a fun friendly person, you will easily be invited to play with them. I hope this helps, good luck and good work.

From John R., Santa Maria, CA

When wanting to advance into a new group, make sure you are welcome in the new group so you will have a new group to go to. Make your move gradually not just a hop over to another court. By moving gradually you and the new group get an opportunity to see if you are a good fit. As you play more and more with the new group, your schedule won’t allow you to have the time for the old group. If you are asked by the old group why you’re not playing with them as often, I would think that a comment like, “I was invited by so-and-so to join them and I seem to be a pretty good fit. I hope that I’m invited to play with you occasionally as well.” Most players are pretty realistic about what level they fit into or could potentially fit into. You and the new group will know that soon enough. You won’t have alienated others by moving over and then finding out your not a good fit and have no one to play with. Best wishes and good luck.

From Ros N.

When that happened to me, I started playing singles instead of doubles and using the Internet for competitions as there are loads of different events for all ratings. I began meeting new players also of my level and we arranged doubles. I still arrange games with old friends, but mix players up with strong partners. The most important thing is not to hold back when you are playing. Play your game and they will eventually tell you to find stronger opponents. The most important thing is to enjoy your tennis.

From Kenneth B., PTR,USTA, USRSA

Dear Playa’ – Understand this! You are doing them a big favor by advancing to another level! They will see that if you can improve and advance to a higher leve, again they should appreciate your improved level of performance

Q. "I am getting a little frustrated with one particular USTA captain in my league. She has a reputation for being a "diva," and I try not to associate with her. However, she is now beginning to get on my nerves because she has been "stealing/luring" players from other teams to join hers. Today it was one of the players who was planning to join mine. What can I do about this behavior?"

From Chris B.

A player can't be stolen if a player isn't willing to walk away from his/her current team. There is really nothing you can do about it. It's frustrating and painful, but in order to learn why a player might be enticed away, ask your lost players what they found more attractive about playing for someone else. It might simply be a matter of play time or partnering. You could also confront the captain and tell her you are on to her, and there is an unspoken courtesy that you do not recruit from already existing teams. It’s a difficult situation, for sure.

From Donna C., Naples, FL:

I definitely agree with you that recruiting players from other teams can be rude and a little too "cutthroat" for me. But I think I get more frustrated with the player who agrees to play on my team and then goes back on her word and goes to another team, rather than the person doing the recruiting. In the long run, I would rather have a team of committed, loyal players who are in it for the team than a team of players looking out for themselves and jumping ship at the first offer they get. A team who "steals" players for their great skills will only kick them to the curb if they are off of their game for too long. If that is the kind of team that a player is looking for, that is what they will get!!

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

E.M., it sounds to me that there is more competition off court than on court. Personally, trying to control or change the behavior of others should not be of your concern. One way to recruit and retain players is through position leadership. There are two old sayings: “Get your customers with low price only; lose your customers to lower prices.” Maintain your highest standards, establish rules and boundaries, and play your best.

team: 1. a group of persons joined together in an action, 2. two or more horses, oxen, etc., … harnessed together.

Team players want to play where they are equally yoked and, as with animals, one or both will be chafed if not. They want to have fun. Winning is important but should not be the most important thing, especially at the recreational level. Players playing their best and how they live with the results does more for team building than some would think.

In closing, think of ways to screen players into your team and let others continue to fence players out of theirs. After all, a team can only have so many players. When the recruits don’t produce or players sit out, your team will develop as it should. Remember this… teams that plan activities after a match, practice together and fellowship with one another off court will hold true.

Live by the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” It’s been around a long time. It worked then and still works now.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

Winning isn't everything. You have to go out there and give it your best. The team you are on should have fun, be friends with each other, practice together and have team unity. This diva will get what is coming to her – an overhead in the stomach, or the karma police putting her life in chaos in another way. Have fun, get better. Actions speak louder than words, and let your racquet do the talking.

From Jerry G., SF Bay Area:

There is little you can do to change the behavior of the "diva," as long as she is not violating any league rules. There was a recent article in a tennis magazine concerning a captain in the San Francisco East Bay who sounds like your "diva." His goal appeared to be to win at almost any cost, and he actively recruited the best players from other teams. Obviously, the players he successfully recruited were those whose goals were in line with what he was offering. You need to find out the goals and ambitions of your players and recruits and try to satisfy them within the constraints of your team's goals.

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