Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
Tennis is a bit of a game of the aristocratic UK elite but the version today is a lot different from the Real Tennis of yesteryear. Whether it’s the stereotype of the short, white shorts or polo shirts or just simply rich brats playing a soft sport, tennis has got some branding problems when it comes to how ‘hard’ a sport it is. But let’s face it, tennis is non contact. There are no tackles, bumps or throws, let alone punches, kicks and armbars. But if you take out the fact there is no direct contact, you can actually find some huge parallels to the martial arts and fighting sport world.
One on one
Let’s take out doubles for this blog post and focus on the true one on one battle of singles tennis. Playing tennis is constant sparring, constant combat. It is a test of movement, defense, weaponry, discipline and mindset. A long tennis match can be sparring over multiple hours with 2 to 4 hour matches testing not only the best ‘skills’ but also who has got the most ‘heart’. It’s the part I deep down love about playing tennis. In my early years it’s where I gave up and played the victim, but especially once I was well into my 20’s, I started to work out that I had somehow learnt to really battle in this sport and make myself hard to beat. In tennis, someone else really can be better than you with a bigger game but they can crack, even just a tiny bit, in the stages of battle where it really counts. At least within perhaps 20% of your level, you can win matches with a strong self belief when the times get tough. But it’s mentally exhausting and naturally physically demanding. True battle. You have gone past the stage where your opponent has shown you what they can do and you have shown them how you can hurt them. To me, and I can’t speak for all tennis players but once you get to this phase to me, it feels very much like a fight.
Now in general, I am a lover, not a fighter but there is something that attracts me to boxing and more recently, the mixed martial arts world. Apart from the very rare light scrimmage in high school and teenage footy years, I have never seen the upside to smacking around someone else and then also copping it yourself. Recovery from a non contact tennis match feels long enough let alone icing your eye socket for days or a ton of stitches but there is plenty to love about both martial arts and fighting sports like boxing. One of my best mates Brad Thompson, who is also a great tennis player, was one of the original mixed martial arts fighters in Australia and I am a regular watcher of UFC events and a fan of current Australian legend Alexander Volkanovski. His attitude to being the best warrior he can be, as well as the tactical nous and powerful confidence he carries, is inspiring. I’m also trying to keep up with boxing prodigy Tim Tszyu (son of the great Kostya Tszyu) who is just so explosively fast, that I can’t look away. It’s engaging watching people battle with so much at stake. The title yes and the recognition, but there is something far more primal about two warriors, using their own body as a weapon in a ‘lizard brain’ fight to the end.
As a fun side story my Grandpa, on my mum’s side, who I unfortunately never met, used to box. Country South Australia boxing is not necessarily Tyson Fury level but I loved hearing the stories of my Grandpa in country boxing tournaments way back in the 1930’s. Grandpa Reg was from the UK and I loved hearing stories about when he was a soldier as well as his horse race betting and boxing pursuits. So Grandpa Reg shout out to you and well done for doing so many 12 rounds of classic British boxing.
The battle of tennis
Tennis is a one on one battle. Depending on the pace of the play, it involves a reaction every 0.5 to 3 seconds with a must-have permanent focus for the duration of each point. In tennis, a point is like a tiny little mini round. With consecutive mini rounds helping you win the round (games and sets) and eventually the bout (match). When I return serve in a competitive match (especially if things are getting all primal in a deciding set) I imagine my opponent (who is serving) is about to hit me and I have a one chance to react. It helps put me in the right state, a state of awareness, a non thinking state but a heightened state of reaction. Of course I have only touched on mastering this state and most professional players have spent a lifetime mastering this flow state. But how can martial arts and the fighting sports help tennis players become better?
“Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face” – Mike Tyson
Understand that no matter how good your fancy patterns of play or mean down the line forehand is, a tennis battle can become a survival of the fittest. The fittest physically yes often, but fittest mentally. The resilience where they grow something extra when faced with adversity. So sure train your patterns of play and big forehands but train situations where you have to give everything and you don’t know what is coming and what your going to do about it. The uncertain. The unexpected. Reacting the best you can.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” – Mohammed Ali
Amazing crossover quote to tennis. Stupidly accurate for tennis. Move smooth, like a duck working hard under the water but smooth as can be above. And sting like a bee. Perfect. Yes be on red alertness for opportunity. Jab, jab, jab, strike! or just wait for the moment and redirect their energy to your advantage. Constantly adapt. Constantly be aware of what they send to you and then either defend, deflect or attack.
“A brave man, a real fighter is not measured by how many times he falls, but how many times he stands up.” – Rickson Gracie
You’re going to lose lots of tennis matches. It’s a horrible reality that your game (and ego) will be crushed more times than you want, or want to admit. As you get better, naturally you are going to compete in tournaments or competitions which attract a higher level player who is on a similar journey to you are and can teach you a lesson on any given day. Losses are never good. Always horrible. Every loss I have had I didn’t like or enjoy at all. But once the mild depression lifts, there is all the lessons you need to get better in each and every loss you have. Learn, go back and train and then step up again against the next opponent. Always be ready to battle. Always be ready to give everything you have to try and win.
Let’s train tennis players this way
So there is so much tennis players can learn from martial arts and the fight game. I would say this reaction training and sparring type mindset is something that is really missing from developing tennis players. Personally as a coach and founder of Scarborough Tennis Academy, I want to work on ways of developing this warrior mindset and awareness.
After researching ‘reaction training’ I found this video below about Muay Thai training. Brilliant video with so many great parallels to tennis development. Most importantly it talks about reaction training for not only body, but also brain, which again is overlooked.