Nowhere to hide.
Playing singles tennis can be a lonely journey at times. No one to blame if you lose and often no one to share that victorious feeling when you win. Unlike many teams sports, in tennis there is nowhere to hide.
My main sports as a kid were footy and tennis with a dash of cricket. Cricket games always clashed with tennis so I used to spent time in the nets bowling to metal stumps and when I could, I would bowl at my older brothers cricket training. I loved bowling leg spin and was obsessed with the trickery of getting lots of spin as well as mixing it up with a wrong un (Shane Warne helped). The one on one aspect of bowling and trying to outwit the batter with spin suited me. I could bat ok but with average technique and absolutely no leg side shots. Although I had never played an actual club cricket game, I did try out and make the Adelaide Hills cricket team in Year 7. This was a great experience playing on some great turf wickets of Adelaide schools such as St Peters College. The first game was awkward cause I didn’t know all the positions on the ground so had to ask a team mate where gully was on the field, to his surprise.
Footy was a huge part of our family and local market garden town. I played every winter right through juniors and often carried a football with me to school. My brothers and cousins all played and Dad spent a lot of time coaching local junior teams and also stints coaching A Grade country footy. I was a skillful player, could kick left and right footed both fairly well, had evasive skills and rarely dropped a mark. But I was not the type of player to get 30 possessions and around the ground I remember feeling lost and not being sure where to go. It was also that fear of failure creeping in that if I didn’t go for it or ask for it then I wouldn’t stuff up but of course then I am not contributing to the team. I found my feet as a full forward at around 14 years old kicking over 50 goals in the season as the smallest full forward in the league. But where playing on the ball made me feel lost, full forward made total sense to me. One on one with the ball coming in. I could lead up for it or go body on body and if I didn’t mark it I was competitive when the ball went to ground. Suddenly, with the reward of the big sticks being so close, I played with far more urgency. I kept playing teenage footy as a small full forward or deep flank/pocket player and was proud to sneak in to the Adelaide Hills association team in Under 17’s before I went to play NCAA College Tennis. However as a fully grown 174cm adult, full forward was an unlikely path long term!
So that fear of failure I had in footy but I also had it in tennis. But the problem is I had no where to hide in tennis! Tennis is an exchange between the players. Every single ball coming is as important as a goal square marking contest. In singles its ALWAYS one on one. One lapse of concentration and you lose the point. One stupid decision and you lose the point. I didn’t like losing any points, let alone matches. But tennis always had the ability to keep me engaged and my drifting concentration was always forced to be brought back in a tennis game. Run for the ball, watch the ball and place the ball and continue it till the match is finished. Once I would win, I would breathe a sigh of relief.
But that fear of failure also drove me to hit lots of tennis balls against the wall before my earthmoving Dad decided to dig up and layer down an ashphalt tennis court up by the cherry trees, which helped me practice more. Once I was the best player my age in the Adelaide Hills, I started playing the city tournaments and unfortunately that fear of failure was realised many times by the best players in the state who were simply another level from where I was. But instead of quitting (come close many many times) I kept getter a bit better taking up private lessons and eventually competing reasonably well in state level tournaments and qualifying for a couple of national junior tournaments.
So the individual nature of singles tennis can force people to either fight or flight. There is no where to hide and no room for lapses in concentration. You do need to be resilient with your mindset because yes sure the wins feel great but the losses are 100% on you. I believe certain people or personality types really thrive in this ‘nowhere to hide’ environment and there are others who naturally suit a team game and can play their role. I make a lot of references to boxing and martial arts in my coaching. Nowhere to hide there and an even more brutal downside of not just losing but also breaking your nose or getting knocked out. You better be prepared and ready and you must have the inner confidence and belief that you can win any match.
The best we can do in junior tennis is to encourage kids to play team pennants. This way they get the partnership element with doubles, team bonding and overall team/club results while they work on the brutal resilience building of singles tennis. In a similar way to what I was like when I was younger, the fear of failure is real for many kids and tennis offers no opportunity to hide. Control the controllables, use pre serve and pre return routines to reset after each point and give it your best shot each and every point of the match.