The Straight and Narrow: Benefits of competitive tennis.
Tennis started as something I just liked to do. Bang balls against the wall of the house before starting the journey of taking on others. I enjoyed the challenge of getting every ball back and the thrill of winning the points. But looking back now as a 39 year old, I can see what else tennis did for me as a child, teen and then adult.
As a child, tennis was more about feeling confident and being really good at something! I think I was bright in a non rote learning way but I was never considered Academic. Sport was my ‘A’ subject. Tennis gave me an outside interest and I remember regularly reading the Australian Tennis magazine from front to back. It also gave me the drive to succeed.
As a teenager things were much more volatile. Confidence on the tennis court was one thing but being cool and tough to guys and appealing to the girls was a far bigger priority. I would not of been the easiest student to teach in high school. Especially around Year 10. I had a bit of oppositional defiance, particularly if I was singled out by an authoritarian type of teacher. Combine that with an intent to be the class clown and an attention span that did not last half the lesson, there were some challenges. There were also a good amount of high school house parties. Big parties your parents dont want you to go to. But on a Friday night I always wanted a good sleep. Why? Because I had tennis the next day and I wanted to win. In high school, Nirvana was cool and so were baseball puffer jackets and Reebok pumps. But tennis? Not so much. Most people at high school didn’t even know I played and I was fine with that. But Tennis was my thing and I was doing pretty well, representing the Adelaide Hills before moving to South Australia junior tournaments and qualifying for a couple of National Championships. I wasn’t good enough to be in a state team but was around the top 10 players my age and never really played more than 3 times a week. If you lose in tennis you only have yourself to blame. I really didn’t like losing. So much so that all the excitement of a teenage party would not get in the way of a good nights sleep ready to win the next day.
As I moved into the fake ID phase (not possible now) and finally the legal age of drinking alcohol, pubs and nightclubs, Tennis became an even harder sacrifice. In my gap year after year 12, I would work each morning in a local apple orchard and play tennis in the afternoon. Problem was there was almost always fun to be had out and about from Wednesday right through to the weekend. Again I held back on Fridays because of Competition Tennis. I still went out but was more sensible. I didn’t want to have the regret of playing poorly because of the night before.
So although it was pretty clear I didn’t show the discipline and commitment required to become a professional tennis player (nor did I have the skillset or the desire), Tennis did get me on a scholarship to a Division 2 NCAA US College. The week before I flew out to the USA, I was on a new years music festival camping trip in Victoria with 20 or so other friends (and friends of friends) from the Adelaide Hills. What an amazing few days it was but it was hardly the behaviour of a young athlete! But then we turned over a new millenium and it was time for college tennis 4 days later. Again the partying was tempting in college and I got up to my fair share of mischief, but training 4 hours a day and travelling all the time to play tennis matches also got me in the groove of actually being a committed athlete. On days we didn’t have tennis training, I would run to the gym and do a workout. I started considering myself a ‘tennis player’ more so than ever before.
As I embarked on a career as a tennis coach slowly each year my perspective shifted from sensation seeking to health and wellness. I started learning about better ways to eat, better ways to stay fit and strong and ultimately, better ways to think. But tennis was and is the anchor that can pull me more towards a positive lifestyle. The training you put in and experience you gain on the tennis court helps you to become a better player and a better version of yourself. The difference from being a highly competitive player rather than a recreational player is the importance of preparation and performance. No one wants to be beaten, especially disposed of easily. As Tony Robbins says we move either towards ‘pleasure’ or away from ‘pain’ on every single decision we make. There is a lot of ‘pain’ in underperforming in a sport you have excelled in. There is certainly a bit of ego but mainly a self awareness of knowing that you have full responsibility for how you perform.
So where over those teenage and early 20’s years of life, I had a ton of fun going to music festivals, pubs, nightclubs and happy hours. But tennis helped keep me on track and continues to keep me on track. Now days I have no desire to go anywhere past 9pm and the rare big night might be 1/2 a bottle of red wine with dinner. I value sleep, good food, lots of water, vitamin and mineral supplements as well as learning to slow down my thoughts through breathing techniques and guided meditations.
I know that if I am feeling a bit unfit, lazy or unhealthy, a game of tennis will slap me around hard and fast. After a really hard hit of tennis or a competitive match, my mind starts shifting towards thoughts such as: How can I feel stronger ? How can I be quicker? How can I react sooner? How can I eat better? What else can I do that is going to improve me even just a little bit?
So this really is a testament to learning and playing sport as a kid. Not only is it good healthy fun but it gives you positive habits that can last a lifetime. I have a lot of gratitude for learning the skill of tennis and having the ability to play at a fairly advanced level. This continues to influence me positively. As a coach this helps me see the bigger picture of teaching tennis. Its not just about forehands and backhands.