| By Tonny van de Pieterman
Credit: Brand X Pictures

Question … do you want to win or do you want to play well?

A tennis match is a unique physical and mental competition between two individuals. I like to call it “a test of skills and wills.” The loser of a tennis match sometimes experiences feelings of hurt, shame or even sorrow (sounds farfetched, I know). The reason being, that when one puts his or her heart and soul into this test of dominance and control, one’s ego becomes temporarily exposed. Most players will offer plenty of excuses to avoid the issues or are looking for answers in all the wrong places.

In an effort to help students become better competitors, I want to reveal a path toward winning. Coaches can teach players the skills, but the player has to grow an internal hunger to win separate from their strokes and footwork! They have to learn to manage what they can control and keep the focus narrow and firm.

After a loss, when asked about a match, students frequently say: “I just played like @$#@!” This answer can be a way to avoid talking about the match as to not having to relive the match, or it could be ignorance about the best way to analyze match play. Since the competition part of tennis is my greatest passion, I keep asking questions, play devil’s advocate and usually end up helping my students learn important lessons from their match play behavior.

Receiving the correct feedback from competition is crucial in a player’s development. In one of my recent coaching experiences, one of my students suffered a tough loss in the semifinals of an important tournament. He played a player he had beaten several times before. During the match, the student was faced with some unusual challenges. He was called on several foot faults, suffered some unusual equipment failures and still had to deal with his tough playing opponent. He did not deal well with all of these issues, lost emotional control, looked desperate and ended up battling himself instead of his opponent. When he came off the court, all he could muster was: “I played the worst tennis of my life.” After a one-hour break and a little talk, he went out to play the match for third and fourth place. He played the self-proclaimed “best tennis of his life” and had a big win over a player he had never before beaten. After the match, he smiled and exclaimed, “I know now … it is all mental!”

What I simply tried to do during our little lunch/coaching time was to change my player’s focus from the level of his tennis, to the imminent contest of match play. I laid out a few challenges in the upcoming match, including the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, and tried to raise his curiosity and excitement on how he was going to deal with and overcome those challenges.

By deriving your satisfaction from your problem-solving ability during match play as opposed to your subjective feelings about your level of play, you will become a better competitor!

“Be productive”, I told my student. “Be creative and be positive. Losing to another player is acceptable, losing to yourself is not!”

Tonny van de Pieterman

Tonny van de Pieterman is a tennis professional at Point Set Indoor Racquet Club in Oceanside, N.Y.. He was recently named USTA Tennis Professional of the Year for the USTA/Eastern-Long Island Region and helped the Eastern Section win this year’s Talbert Cup. He may be reached by phone at (516) 536-2323 or e-mail Tonny@PointSetTennis.com.