I have an idea for what could be the most boring video game of all time … imagine a large blob that doesn't move, cannot fire back and you get unlimited opportunities to shoot it. Unfortunately, young players tell me that this game is not in the same league as Mortal Kombat because it presents no obstacle to success. They further explain that the fun of video games is in the thrill of challenge so it's silly if you know you are going to win. Learning the process of understanding and welcoming challenge is a wise and productive outlook, and I wish more tennis players would internalize this developmental message and embrace the struggle as much as the thrill of victory.
Winning is great, but the rewards of tennis can also be found in managing crisis, understanding strengths, overcoming weaknesses, recognizing opportunities and solving problems. Tennis is a game of crisis management and the best players are calm and skillful managers. This is a necessary skill since the margin of success and failure in most matches is remarkably narrow. A negative change in the outcome of just one of every 35 points, for example, would drop Novak Djokovic out of the top 100 in the world. Your play is defined by your ability to rise to the defining moments that turn failures into triumphs.
If I had to identify the single most important developmental skill in tennis, it would not be a stroke, tactic or mental approach. The most vital, and perhaps most difficult, skill in the education of a rising player is the development and construction of game equity. Have the humility and courage to risk failure now in order to build a game for the future.
A healthy forward outlook requires motivation and passion. It is nearly impossible to stay focused and positive in the long run if you are not true to yourself and develop a style that reflects your personality. It is vital, therefore, to personalize the experience without taking the experience too personally or too seriously. Tennis is a great way to practice how to overcome challenges in life, and the consequences of failure are not so grave. It's only a tennis match after all, and you have an almost limitless opportunity to both succeed and fail if you persevere.
Tennis is part of a developing player's education. It provides the opportunity to expand your understanding of yourself and the world, but also the danger of being a self-limiting dead end road. Surely it can help make you who are and define you as a person. Why not define yourself as a person who is not limited by fear and ego.
I often repeat the lesson of humility given to one of my long-time students, a then 10-year-old Sandra Birch by her father Bryan, over 30 years ago. He explained to his future two-time NCAA champion daughter, "You might be a better tennis player than many people, but that does not make you any better or more entitled than anyone." To this day, I don't think I've heard better advice.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.