“Tennis is like a boxing match”
“Tennis is like a boxing match” one of my old coaches told me. This kind of registered initially, but as time goes by it resonates stronger than ever. So how on earth can boxing be like tennis? More than you’d imagine, believe it or not. Mind you, in tennis there is no knockout blow. Merely a series of jabs, right hooks and eventual submission.
I started playing tennis at 4 years old, playing in competitions by 8 and have coached at all levels for over 30 years. One of the things which has stayed with me, and why I still love the game, is that it presents the player with personal challenges, with the mental/emotional ones being of most interest to me. Tennis is not just a game, it’s about learning about yourself and sometimes discovering things that you don’t like and need to change.
For me, I never ever got the “it’s the taking part that counts” approach to sport. If I didn’t win then as a kid, I was absolutely distraught. This was something I had to learn to cope with and get better at accepting, which took many years. Especially as a junior player – when you play a match you are allowed no coaching, no involvement from anyone, it’s just you, your opponent and no one else. No team to rely on, no shared responsibility and no escaping from the fact that when you go on court there will be one winner and one loser. That’s quite tough to come to terms with for youngsters. Especially when you have eager family members and perhaps friends or other players watching your demise!
Tennis is also a game with huge momentum changes. No draws, no close 1-0 losses and absolutely nowhere to hide if it all goes wrong. It’s all on your shoulders. It’s a game where you can win more points overall than your opponent yet lose the match. You could lose a match 6-0 6-0 but still have won nearly as many points as your opponent. So, the scoring system is what makes it a heaven versus hell scenario – if you don’t win the big points you don’t win. It’s that simple, and yet you could come close or even get match points before losing. Its brutal in many respects – a death (or loss) by 1000 cuts you might say. But that’s what makes it alluring and life affirming. You have to discover just how much suffering you are willing to take in order to get the win.
“I have never lost a match, I’ve only ran out of time”
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Resilience in tennis comes from the knowledge that you can only play your best in the next point. That’s it. Anything further ahead is too much to consider and not staying in the present. We are also taught “how to lose”, which may at first seem like a very strange prospect and even offensive to some who see this as a recipe for acceptance of failure before it has happened! Far from it. In tennis as in everyday life we win and we lose, and we will lose a lot. Acceptance of losing the correct way and for the right reasons is very important – so not beating ourselves up or quitting. Michael Jordan once said, “I have never lost a match, I’ve only ran out of time.” This is kind of what encapsulates the parallels between life and sport and what it can teach us as we go through our lives. Losing is a fact of life so we need to prepare for it and accept that it will happen, it’s HOW we lose that is important. Vitas Geralitus once said, having lost to Jimmy Connors on the previous 16 occasions, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulitis 17 times in a row!” I think he knew what losing was about but also how to deal with it the right way!!
I can still remember the pain of losing a match to someone that I expected to beat and knowing the reason I lost was because I didn’t believe in myself. I guess that is one of the main reasons I went into coaching full time. Having the tools is one thing but that only gets you so far. Quite often, we need another human to relate what we are going through on whatever level – be it on the tennis court, in our workplace or at home with family or friends. We need reassurance that we CAN do these things and that we are valued as long as we give our best. And sometimes a defeat can shape future triumphs.
Early in my coaching career I took a job in the U.S. It seemed like a dream job, with a world-renowned coach in a great club with a huge reputation. Unfortunately, it did not work out and I returned home after only 3 months. However, the lessons and knowledge I gained from the experience made me a much better coach. Within a month of returning I had a Head Coach position in London, and it was probably being so battle-hardened from the U.S experience that helped me to win the role against better qualified coaches.
One of the greatest things I have learned from tennis, and indeed from cycling, another hobby, is that there is always someone out there better than you. There is always a need to feel lost in order to be found, there is always a time to feel nervous – indeed being nervous shows you care. And this is in life as well. We care about the things that mean most to us, be that family, friends, job, hobbies etc. I still get nervous when I compete, these days usually Time Trials (cycling to the uninitiated!) and when I do feel nervous I almost welcome it now as an old friend. Being afraid of the unknown is what keeps us alive and learning about ourselves, of enjoying self-discovery and the chance to better who we are.