High School Tennis gets a bad wrap in the world of junior tennis. For top players it is looked at more of an activity as opposed to being a legitimate competitive sport. It is often viewed as a waste of time for a variety of reasons. For instance, the training is not rigorous, competition is weak, matches do not count towards rankings, and it is “a factor” but not “the factor” in getting recruited by a collegiate team. Each school, coach, and situation is different so these generalizations are not always true however often times this is the viewpoint players and their parents have.
Whether you are a top player or not, there is much to be learned by taking the time to understanding what I am about to say. By the end I hope you will see what high level players have to gain by competing in high school tennis.
Before I digress into the topic I want you to understand this is not going to be your typical sales pitch for high school tennis. Certainly being a part of a team, socializing, competing while representing you school, etc. are all wonderful reasons to be a part of your tennis team. But what I am about to tell you is much deeper and valuable in terms of developing a tennis champion.
I look at high school tennis, and for that matter all of junior tennis, as developmental. Players should be learning and growing all the time. They should learn from big wins, easy wins, bad losses, and tough losses. The bottom line is they should be developing and growing constantly. Everything should be approached with the mindset that it is as an opportunity for growth. I believe we often lose sight of that and think this win or that loss is the end-all and be-all because we get so emotionally invested. Keeping the big picture in mind and looking at everything as a developmental opportunity is a much more productive and healthy paradigm for the long haul.
The general rule of thumb for scheduling a player’s competitive year is The Rule of Thirds. In a nutshell this means a third of the matches should be above a player’s current ability level, a third at their level, and a third below. This allows players to assume all three roles (underdog, even, and the favorite) and associated balances of pressures in match play.
One of the BIGGEST mistakes made in the career of a junior player happens when they start winning and begin “playing up.” The natural instinct is to keep moving them forward and playing them “up” in tournaments. When they win it makes sense to want to quickly advance on to higher levels, and they should, but only a third of the time. The mistake happens by forgetting to still play down a third of the time. You see when a player “plays up” there is no real pressure because they are not expected to win, they get to assume the role of the underdog. And always assuming the role of the lesser player is dangerous and detrimental to development. Playing up provides the opportunity to grow but it does so without the burden of pressure. Playing down below your level may not always be physically challenging but it most definitely is mentally challenging. As the favorite player there is a tremendous burden because they should win and there is a big difference between “should win” and pulling off an “upset win.”
When playing down the athlete is placed in a “nothing to gain, everything to lose” situation. They have the burden of pressure and must learn how to work through it in order to win. In other words they must learn how to live up to expectations. The idea that the player can gain nothing from this type of match is absolutely false because what they do gain is real lasting confidence. When a player assumes the role of the favorite and wins, they cement lasting confidence and practice the routine of winning. As the saying goes, “There is no better way to learn how to win than to actually win.” These memories are critical to being able to hit the recall buttons in future tight match situations. In essence, competing while playing the role of the favorite player practices how to win in pressure filled situations. This is actually the little known secret to avoid choking in big time matches.
So where does high school tennis fit in for a high performing junior? If the player is truly high performing, high school tennis is most likely in the bottom third of their competitive level and would be considered playing down. Those high level players would enter each and every high school match knowing they are the favorite and their opponents are gunning for them with nothing to lose. They know the local newspaper and everyone watching is expecting them to win each and every time they take the court. They know the pressure of expectation lies completely on them. That is a tremendous amount of pressure that you just don’t get from playing better players and assuming the underdog role all the time. And being the favorite is a role top players must learn to fulfill to continue to develop as a player.
A high performing junior might go an entire season winning most matches 6-1, 6-2 but I guarantee there will be some moments where they are tested. And in that handful of trying times throughout the season players learn how to win and get comfortable assuming the uncomfortable role of the favorite. Nothing builds lasting confidence like coming through when expectations are high. That lasting confidence will lead to big developmental gains and breakthroughs in future tight matches. You see when that player is in a big match down the road they will have something to draw on mentally where they know, that they know, that they know, they can come through when the pressure is on.
Knowing that do you see how high school tennis can be a tremendous developmental tool for high performing junior players?