Most believe that people typically fall in love with the game of tennis and then become competitive at it. In that exact order. As if a player falls in love with the sound of the ball hitting the strings and out of that love develops into a fierce competitor on the court.
I want to pose the idea that more often than not the exact opposite of the above scenario occurs. I believe the best tennis players develop because they are great competitors first and foremost. They simply hate to lose at anything and it is their strong dislike for losing that initially fuels the necessary motivation to improve at tennis. And then it is only over the course of time they fall in love with the complexity involved in the game of tennis itself. It is because of this belief that the role of competition in developing a player is is of the utmost importance. Hating to lose first is what fuels the motivation for improvement and eventual love for the game.
Let me tell you the story of how I first was introduced to tennis to support my point…
I was an active and athletic kid. I played lots of sports (baseball, hockey, etc.). I also absolutely hated to lose at anything. I even remember playing video games and hating to lose at them. My friends and younger brother were also very competitive and we challenged one another in everything.
My introduction to tennis was unique. Like I said I played lots of sports but tennis was no where on my radar. No one in my family or anyone I knew even played tennis. Then Uncle Joe came into my life…
Around 8th grade my best friend Brian’s grandmother passed away. It was a tough time for his family and his Uncle Joe had moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago for the summer. Uncle Joe was an older gentlemen and a tennis player. He loved to play tennis but he had no one to play with so he took Brian and I to the courts, stuck us both one one side of the net, and told us to keep the ball in so he could get some exercise. He would playfully taunt us when he won or we messed up. I have no idea if the taunting was just his personality or not but it was absolutely brilliant! He literally got Brian and I to hate losing to him so much we kept wanting to play more. We didn’t love playing tennis we just hated, and I mean hated, losing to Uncle Joe. We would never pass up the opportunity just for the chance to play tennis and shut him up with a win.
My friend and I would walk to the tennis courts and practice with each other for hours and then challenge Uncle Joe in the evening. We got pretty darn good with zero instruction. It got to the point where he would have to challenge us one-on-one. I literally hated to lose so badly that I would get up at 6:00am in the summer and play tennis with Uncle Joe before it got too hot just for the opportunity to beat him.
The interesting thing was that initially I had no interest in the game of tennis itself but over time, once I dug deeper into the game because I wanted to learn how to win, I absolutely fell in love with it! I have never put down a tennis racket since that first summer and my drive to improve and win very much influences my coaching philosophy still to this day.
I think hating to lose really does come first for most people. It is only in their tireless pursuit of avoiding losses they discover the wonderful complexity of the game of tennis and eventually then fall in love with it for a lifetime.
When I coach I look for those attributes of being a competitor first and a tennis player second. I know I can teach anyone to play tennis but special things happen when a player is motivated internally by achievement needs and hating to lose. As my friend and mentor Chuck Kriese says, “If you strongly dislike losing and really like winning then you will be pretty good.”