Does winning in tennis have to be ugly?

A recent commenter on this blog argued that tennis at the leisure level should be about mutual cooperation, creativity, and expression, like a dance, rather than an ugly competition where dog eats dog.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that argument.

At the same time, I wonder if trying to win has to be ugly. In contrast, could it be the key to better performance?

Before going further, I’d like to qualify that the kind of winning I’m discussing is not the same as Brad Gilbert’s. His book details strategies that are definitely “win at all costs”. For example, he explains how to play mental games by speeding up or slowing down to throw off an opponent or how to change position aggressively on return of serve to rattle the server. I suspect those tips are for professionals or serious amateurs who have a lot more at stake than I do.

Winning at all costs doesn’t advance my interests. I’m not good enough to win any trophies, let alone money, and given the late age I started the game, I never will be. My objective is to get better at tennis and have fun while doing it.

Yet, most tennis players would agree, that objective is easier said than done. When I hit “for fun”, I can be too relaxed, verging on lazy. I find it hard to always push myself, mentally and physically, to run those last few steps or to stretch for that difficult ball. Even worse, my mind sometimes goes on auto-pilot, reacting to events rather than strategizing about which shots or sequence of shots would help me win the point.

On the other hand, trying to win can make me too tense. Suddenly, I’m hitting protective, tentative shots, pulling back instead of pushing forward, and avoiding any semblance of risk. It’s a triple-whammy: no fun, no learning, AND no winning.

The truth must lie somewhere in the middle, a paradoxical state of “relaxed tension”.

Such a state applies to more than tennis; it also works well in a classroom. Years ago, a veteran teacher once told me that students learn best when they are comfortable, but a bit worried about being called on. It keeps them alert and engaged with the lesson. It’s a delicate balancing act – students can’t learn if they’re paralyzed with fear about feeling stupid, but if they’re too relaxed, their minds wander away from the material.

For tennis, a state of relaxed tension is probably hard to achieve without trying to win. I want to be stretched, to find out what I can and cannot do and where I need to focus next. Competition does that for me, but sadly it also brings the full-on tension that impedes progress.

To resolve the contradiction, I’m going to try melding lessons from the Inner Game of Tennis with some of Brad Gilbert’s strategies. I’m sure it won’t be easy, but then again, anything worth achieving rarely is.

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