How to Compete Against a More Skilled Opponent
There are two sides to this story. The more common tale concerns a player who prefers playing against a more skilled opponent. In this case they (supposedly) play better when challenged, when the game is faster, and when they somehow become more alert. The better opponent may be less prone to push the ball, less prone to slow down the game with lobs, and less likely to miss-hit their shots, such that the speed and sameness of the skilled opponent’s shot-making elicits a better performance from the overmatched opponent. But in this scenario, no one talks about winning. There is very little pressure on the lesser player and he or she can simply enjoy the opportunity of playing someone who is regarded as “better.”
The other side of this coin, concerns what happens when playing up, how expectations affect performance, and why it is so darn hard to win when playing up. I am interested in this particular story.
My first coach, Blackie Jones, always spoke of “playing the ball;” not the score, not the opponent, not the expectations of friends who say, “You should win,” or worse, “You are going to get killed.” And over the many years I have played this game, I have tried to be faithful to “playing the ball” but as with so many obvious truths, this one has been difficult. But, that said, learning to compete is always and only about “playing the ball.” And the next time you want to compete against, and have a chance of beating that “better opponent (who is a 3.5 when you are a 3.0), it will all be about your ability to simply play the ball.
Too often at our club I hear players tell me they “should win” or worse, that they “should have” won. The word “should” does not exist within a true competitor’s vocabulary. Should concerns expectations. Should describes the future. Should implies a degree of certainty within a contest. Nothing is farther from the truth.
The ball does not know who you are. The ball doesn’t know what your rating is. The ball doesn’t expect the other guy to win. The ball only knows “bounce.” But when expectations cloud your awareness; at that moment you are not in the present, not focused on the now, not at all alert to the spin of the incoming ball, the position of the opponent, and the myriad of strategic options available at any given time.
No matter what your level of play, errors will always determine the outcome of a match. Yes there are winners, and certainly we are all prone to remember those outstanding shots, the running crosscourt winner, the deft angle volley, or the ace out wide. But somehow the flood (and yes there generally is a flood) of errors are not on our radar. It is because of this we lose sight of their role in the winning and the losing.
If you are evenly matched with an opponent, and both you and the opponent are “playing the ball,” then generally both of you will be aware of your errors. But when playing up, error awareness goes out the window and this is why the better opponent generally wins. It is not because they are so darn good, but rather because the other guy tries so hard to “win” that he ends up losing from an even greater rate of errors.
The ball does not know who you are. The ball only knows “bounce.” This is something the top pros have internalized.
Rule One – When playing up do an even better job of keeping the ball in play.
When playing up it is never about beating the opponent, it is simply about doing everything possible not to beat yourself. Somehow, when submitting to expectation, we assume the only way to win is to raise our standard of play. But if that were easy, then everyone’s standard would raise each and every day. When playing up, simply play your game. Nothing more. If the opponent is so darn good let her show you.
Back to expectation. Let's say you are now “playing the ball” without reference to should, and let’s for a moment assume your better opponent is not similarly skilled in the power of now. If he or she has been told that the win will be easy, and kids this happens nearly all the time, you now become a bad loss. And if you were to actually win this match, she will be confronted with, “Wow, you really should have won. How did you lose to her?”
This is a very unpleasant dialogue, and I am now speaking from personal experience. The so called “bad loss” can be a crushing emotional experience. This thing known as a “bad loss” gives the competitive advantage to the lesser player. But rather than thinking you have nothing to lose because everyone mistakenly told you that you should lose, turn this thing on its head and believe you have everything to win because the opponent has been told that they “shouldn’t lose". And on this score here is rule two.
Rule Two: Get off to a good start and try to find an early lead.
If you (the lesser) can get an early lead, 4-1 would be ideal, the opponent (the greater) now resorts to internal dialogue. “Who is this player? How can I be losing? How can I explain this loss?” And for a fact, such internal dialogue creates distraction. The opponent drifts from the past when they were expected to win, to the future when scripting dialogues that explain such a “bad loss” but rarely do they drift back to the present. And if, on such an occasion, the opponent mutters how their predicament is unbelievable, then all the better, for at this moment you have a genuine chance to win.
Avoid Scouting Reports
Finally, I suggest you avoid all the scouting reports available at the USTA web sites. The adults at our club are generally aware to the minutest detail of the win loss records of their opponents. And going into a match, they are all acutely aware of the “supposed” skill of the opponent. Nonsense! The ball doesn’t know anyone’s win loss record. The same occurs when kids or adults scrutinize a draw sheet. If you are competing, then the name of the next opponent really doesn’t matter. But in a world of should of, where reputation matters more than the “ball” then this scrutiny makes good if unfortunate sense.
So in your next USTA match I advise the following:
- Avoid pre match discussions containing the word “should”
- Understand that you are playing the ball – not the opponent
- If asked, “How did you ever win that match?” Avoid the answer for the question puts you right back into this cycle of expectation
(Click link to purchase Jim's McLennan's Secrets of World Class Footwork Video.)
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
Tension is the Enemy
A ball machine shoots a ball at a racquet hung by a string. The rebound velocity is compared to that of a ball machine shooting a ball at that same racquet with the handle firmly held in a vice. Free standing racquet vs. tightly held racquet. Surprisingly, the rebound velocities are identical. For Jim McLennan, what this test demonstrates is that power and control are not improved by tightly gripping the racquet in fact, the opposite is more likely true. Great players always make the game look easy. Shouldn't that be your goal also?
Another important fitness drill from legendary trainer, Pat Etcheberry. Here Pat uses a band to create resistance in order to improve leg strength and quickness. This exercise will give you the toughness and stamina to compete in that crucial third set. This is one of the training methods Justine Henin-Hardenne used to become a world champion. A must for any aspiring player.
Crosscourt - Roger Federer: The Best Ever?
For Roger Federer, 2006 has been a year for the ages, perhaps the most dominant year since Laver's slam in a bygone era. So, is it too soon to proclaim Sir Roger the greatest ever? This week on Crosscourt, leading tennis journalists, Matt Cronin and veteran touring pro, Paul Goldstein discuss Federer and his place among the all time greats. Matt and Paul have some definite opinions on the subject, let us know what you think.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
If you wish to be removed from our newsletter list, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and leave the subject line blank. A confirmation email will be sent to you, and you will be removed from our newsletter list once you reply to that confirmation.
Copyright Notice: The contents of the TennisONE web site and contents forwarded to you by TennisONE are intended for your personal, noncommercial use. Republishing of TennisONE content in any way, including framing or posting of these materials on other Web sites, is strictly prohibited. See our full copyright statement