How to be comfortable when you're uncomfortable

As we all know, Tennis is arguably the most intense, emotional and draining sports, therefore it is imperative to be mentally strong and completely aware of your body and mind. To be physically strong is achievable at an early age if, and only if, you put the hard work in through the blood, sweat and tears of gym work, training and competing. However, the mental side of Tennis is an area of the game that effects the player from the word ‘go’. A young player starting out Tennis for the first time doesn’t have to be Physically Strong to win, and albeit they don’t have to be mentally strong either. However, they have to have a passion to learn and a passion to play, and this comes from their confidence and enjoyment on the court.

So as a player gets older and better at the game what can change in those years? The ages of 10 -16 can be some of the hardest times for any Tennis player, given that they have homework, social issues and sporting pressures to deal with, who can blame them? Therefore, the battle with youngsters is to manage their emotions on the court by being mentally tough, even with the rigor of life outside of the court and the change in their lifestyle and social lives. How often do we see children at the ages of 10+ start to become stressed on court, they become emotional and they show it. To deal with this, one thing which is important for all players and this can be reinforced by their coaches is: Acceptance of their performance through the ‘Tennis Grey Scale’.

Think of the grey scale like this. Imagine a square shape. Inside the square, at the top, it is completely white. As we go to the bottom of the square it starts to become slightly grey, and then more grey, and then more. Finally until the point in which it becomes completely black. Here is an example:

Grey Scale

One of the most common things heard from a child during a match is ‘You’re playing Rubbish!’. This is arguably one of the biggest issues. Many children, especially youngsters who struggle to manage their emotions and remain mentally strong, feel like they have to be playing well to win a a game of Tennis. What happens if they aren’t playing well? To a lot of children, that means they can’t win and this is when, and its here where things start to go from bad, to worse.

Briefly, lets look at Manchester United under Alex Ferguson. What did they do best? They certainly didn’t always have the best squad, but what they did do was win when they played badly and its those performances that won them so many trophies.

Back to the Grey Scale. The white inside the square, right at the top symbolises the best a player has ever played, and I mean literally THE best. As the square moves to grey, this symbolises performances that aren’t so good, to eventually the colour black which shows a player at what they believe is the worst they can perform. So how often are players in the black? How often in the white?

We spent some time with 3 players who are competing Nationally in their respective age groups. They were asked if they felt like they played ‘well’, ‘OK’ or ‘badly’, post match, over 3 matches. Interestingly, Player 1 said that they had played badly twice and well once. Player 2 said they had played OK twice and badly once, as did player 3 who also answered the same. This wasn’t an official study, however it was interested to get some feedback on their own interpretations of their match performance over 3 games.

If we were to pin point an exact location of the 3 players’ performance on the Grey Scale, we would be looking at the middle grey area if not lower. This is the area where a player has to accept he/she will be for many performances in the future. For a player to understand that he/she might not play well but can still win, can really make a player mentally tough as well as challenge them to find ways to win with regards to tactics. Interestingly, it is this acceptance that can also lead to an incredible amount of belief. Can you imagine a 12 year old child thinking to themselves, ‘i’m not playing very well today at all, BUT, I can still win this’? That is incredible power and toughness for a young player. This also gives them a huge sense of ownership on what they are doing as well as challenging their problem solving to the maximum.

When we watch sport in general, there aren’t many things better than watching your favourite player or team play at their best and win, and these are probably the most memorable matches. However, lets not forget the matches that are won when playing badly as without these results, the best wouldn’t be the best, and the champions wouldn’t be the champions. Young players must accept playing badly as a learning curve. This is what is great about Tennis, you can be playing badly, yet still win. The players that make themselves aware of the Grey Scale and that are comfortable being uncomfortable, are the ones that are genuinely World Class.

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