July 2012 -- Many people realize that tennis-playing husbands and wives have a difficult time pairing up for doubles with each other. Some clubs do not even allow husband-wife teams to play together in mixed doubles tournaments.
So why do married couples tend to struggle in their on-court relationships? In other words, why do two people who have pledged to love each other (no matter what) have more issues than most other doubles teams?
The reasons are simple and the on-court solutions are straightforward. If couples used the four keys to communication (explained below) in the rest of their lives, their marriage relationships would be significantly enhanced. And these principles not only help married couples, they apply to everyone.
The good news is that some couples do know how to work and play well together on court. Take the husband/wife national championship team of Josh Heiden and Christin Tiegs-Heiden, who won the 2010 USTA National Husband and Wife Hard Court Championship. Both were NCAA Division III All-Americans who played for colleges in Minnesota; Josh played for Gustavus Adolphus College and Christin for St. Benedict. They were both teachers at Tennis and Life Camps, where they met and fell in love.
Jennifer Johnson, the TENNIS.com writer who covered the 2010 Hard Court Championship, was struck by the contrast between the Heidens and many other husband/wife teams.
There are no "mixed troubles" with this couple - no glaring, squabbling or under-the-breath mutterings that plague a lot of husband-and-wife teams. "We don't worry too much whether we win or lose," says Christin. Adds Josh: "We have a lot of respect for each other. We don't get uptight or grumpy."
Both know the tennis court can be a contentious playground, but Josh, a teaching pro at The Tennis Connection in Rochester, Minn., has this advice for other married partners: "The most important thing is just to have fun. Keep it a game."
Sounds like great advice for keeping the tennis court from turning into a divorce court!
Why many married teams struggle
One reason married couples struggle rests in a genuine desire to help their tennis partner. Each wants the other to play better. Sometimes one half of the team really appreciates several key recommendations given by the tennis pro the preceding week. Therefore, the reason for the mistake on the last point was plain to see, as far as that person is concerned. "Certainly my partner would appreciate reinforcement of the pro's advice," he or she thinks.
The intention is good, but trying to help is usually counterproductive. The partner may respond defensively, telling the other to quit pointing out mistakes. Reminders of what the pro said are not necessary. The spouse offering advice is hurt by the negative response, and finds it hard to understand. ("Honey, I was just trying to help.") The adviser shuts up, but now the damage has been done, and people around feel the tension.
Another reason that married couples often do not fare well on the doubles court together is familiarity. Most people are reluctant to correct a stranger, boss, minister, or anyone else, but a wife or husband is different. Suggestions for improvement, for a better way of doing things, just seem to flow out of a spouse's mouth. And when they do, they cause trouble on the court.
Realizing this, a spouse may try to keep quiet, but body language is very transparent to the spouse, more so than it would be to another partner. The criticisms and judgments continue, even as the spouse tries to avoid them. Even silence is interpreted as criticism.
Another problem for married couples is that off-court conflicts can resurface on the court when the pressure builds and either partner is feeling insecure. Ideally, the tennis court is a place where each can leave behind their cares and just have fun. Unfortunately, sometimes it does not work that way, particularly when both persons involved in the off-court conflicts are now present. Unrelated issues can trigger their responses to each other on court.
The four keys to positive doubles relationships
As previously mentioned, Josh and Chris Heiden, the 2010 national husband/wife champions, have avoided the pitfalls that entrap many married couples at every level of play. They demonstrate that four key actions can transform relations between all doubles partners - both married and unmarried. They work best when all four are combined after every point.
The first key is touch.
Handshakes, high fives, low fives, knuckle touches, hip bumps, hugs, and an arm around the shoulder are all appropriate ways for doubles partners to celebrate a winning point or match. A peck on the cheek seems natural for a husband/wife pair. Also, some male teams - most notably professionals Mike and Bob Bryan - celebrate and establish touch with a jumping chest bump.
Touch establishes connectedness, care, and support. It is the first form of communication between newborn baby and mother. Studies in hospitals and orphanages have repeatedly shown that infants do not develop properly without significant touching. Young children instinctively seek to be held when they need it. Think of how important a kiss or hug can be after a cut, bump, or fall. The benefits from touch are just as strong for adults.
Realizing this, the highly ranked professional doubles team of Eric Butorac and Jules Rojer made contact after every point in a 2011 New Zealand pro tournament in Aukland. A television interviewer expressed surprise after observing this in a quarterfinal victory. "Do you touch all the time.even when you are playing poorly and losing?" she asked. Butorac responded, "Yes, we do, and it is even more important then."
The second key is eye contact.
When we are disappointed in our own accomplishments, we instinctively look down. Therefore, "Hold your head high!" is common advice to someone dealing with a setback. Also, when our partners let us down, we find it hard to look in their eyes. We instinctively look away.
When we feel confident and proud, eye contact with a tennis partner comes naturally. Making eye contact after every point, even when we do not feel like it, guarantees that we will always project confidence. And when we act confidently, we become confident. Partners can help each other. Eye contact with our partners after mistakes communicates our continuing confidence, no matter how easy the mistake was.
The third key is a smile.
When we smile, we relax and communicate trust. We let our partner know that we are having fun, that we enjoy the competition, and that we like being there. Conversely, when we frown, we tense up and communicate doubt, unhappiness and stress.
When we frown or act upset with ourselves, we may be tempted to think this is supportive behavior. After all, we are taking the blame for a lost point and diverting responsibility from our partner. However, the opposite occurs. Our partners may blame themselves. They may say, for example: "If only I had put the overhead away two shots before, we would have won the point." When this happens, both partners focus on mistakes and get trapped in negative, self put-downs. Consequently, the team is pulled down and its energy is sapped.
So why is a smile appropriate after we have played a poor point? Shouldn't smiles be reserved for well-played, winning points? Don't smiles after a lost point appear sarcastic and condescending? They can, if the smiles have been preceded by critical comments and negative body language. However, if the emphasis is placed on things within our control, there can be good reasons to smile after lost points. If my partner and I gave our full effort and stayed positive, then we were successful at the most important level.
The fourth key is positive verbal communication.
We are a cheerleader for our partner, not a coach. We should praise the things our partner does well and ignore the mistakes. Most importantly, we do not tell our partner what should have been done. This creates pressure, leading our partner to fear that he or she is not good enough to play with you. Or it may induce resentment, and raise the question: "Why is he criticizing me when he has made more than his share of mistakes?"
If we dwell on our own mistakes, we are more likely to make the same ones again. Even though we are thinking, "Don't make that mistake again," we mostly hear mistake. We tighten, and then we repeat it. Things work far better when we retain a clear vision of a successful shot and that shot fills our minds as we prepare for the next.
We undermine our partners and ourselves when we agonize over missed shots by either one of us. Therefore, avoid saying, "I am sorry" after a miss. Instead, we aid our positive visualization and the successful execution of future shots when we express excitement over good shots. Offer praise after successful points and encouragement after poor points .. "No big deal! We will get the next point! Great hustle! Nice try!" These are all good choices of positive messages for a partner. And whenever our partners say something positive to us, we return that praise with a "thanks."
Picture what this approach looks like. Partners are moving with energy, avoiding negative body language or self put-downs, praising each other, saying thanks when complimented, ignoring each other's mistakes, encouraging but not coaching each other, touching, making eye contact, and flashing smiles between every point.
This is what you see when Josh and Christin Heiden play. It often strikes observers as unique and unusual. But should it? This type of play is possible for every doubles team that steps on a tennis court. It is a joy to watch and the results are impressive, win or lose.
This same relational approach can be applied to job settings, the classroom, family settings, other team sports and games, friendships, and, of course, marriages. Tennis relationships are a microcosm of life!
Steve Wilkinson, USPTA, retired in 2009 as the all-time winningest coach in men's college tennis history with 929 victories during his 39-year tenure at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Wilkinson was twice named the NAIA National Coach of the Year and the NCAA Division III Coach of the Year three times. He was inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010. Wilkinson also has been an internationally competitive tennis player, ranked No. 1 in the United States in the 45, 50, 55, and 60 age divisions.