May 2011 -- Question: As a tennis-teaching professional, I often hear that tennis should be fun. What exactly does having "fun" mean in the context of learning and playing tennis? Specifically, how can we help our players enjoy the process and gain a sense of fulfillment, regardless of whether they're winning or losing? Answer:
What a great question! This is a subject that is getting a lot of attention lately, and I am sure that many of you will want to weigh in with your own thoughts as well. But we should probably begin with some general definitions of fun and several other concepts that figure into this discussion so we can start on the same page.
According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary,
fun is defined as a mood for finding or making amusement; happiness
is a state of well-being and contentment; joy
is the emotion evoked by well-being, success or good fortune; and contentedness
refers to satisfaction with one's situation.
Now let's see what the field of positive psychology, which some like to call "happiness research," says about these. The latest research indicates that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose have better mental health than those who focus on achieving feelings of happiness. It is also said that the pleasure one feels after an important win in sports is often short-term and fleeting. Can a player, in fact, find something more - a sense of purpose - on the tennis court, whether taking a lesson or competing? My answer is yes!
Dr. Cariem van Reekum, at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics at the University of Reading in the UK, has stated that people with a strong sense of well-being (fulfillment) are able to convince themselves that even though a task may be difficult, they can do it. In other words, they don't avoid a tough situation; they see it as challenging. Can you imagine if all your students took that attitude into a tennis lesson or match? It could really put a positive spin on their game. And the bigger picture is that those who are intrinsically motivated tend to be happier than people who seek extrinsic rewards (money, winning at all costs, status, etc.).
Over the years, we see our players wear their emotions onto the tennis courts, some nervous to the point of fear. What causes this fear? It is a form of self-absorption that usually stems from one of two things: worrying too much about whether they will win or lose, or way too much concern about what other people might think of them. And when either of these two thoughts kicks in, that player is definitely not having fun! Both issues are basically out of a player's control. Yes, I just said that winning is out of a player's control, and so are others' feelings about him or her.
So, what is in a player's control? The answer is: how well he moves, how quickly he processes what to do during a point, how well he hits the ball, etc. Basically, how a player thinks and acts are totally in his control. Here is why I say this: Could Rafael Nadal (currently No. 1 in the world) play a great match and still lose? Of course, especially if someone like Djokovic or Federer plays his absolute best as well. Before walking on the court for a big match, all great players focus on what they must do to give themselves the best opportunity to win. In fact, I invite you to watch any interview prior to a big match in today's game. When asked what they think about their chances of winning, almost every player compliments his or her opponent and says, "I will have to play well to win."
What do we know, anecdotally, about great players? We know that Jimmy Connors absolutely loved the competition, saying that "I left my blood out on the court." Then there are the players, like Marcos Baghdatis, who almost always seem to have a smile on their face, while others don't seem very happy at all (we don't need to go into names here).
A revealing moment came during the finals of the 2011 Sony Ericsson Open, when Novak Djokovic defeated Raphael Nadal in three sets. The match was tough, the weather was hot and humid, and both players were said to be "gutting it out." Djokovic and Nadal, who were both mentally and physically spent, didn't just shake hands; they hugged each other at the net in a true sign of mutual respect. Is this happiness or joy, or is it a sense of fulfillment, even in the face of a disappointing loss? I would wager that it is this very sense of fulfillment that enables a player to lose one week and then bounce back to play extremely well the next week.
To improve how you live your life, Dr. Ed Diener, a retired researcher from the University of Illinois, said, "Focus on something you love. Quit sitting around worrying about yourself and get focused on your goals."
And that's why you are so important as a coach. You encourage your players' love for the game of tennis and help them set their goals accordingly. If they follow the game plan that you set out for them, they might - just like Nadal at the Sony Ericsson - overcome the disappointment of a lost match with a larger sense of fulfillment because they love tennis and what it represents in their life. In other words, they might have as much fun playing as you do teaching.