More than a Game - May 17

tennis-net-blog-5It is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. That adage has meant more to me as a coach than it ever did as a player. As a player it was the opposite, it is not how you play the game, it is whether you win or lose. My buying into this distorted adage made tennis the fast track to fame and fortune. 

What I didn’t realize is that it also became the fast track to a few less-desirable destinations, like pride, anxiety, insecurity, dishonesty, disrespect, and greed. I never realized this until I became a coach and saw it in so many young players and their parents.  

I will never forget an experience that occurred to me some 30 years ago. I remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday. I was in a real dog fight on a hot Saturday morning in July. My opponent was slightly better than me but more than that he was a real gentleman. He was a net rusher and I was a steady baseliner. We held serve all the way to a 6-6 tiebreaker (a 12-point tiebreaker). Whoever won this tiebreaker would hold a huge advantage in the match since we had spent most all of our emotions in the set.   

We each had a couple set points in the tiebreaker. At 9-9 we had a long point and eventually he ended up at the net as he did most of the match. He closed in on the net to put a volley away. I barely got to the ball and if I could just lob it over his head I would surely win the point.  

Poor stroke execution made me hit the shot more on my frame and less on my racket strings. Instantly I knew the lob would be short; I did not know it would be an easy “sitter” for him to put away. He closed within inches of the net to bounce an overhead over me and almost over the fence.  

He did smash the short lob over my head. I felt like I had just been hit in the stomach and all the wind was knocked out of me. How could I fail to hit a lob over an opponent’s head when he was right on top of the net? Disappointment, frustration, and anger all rushed through me. Opportunities were few and far between in this match and I had just missed a golden one.  

Just as my comprehension of the situation hit me he said something that startled me. “That is your point!” Not totally grasping the situation I said, “What?” He repeated, “That is your point, I touched the net.” I knew the rule that you cannot touch the net or you lose the point. I never noticed him touching the net, nor did it occur to me that he touched it.  

He gave me the point, which he won with his overhead, because he broke a rule. After a brief bout with confusion I played the next point which I won; this gave me the set.  

I will never forget that opponent or the situation. I would not have done that because winning was everything to me as a player. No one ever talked to me about the ethics of the game. No coach ever taught me about sportsmanship. They taught me tennis strokes and tactics and that was the extent of it.  

I had many coaches and the integrity part of the game was never taught. They may have assumed cheating would not happen or that since I was a good guy off the court I was a good guy on the court. Whatever reason they had, it was not part of my training and thus it got swept under the rug. Therefore I had to make my own “situational ethics” as a young player.  

Why was my opponent so different from me in his ethics? Did he have integrity instilled in him as part of his coaching? Did he understand that there was more to the game than winning? I will never know these answers. However, in my training the immensity of my wrong-headedness and my lack of sportsmanship could have been avoided. If I had been taught integrity, sportsmanship and respect towards my opponent and had it reinforced in my training I would have competed differently.  

The overwhelming desire to win combined with a lack of ethical training made dishonesty the natural byproduct in how I competed. No wonder I was so dumbfounded when my opponent gave me the point for touching the net. It was like being in a foreign country and not speaking the language. It made no sense; why would you take a point that was yours and give it to your opponent on a technicality? Why?  

Next week I would like to explore the answer that made me realize, character matters, especially in sports.