When we look back at Australia’s glorious past and the many champions we have produced one word was synonymous with them all: competitiveness.
Whenever an Australian was in the draw you knew what you were going to get: someone who would fight over a bone, would run every ball down and leave everything on the court giving themselves every opportunity to achieve a win and if they couldn’t get the win they made sure that their opponent earned the victory.
Competitiveness can be seen in many forms and we can see two examples in our most recent male and female world number ones. Ash Barty always displayed a calm exterior whilst inside she was the fiercest of competitors who loved the challenge of finding a solution to every problem and the opportunity to test herself against her contemporaries.
Whilst on the male side we had Lleyton Hewitt who would express his emotions with his famous “C’mon” exclamation, the Vicht (or talking duck) celebration or the familiar lawnmower to let his opponent know he was in the contest up to his eyeballs.
You can also name lots of Aussies currently on the tour and at the futures and ITF level who appear willing to do whatever it takes to win but the question is: does our next generation have the same level of drive, desire and competitiveness as we have been famous for in the past and if not: how can we address this before it becomes a significant issue?
Our current generation are often referred to as the generation were everyone’s a winner, you get a trophy just for turning up and we can’t upset anyone and have winners and losers but which generation of children when offered a trophy of any description would turn it down?
Is it this generation’s fault or is it really the older generation who have fuelled this mentality? Rather than apportioning blame maybe we should ask the question: can you coach competitiveness?”
What is competitiveness? At it’s core, it is a strong desire to be more successful than others which in it’s simplest form means we want to beat our opponent. When we look at a little closer though we will also see players who love an opportunity to test themselves: think Ash Barty in cricket and golf and Lleyton Hewitt beating older players at such a young age, they embrace the battle and everything that goes along with it both physically and emotionally and they see each contest as an opportunity to grow as a competitor and as a person.
While it is well and good to have the desire to be better than your opponent, what actually makes an effective competitor is the ability to get the job done when it counts the most. You will notice similarities between the greats: they will play to their strengths and can problem solve by themselves (think the Barty slice or the Hewitt lob).
When it comes to making a living as a tennis player though, just how important is competitiveness? If the previous examples of our former world number ones was not enough research shows that to make it to the top 100 in the world rankings that you have to be elite in at least one of the following areas: power, skill, movement or competitiveness.
As coaches it is relatively easy to teach someone how to hit a tennis ball, how to move efficiently and where they should hit the ball at certain times but how do we coach someone to be competitive? There are some that would argue that we cannot teach someone to be a ruthless competitor if it is not in their personality and no amount of cajoling will have them yelling and fist pumping on the court. Whilst of course it is true that everyone is different and will have different motivations we can and should be creating an environment where each player can reach their full potential in all areas of the game.
On the court, we should be doing drills that develop our players competitive nature. As one of Australia’s leading performance psychologists: Jonah Oliver says: “ It’s not about reducing stress and pressure, it’s building capacity to embrace more”. This is such an important lesson not just on the court but in all aspects of our players’ lives: be it exam pressure, relationship issues or in a major final, having the capacity to deal with these pressures will invariably see them achieve a positive outcome. As Oliver also says: “it’s not positive thinking: it’s taking positive action no matter how you feel” that really matters.
Whilst some players will not always enjoy competing against their friends in training it is our responsibility to arm them with the necessary tools to deal with pressure situations.
Incorporating competitive drills into our coaching programs will no doubt have a positive affect for our players on the practice court, teaching them to compete will undoubtedly hold them in good stead for when they find themselves in pressure moments in a big match.
If they continue to falter under pressure and we have not taught them how to deal with these situations, is it really their fault? As the saying goes: it is hard to survive in the jungle when you’ve been raised in a zoo.
Craig Christopher is a Tennis Australia Level 3 Elite High Performance Coach