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In last months article we raised the question of whether competitiveness can be taught and as coaches, how do we implement drills to ensure our next generation of players are armed with the necessary skills they require when entering the competitive arena.

Jonah Oliver is one of the world’s masters of elite sport and performance psychology for both individuals and organisations. Jonah has done extensive research in competitiveness amongst sportspeople and recently conducted a series of workshops for Tennis Australia’s performance coaches helping them understand the importance of coaching competitiveness.

The First Serve sat down with Jonah to get an insight into some of his learnings around competitiveness.

The First Serve (TFS): “Can you talk a little about competitiveness when discussing tennis”?

Jonah Oliver (J.O): “We need to understand our athletes’ motivational drivers. For example: their relationship with the love of winning versus the hatred of losing. Everyone will have a different ratio of these two.”

TFS: “Can this be witnessed in the athletes’ performance?”

JO: “This can be seen by their behavioural response when the opportunity to win/ possibility of losing shows up. For some, the threat of losing becomes too overwhelming and they choose to tank. Typically, we see this as shortening rallies and playing overly aggressive or a cessation of working hard on the court. For others, the threat of losing engenders an adaptive response…they fight harder by staying in the points longer, they scrap for every point.”

TFS: “Do elite athletes generally have a higher ratio of the loving to win or the hatred of losing?”

JO: “In my experience those that have high levels of competitiveness have equally high levels of both love for winning and hatred of losing. And furthermore, when challenged, they respond with adaptive behaviours. Interestingly when you speak to an athlete after a performance that was gritty and competitive, they often say things like “there was no way I was going to lose that point or I wasn’t going to lose to that guy no matter what: I just had to find a way to win”.

TFS: “Nobody really likes losing though, do they?”

JO: “All athletes will hate losing, it’s the degree to which this evokes an adaptive response versus a maladaptive response that defines those that typically succeed when faced with adversity.”

TFS: “As coaches, what should our focus be when training young athletes to become competitive?”

JO: “Coaching needs to focus on training our athletes to be problem solvers. To use the strong emotional response to the threat of losing to evoke adaptive responses.”

It was extremely generous of Jonah to give up his time to discuss these issues as he has a very full plate with commitments all around the world and we cannot thank him enough for his time. I’m sure we can all think of countless examples of players we see on the tour, players that we coach or even within ourselves when Jonah talks about the relationship between winning and losing and how this presents itself on the match court.

After talking with Jonah and witnessing it myself on the court and at tournaments I am more convinced than ever that we need to be spending more time coaching our kids to become great problem solvers. We can incorporate this in our on-court drills, match practice, video analysis and off court conversations.

Last month we used the analogy of “It is hard to survive in the jungle when you’ve been raised in a zoo”. If we can add excellent problem solver and fierce competitor to our students list of strengths alongside their technical skills, tactical acumen, and physicality we will have every reason to believe they can survive in the jungle that is the tennis world.


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