The Myth of “Playing Up”
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The Myth of “Playing Up”

The Myth of “Playing Up”

I have been a tennis coach now for 20 years and played for many years before that. Over the years, I have racked up thousands and thousands of hours on a tennis court. I have been the player, the assistant coach, the head coach, the director, and now I am a parent. I have travelled round the world for tennis, both as a player and coach. I have coached 3 year olds, beginners, club social teens, social adults, junior and adult teams, world class players to International titles, I have even coached a Wimbledon over 60’s finalist. I am an LTA master performance coach (the highest grade achievable), and an official tennis referee. There is almost nothing in tennis I have not done or seen. I find myself in a position where I can offer some well-earned professional advice. This advice is mainly to parents, as this subject only seems to affect them. In all my roles, in all the countries, in all the clubs, at all ages, there is one thing that comes up every time without fail…

My son/daughter need to play up.

Playing up basically means they want their kid to play with a better player than them, or to be in a stronger group.

Read this next bit very carefully, because it has been a lifetime in observation and experience… PLAYING UP DOES NOT WORK.

Here are my reasons for this terrible myth that drives every coach and every academy crazy.

The first thing to take note of is the kids themselves never talk about this, and never care. This is strictly a parent’s perception. Sometimes, however, like all things, kids can catch on to their parents opinion and start to use it as an excuse as to why they are not improving so much, or why they are not trying so hard etc. That is the first and most important problem “the excuse”.

The Excuse

They hit the ball all over the place,
They don’t give me any rhythm,
I don’t like playing with them,
They hit the ball too slow,
They don’t try hard enough
All they do is moon ball the ball back
They are much younger than me
Here is the thing, I read those excuses and see the exact same reasons some players or parents give after loosing in a tournament. Coincidence?

Here is the thing, I read those excuses and see the exact same reasons some players or parents give after loosing in a tournament. Coincidence?

  • I hate playing moon ballers,
  • All they did was get the ball back
  • I lost but I was the better player
  • I couldn’t get motivated to play him/her
  • He/she just annoyed me too much
  • They were just lucky

Another favorite…

  • I don’t know what happens when she gets into a match she just doesn’t play the same. If she played like she does in training she would beat these girls easily.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Easy answer, this happens because of avoiding these situations in training. By playing up, it only looks like you are playing better, but in fact it is not you that is playing better, it is the person you are playing with. So the ball comes more controlled to you, a more consistent height, depth and spin, the ball comes with some speed so you don’t even have to generate that by yourself either. Basically it is much, much EASIER. Of course you are going to look better, feel better, but the bad news is, you are not getting any better. It is simply an illusion. Even worse, the person actually benefiting from this is the player on the other side. They have to generate all of the pace, they have to be constantly readjusting to your inconsistent balls, they have to bring the intensity and the focus because yours is only there because it has to be to keep up. They could relax at any point and drop to your level but if they are good they won’t, and if they are not good they will be the ones complaining about needing to hit with someone better.

We can talk about the logistics of having to play with someone better. Lets say there are 6 players in a group, and player 1 is slightly the strongest, they have to move up right? Because playing with weaker players is bad. So now player 2 is the best and needs to move up right? With this theory why would the stronger group want a weaker player to join their group? So you are ok with someone else being the strongest in the group as long as it is not you. In the end, with this concept, there is no combination of group ever possible to make players happy.

So who should the world number one play with?

The thing is, this question is always avoided, like it’s different when you are number one in the world. I have the answer to that question too, the number one in the world, is the number one in the world because they don’t have excuses. They don’t need someone more consistent than them on the other side, or someone to hit the ball harder to them, or someone to bring intensity to the session. They are number one in the world because they have learned how to do all of that by themselves, no matter who is on the other side of the net. Only the very best players I have worked with don’t complain about who they play with. Is that a coincidence?

Here is my message to all parents and players who want to “play up”

Before you ask to move up…

  1. Make sure your intensity is at the higher level or better
  2. Make sure your consistency is at the higher level or better
  3. Make sure you are the CLEAR strongest in your current group
  4. Make sure you don’t move up to a group where you are the weakest
  5. Make sure you can’t only beat some players in the stronger group but that you also add value in other areas too.
  6. If you were already doing the above, your coach would have already moved you up.

Coaches are not stupid, they want to nurture talent, and they want their players to be the best, so why would any coach try to hold you back? I love it when I can move a player up a group, BUT ONLY WHEN THEY EARN IT. I never move a player up because they are almost as good as the stronger group, they have to be better than some of the other group. There is nothing worse for a player to be moved up before they are ready. If they are complaining about playing with their current group, this already means they are not ready to move up. There is nothing worse than an entitled tennis player. A player who thinks they are too good to be playing with other players. This only has one road and it is failure. Sooner or later they will stop playing tennis. An entitled tennis player is the player who is too good to play certain tournaments, too good to represent their team, too good to practice with a lesser player. An entitled tennis player NEVER succeeds. So if you are that player who is too good for your current group, then YOU are not ready to move up. I will only move a player up when they understand the benefits of playing with lesser players, when they can perform their best playing with the lesser players, when they can make progress while playing with lesser players, it is only then that the player is ready to move up!

Now this sounds like I am saying the only way to improve is to play with weaker players. That is not my point. There are benefits from playing with any player who will stand in front of you and return the ball. You have to play with the weaker players, you have to play with the stronger players, the left handers, the moon ballers, the chippers, the fast ones, the big servers, the slappers, you have to play with everybody and anybody who will stand in front of you.

Benefits of playing down:

You are in charge, you construct the point, you play on your front foot and practice your attacking game, you can try things you can’t always practice, you have more time on the ball, you have to accelerate the ball which is one of the hardest things to master, you play with confidence, you grow in confidence.

Benefits of playing up:

You practice your defence, staying in the point, trying to keep up with a higher pace, you need more focus, you have less time to think and react, you have to deal with difficult incoming balls.

A kid who loves to play tennis will play against a wall for hours, they will play with club grounds man if they were willing to hit balls back to them, when a child tells you they don’t want to play in a particular group because the of the level, alarm bells should ring. This is fine, if the child is a social tennis player and wants to be in a group with their friends, that is completely normal, and in this case should be addressed (within reason), but if that child is competing, and enters tournaments around the country, they will have goals to gain – a higher ranking, or win a certain tournament, etc, but then doesn’t train properly because they are not happy that Larry the lobber is in their group, and he doesn’t even play tournaments, then that child’s motives should be questioned. To believe that the only way to improve is to play with stronger players, means they are going to not only miss out on hundreds of great practice hours, they are learning to be entitled, placing themselves above the rest.

In the early years of development, what the coaches are trying to install in our players amongst other things is values. At some point as a parent you need to step back and remember why I put my child into sport in the first place. And I am sure it is like 99% of all other parents, to teach your child life lessons and good values, and amongst those values you want us coaches to teach your child are: humility, inclusion, acceptance, sportsmanship, discipline, dedication, competitiveness, empathy, and the list goes on and on. If a child then comes home and says I don’t want to train in that group of rubbish players, what values are we teaching them if we move them, what should actually happen in this case – is they should be moved down a group to an even lower level to learn the real lesson. That is real tennis coaching, because the kid, who is moved down a class for 2 months, will learn far more than the kid moved up, that lesson will stay with him for life, and no longer will they act like they are better than the next person. Of course you want to be better, but you do the talking with actions, not your mouth. No body likes a big mouth, who says they are better than everybody else. You are not better than anybody else because you are in a higher group, you will not become better than any body else because you are in a higher group, you WILL become better if you learn the right values and work ethic through your sport, and that means play in the group you are given, play your best every day, work your hardest every day, and the rewards will come.

If had to choose for my pupil to play with one or the other I would choose the weaker player every time, there are too many pitfalls only “hitting up” and too many benefits to lose out on “hitting down”.

I urge everybody reading this to please forget the crazy and dangerous myth that is

“Hitting up is better”