Growing up in North Delta, tennis was my sport above all others. I lived across the street from public courts and could phone a friend to meet me for a match at a moment’s notice. I probably spent three hours a day playing tennis in the summer months from the time I was in elementary school until I left for university.
Among my small circle of racquet-toting friends, I won pretty often, which made tournament play particularly hard for me. I wasn’t prepared to lose.
John McEnroe was on “Here’s the Thing” with Alec Baldwin last month, discussing his tennis career and how his own development as a young player has shaped his philosophy for teaching tennis to kids today. I got to watch McEnroe toward the end of his career in the late eighties and considered him among my favorites. We were both mouthy lefties.
What stood out for me in this interview was how he spoke about losing. McEnroe was the 6th ranked player in the United States as an under-12 junior. So when he played national junior tennis tournaments, he lost. And it sucked. It sucked so much that he nearly quit the sport. Remember, this guy went on to win three Wimbledon championships and four U.S. Opens as a dominant player in the early 80’s.
I mean you play a tournament in 12 and unders, you know there’s sixty-four guys, sixty-three guys lose. You know, there’s only one guy wins the tournament.
McEnroe retreated to other sports as a break from tennis and from the inevitable losing that can be tough to take especially for younger players who are intensely competitive. At his new facility in New York, he really urges parents to relax the pressure they apply to their kids, to encourage them to play other sports and avoid the isolation that singles tennis can bring.
At the end of last summer, I bought our kids tennis racquets and I hope to start teaching them to play when spring weather dries off our local courts. But as soon as I start teaching them to keep score, I need to figure out how to teach them to lose. Because it’s going to happen. When it happened to me in my first tournament — I was 10 and lost to an older kid — I handled it terribly.
Apparently, being mouthy lefties isn’t all we have in common. Said McEnroe:
Part of the reason I acted the way did, let’s be honest, is that fear of failure. I would rather have people watching me scream than watching me cry.
I still want my kids to play tennis, not to the exclusion of other sports and not with expectations to turn them into pros some day. But if they want to compete, I want them to play to win and yet be totally okay not to. What I understand now with maturity and experience is that the tennis court is as good a forum as any for lessons about losing, learning, and bouncing back. I hope to be able to teach them.