Tennis Gamesmanship

Let’s begin by clarifying. Handling gamesmanship is not just mental toughness, it is emotional toughness as well. Building the emotional muscles are learned behaviors. This month’s newsletter will assist you the parent in developing your child’s protocols essential to handling psychological warfare.
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You may wonder when and why gamesmanship tactics are employed in match play? 


Gamesmanship tactics routinely begin once a player believes that his physical strokes are no match against his more talented opponent.  When this occurs, psychological warfare begins.

Many experienced competitors are willing to do anything, subtle or blatant, to win. They know that winning tennis involves more than physical skills. Often this means an experienced player will emotionally attack an in-experienced player with gamesmanship. The inexperienced player is often more emotionally fragile and will crack and fall victim to such antics, giving the match away to the emotionally stronger player.


I Witnessed All Ten of the Following Gamesmanship Tactics at a Recent Event:

  1. Creative line calling (Especially on big points)
  2. Accusing the opponent of “hooking” even when they didn’t
  3. Annoying squeaking of their tennis shoes as the opponent begins their service motion
  4. Irritating racket tapping on the ground as the opponent prepares to serve
  5. Excessive loud grunting /screeching long after their ball was struck
  6. Changing the game score when the opponent is too cool to call the score
  7. Excessive delays, stalling at the back fence and bathroom visits to control the match speed
  8. Accusing the innocent opponent of changing the score
  9. Creative let-cord management (Especially when a ball from another match rolled close by)
  10. Belittling the opponent under their breath ( ” I can’t believe I’m losing, this guy sucks”)


We’ve all seen these creative tactics played out. Let’s review why they work against inexperienced competitors?


The answer lies in a neuroscience term called Channel Capacity. Simply stated, the human brain can’t solve two complicated tasks simultaneously. That’s why you shouldn’t text and drive. On court, the unknowing victim is pulled into the dramas of the gamesmanship. His thoughts are now firmly fixated on the opponent’s theatrics and no longer on executing his best game strategy. His mind is now racing through …” I’m gonna kill this jerk”; “He cheated! “; “Did she just change the score?”; “He’s saying I cheated him%@##@&^%!!!” …etc. Now the victim who was focused intently on simply running his top 7 patterns perfectly, can’t even remember his name.




The solution isn’t an easy one. It begins with understanding channel capacity and the protocols used to leave that “drama” side of your brain and re-enter the performance side.  Meaning, continuing to apply the X’s and O’s of strategy.

In match play- the first step is to acknowledge that a new strategy is being employed against you and to simply refocus on the actual script of patterns that earned you the terrific lead in the first place. The second step is to call for a linesman if gamesmanship is working against you. With a linesman present, the opponent will have a more difficult time applying the above top ten tactics.

On the practice court, I recommend practicing against various gamesmanship tactics to customize comfortable protocols to be use in real match situations. Becoming familiar via dress rehearsals of the probable actions of a gamesmanship artist is a proactive training approach. A reactive training approach is to ignore the gamesmanship issues and hope they never happens again, while you continue to hit another buckets of balls hit to your strike zone.  On court emotional  fall-a-parts due to gamesmanship will decrease with proper pre-match protocols -making gamesmanship tactics played against you an ineffective strategy.


Should you employ Gamesmanship Tactics?


Yes-but legal gamesmanship tactics ONLY!  Remember, tennis is a mental and emotional sport, as are all sports. Winners in all sports routinely apply physical, mental and emotional tactics. It is your job as a competitor to profile the opponent and spot and attack their vulnerabilities.


Forms of Legal Gamesmanship Include:

  • Intimidation through confidence
  • Intimidation through playing a style of play your opponent hates
  • Going to the towel (Time management) before each mega point, after you have committed two unforced errors in row, after a long winded point and to cool off an opponent who is on fire
  • Applying your between point and change over rituals to control the speed and tempo of the match
  • Legal bathroom breaks to change the energy of the match
  • Legal trainer breaks to attend to aliments so you can return to playing at your peak performance level

 To reiterate, developing emotional toughness is mandatory at the higher levels of the game. 

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