July 2021

The challenges of learning to play tennis

As much as I love tennis, more than any other sport I’ve tried, there are certain aspects to it that make it one of the most challenging to learn and stick to. I’m not just talking about the practical difficulties, such as the fact that it’s a quite expensive hobby. And I don’t just mean challenges that are general to the sports world, like competing or potential injuries. There are a few things, particular to tennis in my experience, which frustrate me as I stumble upon them every now and then.  Not that I would give it up due to any of those, but you can’t fully love something (or someone) without acknowledging what it is that you hate about them. OK, maybe “hate” is a strong word, but you get the picture. This post is about the first reason tennis stopped being fun for a while, before I started loving it more because of it.

The non-linear learning curve in tennis

I’m in my third year of learning how to play tennis and I am generally pretty athletic and a fast learner. Yet, it took me about 18 months and some very long talks with my coach to realize that learning to play tennis is not like learning the alphabet. You don’t go from A to B and then C, in a linear form, mastering each level or technique before moving on to the next. Everything I had learned prior to that, from the alphabet to math, to operating a computer or playing a sport had roughly the same structure. First, you learn all the components and then everything slowly falls into place, allowing you to connect the dots and improve your grasp/performance. In tennis, things are a bit different.

Naturally, first you’re taught how to hold the racket, swing and follow through. And sure you can understand the different types of shots necessary to play decently, soon enough: forehand, backhand, approach, volley, serve, overhead, slice, drop shot. But actually getting a solid grasp of the sport and improving tangibly can take ages. I thought my backhand was relatively solid from the get go, but once I started focusing on my forehand technique, it was like any backhand skill died overnight. The moment I started working on my touch for a better volley, I could barely hit an approach shot that would actually lead to a successful volley.

Similarly, I spent a lot of time improving my serve, but by the time it was decent I couldn’t get back to ready position quickly enough to prepare for the next shot. So frustrating! I didn’t know if it were me that sucked or whether my coach wasn’t doing a good job, wondering whether I’d ever really learn all there is to learn and then improve upon that steadily. As if someone was constantly moving the goalposts. But then I realized tennis doesn’t work that way. It’s an ongoing process of discovering the game and where you stand within it. And here’s what the process looks like:

learning tennis chart

*Pardon my drawing skills.

Mastering Tennis (never)

Obviously, the typical club player (don’t get me started on them, that’s another post in the making) will rarely be bothered about any of this. Most of them stop the learning process the moment they can play a decent match and then they improvise. And that is actually OK and lots of fun. But for the people who actually want to master the sport or compete at a higher level, this can be a nightmare. I see the frustration around me during practice. I feel it myself whenever my dependable cross court forehand simply isn’t working or on the days my beloved down the line backhand fails me over and over again.

See also: How competing against a tennis pusher can actually bring you closer to mastering the sport.

Unlike team sports, there’s no hiding on a bad day and because it is so demanding physically, there’s little you can do to compensate, if your stronger weapon is suddenly failing you. Often times I hear the coaches say that, at our level, we’re not good enough yet to get angry or frustrated about it. Other times, I feel we just tend to take ourselves too seriously. What I tell myself is that I need to embrace this aspect of tennis, as I would any other component I’d need to understand and acknowledge in the process. The beauty of this particular aspect is that it can never really be fully mastered (or stoically accepted) but, boy, is the journey fun!

Check out part II of my challenges in learning to play tennis, in my post about mental toughness, in sport and in life.

Featured Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

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