Supporting Your Partner

“You never want to point fingers in doubles. It doesn’t end well.” –Mark Knowles


A doubles partner has to wear many hats. He has to be a strategist, a poacher, and a baseline anchor. He has to set you up at net with a serve up the T and chase down the lobs that go over your head.

And sometimes he has to be the sports psychologist. When you’re missing your returns, or netting your volleys, or double-faulting away service games, a good doubles partner has to pull you back from the brink of total collapse.

I was reminded of this critical role during a recent match. For a set and a half, I was…not good. The more shots I missed, the more it got in my head, and the more it got in my head–well, I’m sure you know how that goes. My partner was doing her best to keep us in the match, but there’s only so much one person can do! The match was quickly devolving into a blow-out loss.

I could see the gears turning in my partner’s head. What could she say to snap me out of this and bring me back to my usual game? I’m sure she was feeling panicky, but she kept it together. Here’s what she did:

  • She kept smiling.
  • She didn’t point out any of my errors.
  • She asked, “What do think we should do?”
  • She said, “We might lose this match, but let’s go down swinging!”

She kept the faith and kept it positive, until I could find my game. And eventually I did. From 2-6, 1-3 down, we turned it around. Our opponents didn’t win another game.

Almost all the credit for this goes to my unflappable partner. Almost, because the rest of the credit, or blame, goes to one of our opponents.

Once we started winning games, this opponent got edgy. She became irritated at her partner’s errors and pointed out poor shot selection. Her jaw was clenched, her voice clipped. Her partner picked up on all this negativity and began making more errors. Her game deteriorated to the same degree that mine improved.

Our opponents were both experienced, capable players. Even with my game back “on,” they shouldn’t have folded as they did. They lost in such a spectacular fashion simply because of one partner’s tone of voice and facial expression.

I’ve played with people like this opponent. And with people who want to “teach” me the right way to hit a shot after I’ve made an error–yes, right in the middle of a match. And with people who won’t make eye contact with me after my lob sails long. And with people who turn away and grimace, thinking I won’t see.

Maybe this approach works for some doubles partnerships. Maybe the tension somehow spurs on the faltering player, making her rediscover her grit and her game. I’m only speculating here because I really can’t think of a good reason to treat your partner that way. As three-time Grand Slam doubles champion Mark Knowles says, “It never ends well.”

It’s a fantastic feeling when you smoke your return and your partner calls out, “You rock!” But let’s face it–when you’re smoking your returns, you don’t need that support. You already know you rock. It’s when you’re playing poorly that you most need the support of a good partner.

Lucky for me, I’ve had more than my share of those as of well.

What do you say to help a partner who’s struggling?

6 thoughts on “Supporting Your Partner

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  1. You make such good points. It’s hard to watch someone else blow your game when you’re doing well. But, really, who among us has never been the weaker link? Encouragement goes a long way. Of course, this rule of partnership holds true in any interpersonal relationship. That fact makes me wonder why it can be so hard to be supportive sometimes. It seems truly arrogant to think you have the answers someone else needs, but it is also humane to want to help. Constrictive criticism can be powerful. It just has to be delivered when the other person is receptive. Sometimes it’s not easy to wait. I’m trying a rule of trying to make other people fool good. That approach seems like a good way to make the world more positive.

  2. Waiting until the other person is ready to listen to your constructive criticism–sounds a lot like parenting a teen! There’s that saying about deciding whether to speak: Ask yourself, “Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?” Only then offer your critique. But the question that also needs to be asked is “will it make a difference?” Is the other person going to change based on what I say? For moody teenagers and imploding tennis players, the answer is probably no!

  3. Late to replying here. One thing I’ve found effective to say to a partner after a shot she feels is weak is , “ Good try”. Clearly, this can’t be used for a blatantly awful miss and must be used sparingly. However, it deflects the thinking to the opponent’s shot instead of the partner’s error. Another comment was said to me by a partner a few years ago. I missed an easy return and said ,”sorry,” at least twice. She responded,”Don’t say sorry unless you see blood!” My laughter diverted the error from my thinking.

  4. Yes, I like saying “good try,” too. Also “good idea,” when a partner is trying a down-the-line shot against a poacher, or trying a lob. I’m curious about your comment that it needs to be used sparingly. Does it start to sound insincere if used too much? Maybe I overuse it.

  5. I agree with Nancy. I think “good try” can come across as arrogant if used too much. It almost starts to sound like “I would have done better, but that was a good effort on your part.”

    I like to throw in a few mentions of “OOF, I do that all the time” or “Now I feel a little better about my [name awful shot here.]” I think it helps to vary it up.

Let me know what you think!

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