“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 last week during my spring league 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?