A Round Robin Kerfuffle

I had an interesting interaction at a round robin today. I’ll give you the general scenario followed by my perspective and that of my RR partner. Then you get to sound off in the comment section!

Here’s the scenario: This RR has a fairly wide range of abilities. I’m a 3.5 player, but there are some players, particularly among the men, who are way better than I am. The woman who organizes the RR does her best to pair partners and opponents to make for competitive rounds. Everyone gets a new partner and new opponents every 25 minutes or so.

In the third round, I was partnered with a player we’ll call Sidney. I recognized Sidney and may have played with him in the past, but we’re basically strangers. He’s far better than I am, as was the man playing across the net. The female opponent was also better than I am, but the men were the strongest.

So I was the weakest player on the court. But that’s all right. I come to this RR to get the experience of facing more challenging opponents than those I normally see.

When it was Sidney’s turn to serve, he tried to get me to stand closer to the net. I was inside the service line, but not as close as he’d like. I replied, “No, I’m good where I am.” He brought it up a couple of other times, but I declined to move. At one point, I tried to laugh off his suggestions by patting his arm and saying, “Okay, you play your side of the court and I’ll play mine.”

Another time, I believe he didn’t like where I hit the ball but I’m actually not sure what he was commenting on at that point. I was beginning to get a little irritated.

When the round (which we won 4-2) was over and we were waiting for our new court and partner assignments, he said to me, “Do you remember geometry?” I told him to drop it, that being corrected by my RR partner only makes me play worse, which doesn’t help either of us. At that point, we went to our separate courts.

At the end of the RR, he and I continued our conversation. (Actually, he’s the one who insisted on continuing it. I would have happily let it go.) We never arrived at any resolution, with him repeatedly invoking geometry and not understanding why I was refusing to listen to him.

Here’s my perspective: The RR is a social event. You take the partner you get, the good along with the bad. You can adapt your own game to try to gel better with your partner. You can suggest certain tactics to win more points, like playing Australian or lobbing a return. But it’s not appropriate to give your partner instruction on how she could be a better player. I know the limitations of my game. I know what shots I can and can’t hit. And I know how fast my reflexes are and where I’m comfortable standing–and it’s not close to the net across from a hard-hitting man.

What I take away from Sidney’s comments to me is the sense that he’s frustrated playing with someone at my level. But that’s the level I am. And when I know that a partner is frustrated with me, I play even worse than my 3.5 abilities. No doubt I’m too sensitive. Like my tennis rating, that’s just who I am.

If we were long-term doubles partners, paired up for a season in a league with “real matches,” I’d be more receptive to advice. At least, I hope I would. But I’d want that advice raised in a practice, not in the middle of a match. And I definitely wouldn’t want that advice prefaced by “Do you remember geometry?” That felt condescending. After all, I play lots of doubles. I understand WHAT he’s saying and WHY. I’m just declining to do it. I don’t need a geometry lesson.

Here’s Sidney’s perspective: He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to improve as a player. He said I hit a nice ball, but I’d be a much better player if I were closer to the net. He was only trying to help me. (To his credit, he didn’t tell me that he’s a certified instructor. That fact only came out later.)

In Sidney’s mind, anytime you’re keeping score, it’s a “real match,” so a RR is a perfectly valid place to offer your partner advice. In professional doubles, partners talk to each other all the time. It’s what doubles is all about.

The idea that I would play worse after hearing his suggestions baffled him. For Sidney, if he’s saying something that’s true, it can only be helpful. The crux of our problem wasn’t his behavior. It was my refusal to listen and learn.

I know there’s somebody out there right now silently screaming, “OMG, he was mansplaining tennis!” I really don’t think it’s that. I feel confident that if I were a man, Sidney would have said the same thing.

In the course of our exchange, a couple of women joined the fray, backing up my position. Most people just watched the exchange with amusement (or possibly astonishment). One man was smiling and shaking his head, finally saying under his breath, “Just apologize to the women and move on.” I’m not sure he was endorsing my point of view, though. He may have just been exasperated at Sidney’s dogged refusal to let it go.

I eventually left with the welcome and true excuse of having to walk my dog. On my way out, I noticed Sidney arguing his case with the RR organizer. It amazes me how entrenched we each are in our camps.

I considered adding a poll to this post asking for you to vote on who’s right. I decided against it because I’m only summarizing Sidney’s point of view. I tried to be fair, but it’s possible I’m not doing him justice. (I also considered asking Sidney to write his own side, but who wants to read about the Pythagorean theorem?)

I would love some perspective, though. What do you think about giving improvement suggestions to a doubles partner? Does it matter if the partnership is short or long term? Is there a way to do it without ruffling feathers? Should weaker players acquiesce to stronger ones even if they’re not comfortable with the stronger player’s suggestions?

Bonus question to discuss with your family over dinner: I said above that if I were a man, Sidney would have said the same thing. But…if I were a man, would I have responded to his comments better?

So much to unpack in this little interaction…

19 thoughts on “A Round Robin Kerfuffle

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  1. Oh boy. First, kudos to you for being so diplomatic with this man; not everyone could keep their cool as you did. To answer your question, I would never presume to offer my partner advice on how to improve their game. First, I’m not at all qualified to do so, but I also know I wouldn’t like it if they did it to me. I guess it’s relevant that he is a tennis instructor so it probably feels appropriate to him to offer instruction, but given that your partnership was fleeting, there was nothing at stake, and you never asked for his advice, I think he was out of line. And I agree it was condescending to bring up geometry.

    1. What often happens in my social matches is someone will miss a ball and wonder aloud what she did wrong. Then the rest of us will offer our observations–you didn’t step in, you didn’t split step, you were looking at your target, or whatever. (God, there’s so many ways we screw up.) And there’s gratitude and a feeling of us all working together to improve. In fact, at this point, with my tennis friends, I’m okay with them telling me what I did wrong even if I don’t ask. We’ve built up that level of mutual respect and trust. I think it gets really dicey when you don’t know someone, though. I just avoid it, especially when, as you say, nothing’s at stake.

  2. I do think that being an instructor gives him a pass, as long as he is used to instructing both men and women often.
    However, the mathematical instruction was way over the top and would have elicited a snarky remark from me. Glad you remained above the fray.

    1. I can’t believe I missed an opportunity for snark! I love snark! What should I have said?

  3. There is so much packed into this experience. First, I do think the fact that he’s an instructor is a big part of it — not because he knows better, but because he’s used to giving instruction and having people appreciate (and even pay) for it. That is the larger of the two reasons I will partly excuse his behavior. The lesser reason being that he obviously truly believes he is right and that if you just followed his advice you would be a better player. Put the two together and I can understand his pressing you to take his advice.

    I can understand it, but I certainly don’t condone how he went about it. Despite those two factors, I think his behavior was totally inappropriate. First, “Don’t you know geometry?” is COMPLETELY condescending. Second, you heard him out and said you didn’t want his feedback. While he may have been baffled by your reaction, the moat appropriate response is to respect your wishes.

    I feel there was a significant imbalance of power in this situation. He was the stronger player and a tennis pro, plus no doubt physically larger, plus male. You know I don’t get all worked up about gender bias often, but this guy was not treating you with respect. He may have had good motivations, but I don’t like his approach at all. He directed, lectured, badgered and wouldn’t let it drop. He may not have been loud or frightening, but he certainly wasn’t treating you as an equal person. I think the guy who said he should apologize was totally right!

  4. I don’t think there’s universal agreement on where in the service box to stand. At one point in my development as a player, I was told I’m too close, that I was making it too easy for people to lob me. And my usual doubles partner who typically stands on or close to the service line was told by one of our coaches that that was a very advanced position–exactly the opposite of what Sidney was telling me.

    As a general principle, I agree with Sidney on where I was standing. Since his serve was so powerful, I was unlikely to have to fend off a lob return. A more aggressive net position is appropriate. In theory. But my reflexes are what they are, and standing closer gives me less reaction time.

    A better player would stand closer. But standing closer isn’t going to instantly transform me into a better player. Eventually–yes, it probably would. But initially I’d lose more points as I adjusted to this change. My guess is Sidney would be even more frustrated with me then–and maybe tell me to stand back!

    So there’s yet another question raised by this encounter. I’m playing in this RR in order to improve. Simply facing tougher opponents will gradually make that happen. But should I push myself farther outside my comfort zone? Should I make more mistakes (which happens when you’re learning something new) in the interest of furthering my own development and improving my reaction time–even if it means annoying the other people on the court?

  5. The road to hell is lined with good intentions. His intentions were to win and secondly, to strengthen his partner’s game (so that he could win). It comes down to 1) the objectives of said tennis experience (fun vs winning and I think fun defines RR tennis) and 2) effectiveness (can someone you don’t know well at that moment offer you tennis tips, and if you are clear not to accept them, can he read the signals and let it go). Sydney isn’t evil but he has placed the wrong objectives and even worse tactics into the tennis experience. That is my 2 cents worth.

      1. Thanks but not that nuanced because you were right, and he was wrong, but maybe I cloaked my feelings to sound more even 🙂

  6. I wish I had stayed to hear all this. I would have loved to chime in.

    I find it more challenging to play mixed doubles, particularly when I don’t know my partner. The men are usually better, even if we are both ranked 3.5. Some men handle this quite well, and recognize we are both there to play and doing our best. Some men want to play the whole court, sometimes because they can hit a ball better than I can, but not always. My mistakes seem much more significant than theirs, I find.

    In the end, we are both on the court to play, because we love to play! So, my mistakes should be no worse than his. One male partner once said, when I apologized for a missed shot, “we’re all only 3.5 players; we make mistakes.” I liked that, and try to hold on to it whether mixed doubles or women’s.

  7. Your snark reply: “Are you saying I’m missing an angle? I usually know all the angles.” Then raise those cute eyebrows and smile!

  8. Today, I walk in and ‘Sydney’ says to me: “you know how you said last week that men have to be careful about bossing women? Well, there are many women who are told what to do by their men coaches”. I responded “That’s different” and walked away, thinking he would never let it go!.
    Later on, I played with ‘Sydney’. He commented several times to our opponents during our round that we were the silent partners. I was not sure what he meant since we were not really silent; there were “Yours” and “Nice shot”. Now, after just reading the blog, I think he meant that HE was silent, meaning not giving advice. So, maybe he did learn something from last week’s conversation. Or maybe he knew that he’d better not give advice to this particular woman!

    1. Well, I’m not sure he learned anything. And it may be that I’m the one who needs to learn. There are probably plenty of players who would welcome his constructive criticism during a round robin. Perhaps I should learn to be more open.

      It does sound like he altered his behavior, in deference to your stated wishes. So we have to give him credit for that!

  9. I love this post! I made the mistake of correcting the spelling of my BFF way back when email started. She called me an a$$ and I said, “I just thought you would want to stop looking like one!” I may have matured a little since then but I genuinely did it from a place of love, and a lack of understanding that not everyone sees the world through the same lens. Stating that my instinct is to correct and instruct, I HATE having someone tell me what to do in the middle of a match. It makes me tight and think about something other than the million things I’m trying to remember to do.

    1. It’s interesting that you say your own instinct is to correct and instruct. I’m probably the same way–but I refrain from doing it unless I know the person will appreciate it. The corrections derail my own game, so I’m sensitive to the fact that other people may feel that as well. Maybe Sidney wouldn’t be bothered by someone correcting him mid-match, so it’s hard for him to conceive of this other lens.

      (I’m proofing my comment for spelling errors before I post it!😅)

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