Playing Up, Is It Value?

We hear tennis coaches claim that playing up is a good learning experience; but, it is?

Ray Brown 150x150 - Playing Up, Is It Value?

Ray Brown

What one does not learn is technique because improving technique requires hitting thousands of the ”same” ball; this will not happen in any match; nor is conditioning improved because improving conditioning requires weeks to months of hard work which will not happen in a tennis match; on the contrary, tournament match play (not practice matches) places high demands on all parts of the body under duress and will result in extensive soreness of muscles and tendons.

Stress soreness is not related to conditioning soreness because stress soreness is due to the release of stress hormones into the blood stream which is very destructive if it continues over ten minutes. Hence stress soreness is completely unrelated to conditioning soreness. So playing tournament matches does not contribute to physical conditioning. Nor is consistency improved which requires thousands of balls to be hit.

Also the human short-term learning dynamic functions very poorly under stress. Instead of learning, the player may actually lose skill as demonstrated by psychology experiments in radical behaviorism. Even as bad is that the player may lose confidence in their ability. This is because young people make very odd self-effacing interpretations of failure that will damage their confidence unnecessarily and erroneously.

So far, everything mentioned applies to any tournament match. The real value of playing a tennis match is developing the discipline to perform under pressure; adapt to changing circumstances; learning how the opponent thinks; recognizing when an opponent is submitting, etc, the list is long but excludes the factors discussed at the outset of this article.

Skill and physical development do not occur during a match just as one does not learn calculus from taking a calculus test. Matches can expose areas of weakness which can be addressed during training. This includes technical, mental or physical. But, those weaknesses can be obscured by a lack of preparation and hence they become almost impossible to address during training.

Since most tennis matches are lost due to unforced errors, the mental discipline development is likely the most important value of a tournament match. However, playing up, as Robert Lansdorp notes, reduces pressure and thus obscures the mental issues, the one thing that is the most important value of tournament play.

In short, playing up is almost worthless UNLESS the tennis player is the best in their age group and is ready to advance to a higher age group. So long as the player is not the best in their group in the nation, playing up provides far less value than playing in one’s own age group. So one must ask, when considering having their student play up: Is this the best possible use of the time and resources that will be consumed by playing up?

No matter how talented or well conditioned a tennis player may be, if they cannot function under the pressure of facing and defeating their peers, they have a serous mental toughness deficiency that must be addressed if they are to ever become a champion. And playing up provides no solution to this problem and may even obscure the problem, deceiving the coach and player into thinking that no mental problem exists.

In short: play your age group unless you are the best in that group. P.S. if a tennis coach wants their player to play up, it may indicate that the coach has serious self doubt about their own ability to have his/her player face and defeat their peers.

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Playing Up, Is It Value? — 8 Comments

  1. the difference between a math test and a tennis match is one outcome is based on pure knowledge and another is based on physical skill combined with confidence, the latter of which primarily comes from match play and not from practice. You cannot practice execution at 4-4 deuce in practice no matter how many balls you hit.

    Playing up should be balanced along with playing down in order to maximize the confidence equation while minimizing physical wear and tear. The fact that you cannot condition for match play type endurance due to the stress involved is precisely why match play should be a core part of any junior development program.

    • When I taught college and high school math, I always put a “novel” problem that the students had never seen, but if they did not panic and used what they had learn, it could be solved. Pressure is pressure in any enterprise. Playing up does not improve confidence because it is less pressure. So, you have not, so far, justified playing up. Practice matches with students who are friends, as I stated, are not pressure either. It is necessary to train to perform under pressure without tournament play. Our armed forces do this routinely, and successfully. So it can be done.

  2. The author makes some valid points in the overall article but fails to convey that it is not an all or nothing proposition to play up or down.
    While the argument of playing up means, as the author states that its OK to lose since you are not expected to win, that is just one small part of it. Kids need to be exposed to many kinds of play, opponents, balls, shots and sometimes if a kid dominates a division it is simply boring. It would actually be a waste of his time to keep playing the division if the objective is to dominate it. Nothing is black or white. There is value in playing up, and your division and winning and losing. ABsoluts do not exist, and much less in tennis when the odds are small that you would actually win.

    • I did not say there was no value. If you can dominate your peers, playing up is your only alternative, and you should do so. If you cannot, then playing up can be an indication that the student has a fear issue with playing their peers that must be addressed. Eye-to-eye combat in any venue is about three things: Intimidation, pain and fear. A player who is not trained to understand these principles of combat will constantly act to avoid pressure. As always, with any coaching decision, one must ask: Is this the very best use of time and resources for the student’s development?

  3. It is so individual. Some players can benefit from playing higher age groups because they prefer to compete with better players and they can quickly improve their performance. Others can quit tennis because of injuries while playing against stronger players. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong to play higher age groups but you have to make it smart and with balance to keep the player successful.

  4. The first sentence of this essay IS bs…what tennis coach is suggesting to play up…who? When? Where? And why? Coaches, real tennis coaches almost NEVER suggest this…only parents…period and they have no clue what it takes to get good.

    Parents…go away and let the kid play, it’s a game. Let the play, and let the coach coach. Go to Starbucks!!! And leave ur kids and coaches alone!!!!!

    • Will you treat my kid as your own? Will you respect his/her interests first, yours own second? Will you make big sacrifices & changes lives with the only belief in your kid’s tennis dream? No? Then SHUT UP, do your job on court as a hired person and let parents be managers of the process.

  5. It is natural that this amazing article is critically met by coaches.

    Playing up is one of the most popular way which coaches use to hide their (poor) performance from parents. For sure, there will be time for truth; but till that time, thousands of parents dollars come to coaches pockets.

    If you are a smart tennis parent, just trust an author of this article. The only case playing up has sense if there is ABSOLUTELY no competition to your kid in your area. I am talking about tournament matches of course. During practice s, there are a lot of drills a kid can make together with older players. But tournament matches vs. them are absolutely useless unless your kid is absolutely the best in his/her age category.

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