Build Your Players' Mental and Emotional Strength With "Compete-Learn-Honor"

Peter C. Scales, Ph.D., USPTA Professional

For the past decade, I've used a slogan with the boys and girls high school junior varsity tennis teams I coach in suburban St. Louis to help organize our season, especially around teaching mental and emotional skills. The slogan is just three words: “Compete, Learn, Honor.”

Compete: We will give our best effort 100 percent of the time.

Learn: We will be open, curious, humble learners.

Honor: We will bring credit to ourselves, our families, our teammates, our school, and the game of tennis, on and off the court.

I teach these in reverse order, Honor—Learn—Compete, because Honor is the foundation.

We hang up laminated posters with a couple of these habits on them every day at practice and discuss them. It doesn’t take long. But repeated every day over the course of a season, it really makes an impact on how players think and act, on and off the court.

Here’s what I put on the posters and some examples of how we talk about them:

The Compete-Learn-Honor Habits for Strengthening Mental and Emotional Skills for Tennis:

Think during practice—feel during the match
Physical fitness leads to mental toughness
Proper breathing leads to a relaxed body and a clear mind
Love the battle and solve the puzzle
Have a game plan and routines
Have a purpose and a target for every stroke
Expect the ball to come back and expect it to be a tough shot
What matters is right now, this shot, this point
All points are big points
Use time effectively (give to you, take away from your opponent)
Combat stress (by being humble, smiling, moving, drinking water,  and having a plan) 

Lose your “self”—humility allows you to learn
Mental toughness isn’t given, it’s developed
Learn one new thing every time on the court
Take notes and then study the notes
Improving is a better goal than winning
Mistakes are necessary to improve
Play the ball, not the opponent
Always change a losing game—never change a winning game 

Respect all: teammates,  opponents, coaches, officials
Love the game more than  how you perform
Do not strive for victory—strive for grace, balance, patience, and clarity
Use positive self-talk and show positive body language
Never give up
Make no excuses
Give your all—it makes you tougher for your next match

Love the game more than how you perform 
Half of competitors lose in every match. If you’re only enjoying tennis when you win, then you’re guaranteed to not have much fun! After winning his 19th Slam at the 2019 US Open, Rafa Nadal said he wasn’t playing to end up with more Slams than others. “I play tennis because I love playing tennis,” he said.

Never give up and make no excuses
The only reason you lost a match was that your opponent was better than you that day. That’s it. It wasn’t the sun or wind, the lights if you’re indoors, that your opponent was too quiet or too talkative, or that, if you lost in doubles, you’re “really a singles player.” And, if you wish for your opponent to tank, or double fault, etc., that’s not honorable. Try to beat them when they’re playing their best. That’s the contest! 

Lose your “self”
Real experts are humble – no expert ever feels like they have “mastered” their craft. There is always more to learn, as the constant tinkering of the top players reminds us. If the focus is on learning itself, then winning and losing and all the issues that go along with worrying about those outcomes aren’t even in the picture.

Improving is a better goal than winning & mistakes are necessary to improve
At the Women’s Tennis Coaching Association conference during the 2019 US Open, Billie Jean King said her parents never asked her if she won or lost. Instead, they asked, 
“How did it go today?” Win or lose, they asked, “Did you give your best? If you did, that is enough.” Players can control whether they improve and whether they give their best, not whether they win. Focus on that. Our job is also to create a mistake-friendly zone so they can make mistakes because they’re stretching themselves. Then we help them get faster at understanding the mistakes and calmly dealing with them.

Think during practice, feel during the match
Practice is for tearing everything apart to the smallest movements and decisions, for deliberate focus and rehearsal, both physical and mental-emotional. The 80% of the time between points, thinking the right way is crucial, yes. But for the 20% of a match when you’re actually playing points, we want to help players let go of thoughts, allow the senses, instincts and feel to take over as they get more and more trusting of their mind-body system. Players will make more thoughtful decisions in matches, without thinking, because they were full of thoughts in practice!

What matters is right now
USPTA Master Professional Mark Rearden tells the story of a time that an old coach asked him what the most important shot in tennis was. Mark guessed the serve. Nope. The old guy said, “The most important shot is the next one, because that’s the only one you can do anything about.” I have players focus on literally saying, “What matters is right now,” to help drive out other distracting thoughts. I also have them smell the tennis ball. That sensation can remind them of why they love playing, calm them down and get them back to present tense.

These things are not magical. But for most players, applying the Compete-Learn-Honor approach to mental and emotional training will help them enjoy tennis more, give it their best consistently every day and stay in the game longer because they’re playing better and having more fun.

Peter C. Scales, Ph.D., USPTA Professional

Coco Gauff (left) and Maegan Manasse (right) shake hands after Gauff's qualifying win at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2019.