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The "I" in Team - One-Eighth of the Whole

We have all heard the old adage, There is no I in TEAM. Whether little league, club soccer or the NFL, the phrase is always there. Team sports utilize a number of players on the same field at the same time all working in unison.

Tennis, in the team format, is a different beast altogether.

Coach Thomson with his Drake Team
courtesy, Drake Athletics
In high school and college, tennis is an individual sport with team results. Six singles courts and three doubles courts are all working independently of one another, playing different points, hitting different shots, all for the same goal - a team victory. Individuals may win their matches, but the team can still lose. Court 1 cannot set up Court 5. Court 4 cannot double team with Court 3. Court 6 cannot run a screen or pick and roll for Court 2. But each of these parts end up as a whole, and they can support each other and have an effect on the courts around them. Once a match begins there are no substitutions. Once a player starts a match it is up to them to finish. This becomes a challenging focus for coaches. "Who is ready to go on any given day?" You hope everyone is obviously. This is why it is so important for the "I" to be visibly confident and consistent in what they do.

There is, in fact, an I in TEAM. As John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country (team) can do for you, but what you (I) can do for your (my) country (team)." If there is any truth to that statement, and I believe there is, there is most certainly an I in TEAM. Without me (I) and you, there can be no team and definitely not much success.

During my first season coaching at a new institution, I ran into a great example of this. I was in the middle of Fall individual meetings with the players.

This was the women's team at a mid-major Division I university with a rich tennis history. The program had been treading water for a few years, but I felt it had the potential to be bigger and better than it had been in the recent past. The team had some solid players with good backgrounds. For the most part, the players had good work ethics and attitudes to go along with good intentions, and I felt that even the players thought they could perform better than they had during the past couple of seasons.

They did, however, lack direction, confidence, and the knowledge of their individual roles as leaders, followers and players. It wasn't their fault. It's likely that they did not had strong mentors from the classes ahead of them. It's sometimes the case that players never had these roles modeled for them, and, as a result, they never developed these skills or confidence to put them into place.

I found one player in particular to be especially bright, hardworking and committed. She was also a very good person on and off of the court. She wanted it as much, if not more, than any of the others on the team, which actually held her back to some degree from what she could accomplish because of the stress she put on herself. She wasn't a one-in-a-million talent, but she was a solid player. However, her heart and effort were golden.

In our meeting, she told me, almost confidently, "I know I am the eighth girl on the team, but I want to and will work as hard as I can to get better and get on the courts as much as I can." I immediately stopped her and said two things. "Thinking that way, you are always going to be the eighth girl" and "There is no one, two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight girl on this team. You are not eighth, but you are one-eighth of the whole."

The biggest issue with this team was the identity role of the eight I's. Each one-eighth working for the whole by doing what each does best. They weren't selfish or egocentric. They just lacked the experience and knowledge to know what they could, or maybe should, do to help the team - and not necessarily on the courts. All-Conference or walk on, regardless of where they played in the line up, each spot only counted for one point. If they weren't in the line-up, they might play an even bigger role as a coach or maybe a double team by just being present on one of the other players' courts. Everyone's role may be different, but all are invaluable on or off of the court.

The player I was speaking of ended up always ready for whatever I had for her. She always pushed herself, showed up for individuals, was willing to play whatever role I had for her on a given day... and she never complained about any of it, even though I knew she may rather be on the courts playing versus coaching or charting a match.

Leading, supporting, playing, cheering, charting all matter. Some are better at one than the other. Players on a team have to understand some simple "I" ideas. The following are all parts that define the "I" in TEAM.

  • I have a role to play.
  • I will carry my weight.
  • I will do the right things.
  • What I do makes a difference.
  • I can lead or I will follow.
  • I will fulfill my responsibilities.
  • I can use my strengths to compensate for others' weaknesses.

What you (I) do, think and perceive, does directly impact the team. You are (I am) the team in actions, effort or lack thereof, desire and motivation.

Tennis is very mental and emotional. It can be brutal. In what other sport can you win more points and games and still log a loss? This can be true for the individual and the team. The mental and emotional edge is terrific and is where the "I's" can make an even bigger difference. Although Court 1 cannot physically assist on Court 6 with plays and strategy, they can still play a major role in the outcome of the performance on that court.

During a match, players on the court see the scoreboard or score cards. On changeovers, they notice the body language of teammates. They see heads hanging or fists pumping as a teammate finishes a match. Players, coaches and fans have seen a player who is the last match on tighten up, crumble and fall, because it has all come down to him. I have seen both ends of the previous example. A team match is tied and the one player left crumbles under the pressure after being in control. If only one of the other matches that lost could have stayed out just a bit longer to keep the pressure level on this court balanced and given her a chance to finish. I had a previous team that was up 4-0 in the conference tournament and then blew it. Everyone left on the court relaxed, thought it was over and left it up to someone else to close it out for the team. What you (I) do and portray on court and off has a direct influence on the other one-eighths - on and off of the courts.

I explained it to the team like this. If you are having a bad day and nothing is working, just try to stay out as long as you can and give the others a chance to perform. Don't take a dive and give in, putting more pressure on the others. Make as many balls as you can to lengthen points. Without stalling or exhibiting poor sportsmanship, take your time between points and on changeovers. Keep your body language positive and let them believe you are always confident and poised. Practice your best to make your hitting partner better. Chart a match. Be the first one there and the last one to leave. Set examples with your strengths in the classroom, the weight room, or in the community. Lead with confidence in those strengths and follow with enthusiasm in improving your weaknesses. Most importantly, do all that you can do every time out and every day, so that the other parts of the whole know that they can count on you when it gets tough. Define your role and roll with it. Pull your weight and, when you must or can, lighten the load for someone else. Make your one-eighth count and add it to the whole.

I always tell my teams that every ball counts in practice and in matches. Hit every ball with an assertive purpose and meaning. In practice, neither you or a partner can improve by just going through the motions, pushing and spraying balls around the court. Challenge them and yourself by pushing through the comfort boundaries. Lower lineup players need to play to figure out how to beat the higher line up players. The top plyaers on the team have to go all out even against a walk-on because that walk-on - giving his all - deserves the chance to improve by playing a better play at the top of his game. Every ball counts in matches for no other reason than to send your opponent a message. "You are going to have to beat me if you want this one. You are in for a fight." Sometimes that fight alone is more than they want. Or for your team mates they see your fight and it bleeds into their courts.

You and I are the team.

Everything we do, don't do, say, and think, matters to the whole. Confidence, poise, pressure and fear, are all influenced by the I's. If an "I" has a negative outlook about his match or the team's match as a whole, that to can bleed into the others. Then another player shows fear and the nerves come out. How many times have we heard someone say "Man that guy is really good". That thought hangs in his teammates' heads and causes doubt. Court 3 doesn't feel like playing one day or brings outside distractions onto the court with him and tanks a quick match... That results in instant pressure on the other courts - especially against a good team.

The I's are all of the 1/8's are the team. A dear friend and coaching mentor of mine who is one of the most successful coaches and motivators I have ever known stated it to me like this a few years ago: "Sometimes you have to fake it to make it." This doesn't mean be dishonest or misleading. But it simply means that even if you are down and out in your mind, portraying that strength and confidence is infectious in the minds of others - and sometimes even to yourself. Perception is reality.

There is another saying in sports, "A team is only as strong as its weakest link (one-eighth)." Each one-eighth of the whole has the power to influence the others for good or bad. Forget ability and talent, because talent doesn't sweeten the tea! Look at effort and attitude. Again, do what you can do and do it well all of the time, on or off the court. When each one-eighth does this and pulls her weight for the whole without reservation or hesitation, then, and only then, is there a team. There is very much an "I" in TEAM - when "I" stands for one-eighth of the whole.


Paul Thomson is head coach of women's tennis at Drake University.


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About Paul Thomson

Paul Thomson has spent over 20 years in tennis, with ten years experience in college tennis coaching - the past eight of which have been spent as head coach. He was the 2008-09 SAC Women's College Coach of the year. Thomson, certified through the PTR, has experience as a tour and high school coach and club/academy instructor. He has also worked in grass roots tennis community tennis development. Thomson is currently doing freelance writing and working on his first book.

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