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1/8 Of The Whole The I In TEAM

Courtesy: Drake Athletics
Release: May 31, 2012
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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.

In high school and college, tennis is an individual sport with team results. Six singles courts and three doubles courts all working independently of one another, playing different points, hitting differentshots, 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 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 him to finish. This becomes a challenging focus for coaches. Who is ready to go on any given day? You hope everyone. This is why it is so important for the 'I' (each individual player) to be visibly confident and consistent in everything 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; ask 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 school, 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 even they thought they could perform better than they had the past couple of seasons.

They did, however, lack direction, confidence, the knowledge of how to play, and what their individual roles were as leaders, followers and players. It wasn't their fault. It's likely they had not had strong mentors from the classes ahead of them. Sometimes players never have these roles modeled for them and, as a result, never develop the skills or the confidence to put these skills 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. 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 eight 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 eight girl," and "There is no one, two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight girl on this team. You are not eight, but you are one-eighth of the whole."

The biggest issue with this team was the identity and role of each 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 understand 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 lineup, each spot only counted for one point. If they weren't in the lineup, they might play an even bigger role as a coach or maybe a double team, or by just being present on one of the other player's courts. Everyone's role may be different, but all are invaluable on or off the court.

My golden hearted eight player was always ready for whatever I had for her. She consistently pushed herself, showed up for individuals, and every day was willing to play whatever role I assigned. She never complained about any of it, even though I knew she would rather be on the court playing, instead of 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. Having 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 significant 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 spectrum. A team match is tied and the one player left disintegrates under the pressure, even after being in control. If only one of the losing matches could have stayed out just a bit longer to keep the pressure level on this court balanced and given him a chance to finish. I had a previous team up 4-0 in the conference tournament, 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.

I explained it to the team like this. If you're 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 your teammates. Make as many balls as you can to lengthen points. Without stalling or exhibiting poor sportsmanship, take the entire time allotted 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 for 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 of 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 assertive purpose and meaning. In practice, neither you nor a partner can improve by just going through the motions, pushing balls and spraying balls around the court. Challenge them and yourself by pushing through your comfort boundaries.

Lower lineup players need to play to figure out how to beat the higher lineup players. The top players on the team have an obligation 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 player at the top of his game. In matches, every ball counts, if for no other reason than to send your opponent a message. "You're going to have to beat me if you want this one. You are in for a fight." Sometimes that alone is more than your opponent wants. Your teammates see your determination and that 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 can spread and adversely impact the others. Then another player shows fear and the nerves emerge. It's contagious. How many times have we heard someone say, "Man, that guy is really good"? That thought hangs in his teammate's head and causes doubt. Court 3 doesn't feel like playing that day, or brings outside distractions onto the court with him, and quickly tanks a match. This instantly creates pressure on the other courts, especially against a good team.

All of the I's in the one-eighths are the team. A few years ago, a dear  friend and coaching mentor of mine, who is one of the most successful coaches and motivators I have ever known, told me, "Sometimes you have to fake it to make it." This doesn't mean be dishonest or misleading. It means that even if you are down and out in your mind, portraying strength and confidence is infectious and will influence others, and sometimes even 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 and off the court. When each one-eighth does this and pulls his weight for the whole without reservation or hesitation, then, and only then, is there a team. There is very much an I in TEAM. It starts with, but is not about me! It's about me as one-eighth of the whole.
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