Challenge Matches
By Andrew Andress, Hartford Union High School Boys and Girls Varsity coach

The first day of practice arrives, players continue to stream in with their new shoes, shiny racquet bags, maybe a new racquet and probably some new clothes. As practice is about ready to begin lots of questions begin to arise, questions that may have been mulled over for weeks or days, some maybe even since last season. An eager group of tennis players wait in anticipation for the answers. “Who will lead the stretching and warm up this year?”, “What drills and how much conditioning will be done?” and, “When will our new uniforms and clothing be ordered or arrive?” The coach is most immediately concerned with, “Are all players eligible and do they have their paperwork and concussion forms in on time?” All these questions may have merit, but there is one big question that looms large for players and coaches alike: How will the challenge matches go?

The Coach perspective
Ultimately as a coach you’re looking for your best lineup that will consistently deliver the most wins and in the best case scenario give as many girls as possible a chance to go to State. Considerations such as team camaraderie, doubles cohesiveness and conference lineup parameters may also play a factor. Who was on the team last year, how they did, who graduated and what new freshmen are coming add to the exasperation. Not to be ignored are issues such as who played a lot in the offseason, tournament play, doubles partner wishes vs. needs and at times parent pressures. When all these factors are balled up the coach needs to decide just what is the most effective and efficient manner to play challenge matches.

The Parent perspective
While the coach may not want to admit it or consider it, the parent does play a role. They shouldn’t have any say (even if they are sure to be heard), but they have a vested interest in the outcome of the challenge matches. They’ve put time, money, lots of love, patience and heartache into their child’s success. At best they understand the process, accept it and have a “may the best person win” attitude. At worst, they are in your face when their child, who has gone to camp, taken countless lessons and drills, doesn’t make the lineup and of course it was your fault as the coach. Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t player A have to play player B, this condition caused this, they had a bad day, the scoring you used wasn’t right, the opponent cheated, the child was ill, the list goes on. All that time, money, love and patience was just condensed into, “My child didn’t make the cut and now I need to blame someone.”

The Player perspective
Too often reality and perception don’t match in the mind of a teenager. It’s understandable, but frustrating for all involved. Competing against a friend and teammate is harder than we as coaches probably realize. The fear of the unknown is tough. The pressure to perform just to make the team or lineup is exhaustive, not to mention the added burden of parent or partner pressure as well. Many times the players play because they love the sport, want to be with their friends, like the status, the social opportunities or being part of something and want some exercise. Winning and losing probably matters to the player, but less than we as coaches or parents think it does. Look at how education has changed in ten, twenty, thirty years and see that self-esteem, involvement, belonging and all-inclusive philosophies are the world that players today have grown up in. Parents and coaches generally grew up in a competitive setting where ranking, sorting and selecting occurred all the time. Someone was better, someone was picked first, someone won and if you couldn’t perform, that was just the way it was. Too bad, too sad! These players don’t live in that same world, so challenge matches for the vast majority of our players put them in an area of discomfort that usually is removed for them by some authority figure.

What’s the best answer for challenge matches?
Unlike sports like baseball, football, soccer or basketball where your evaluation and assessment is subjective and more of a “feel based on my experience and observation,” you can play two players against each other and determine a winner. Time, number of spots available, weather, court space, and the number of players vying for the positions all need to be considered. Whether you play to a certain number of points, a set, a pro-set or best of three sets is dependent upon the aforementioned factors and what you as a coach feel is fair to all competitors. Then, what about players wanting to re-challenge someone after a close loss, and what about forming doubles teams, especially, if one player is a returning player and there is one spot open?

Lots of questions, without many clear answers exist. So, what really is best to do with these challenge matches? While there probably isn’t a clear, one perfect method for every team, consider the following guidelines:

1. Communicate with the players on what to expect. What scoring will be used, what the procedure is, how many matches they will have to play and when a decision will be made. If you’re able to and prepared to, tell them at your meeting with them at the end of the year or a preseason meeting. Post it on the team website or include it in print in a communication for parents and parents with your team expectations.

2. Be consistent for the season. If JV spots are a 9 game pro-set and varsity spots are best of three sets, fine, but then have all of them follow that protocol. How will re-challenges be handled, especially if the result is that the players split their two matches?

3. Know your team. If you only have two spots available on the varsity and five girls competing for those two spots, then maybe a round-robin is feasible. If you are replacing over half your varsity maybe a set amount of points or games is appropriate with emphasis on the total amount won and lost.

4. Listen to the players. As the coach you make the decisions, make that clear right away. That said, if they are telling you that there’s too much pressure on them, they aren’t ready to play another match tomorrow or they have other frustrations, you need to determine if it’s just that player or do many of the players share those concerns? If it’s just one player’s concerns, that might influence some of your decisions for that player due to how they respond to pressure and their overall ability to handle the stress of the sport (i.e. last player on with the team score tied 3-3 or a third set tie break). If multiple players are voicing the same frustration, perhaps some other format is needed.

5. Be confident in your decisions and be able to defend them. Players and parents may not agree with your process. You can’t please 15 players with only 10 spots. If your challenge match process was fair, communicated and consistent then you’ve done what you can to make the best lineup.

High school tennis should be fun. Players can grow and benefit from the challenge match process. It’s often more fair and objective than many interview or scholarship processes can be. As coaches we owe it to the players to ethically do what’s right. There are situations that test our judgment. Knowing your team is critical. If you’re competing for the State Tournament you may do things drastically different than the coach trying to develop a program that is just trying to be competitive in their matches. Remember, it’s about the players, not our egos, not our accomplishments, but the players. They are the ones who toil on the court to compete. The challenges they face will be far more serious than what format to use for scoring.

To drive that point home, I’m reminded of a situation that occurred on my team in 2012. A young lady told me she couldn’t make the evening challenge matches. I responded by telling her it was mandatory to be there to be considered for the JV tournament team she was trying out for. She said she really wanted to make the team, but just couldn’t be there. When I pressed her for why, she confided that her mom was coming home from her first round of chemotherapy that day and she needed to be there for her. I had spent lots of time contemplating whether to use a set or a 9 game pro-set over the past few weeks. Suddenly, it really didn’t seem to matter. This player had a different challenge in front of her. Fortunately, things worked out well for her (and thus far for her mother).

Like everything we do as a coach, challenge matches are less about the winning and the losing than we originally think. Challenge matches are life lessons. Challenge matches are opportunities. Challenge matches are about what a player does with the potential they have. Challenge matches do present a challenge for us as coaches, but they do for players and parents, too. In some ways challenge matches are the season’s first impression. They’re worth putting some thought into. Do what you can as a coach to help your players overcome the challenges they face on and off the court, rather than letting the challenges overcome your players.