I could see it in their eyes. These two friendly, welcoming, generous hockey moms who would quickly become so much more (real people with real feelings!), my friends during a season in which I coached their two children, possessed a switch behind the scenes. When that switched was flipped, the friendly smiles became something … else.
And you could tell the switch was flipped by looking in their eyes.
As you may or may not have guessed, I’m talking about tennis, and the two athletes in question were Shelley Hoodspith and Yulia Manova. It was the very first article I wrote for the North Shore Winter Club, and it’s still one of my favourites.
For players like Shelley and Yulia, tennis is an outlet, an opportunity to focus on oneself if only for a few hours each week. With that focus comes determination and competition, two traits to employ if you want to strike fear into the heart of your opponent. Shelley and Yulia told me this was important - the intimidation side of the game. There’s only so much training you can do to get better, after all, and if your opponent has a tough match then your chances of victory greatly increase.
The tricks I’m going to list here didn’t come from Shelley or Yulia, so employing them against the two ladies is a waste of time.
Everybody else? Fair game.
Every hockey player in history glances over at the other team in warmup, and tennis is no different. If you see your opponent casually jogging along or wincing as they stretch for what looks like the first time in months, then your confidence will automatically receive a boost.
Take your warmup seriously and make sure your opponent sees you do it.
Now that they know they’re in for it, further your opponent’s angst by staring them down just prior to the first serve. Before that works too - as your warmup finishes and you get ready to start, stroll by and give them a good stare-down.
Don’t say anything. Don’t respond if they say hello. It’s friends-off at this point.
At this point your opponent still might not take your vigour seriously, and truth be told you might not either. It makes sense, tennis is supposed to be fun, and it’s hard to focus so intently when you have so many other things going on in your life.
But soon the match will begin and your intensity will have a direct impact on its outcome. Stay even. Keep your emotions in check. If your opponent experiences some early success and you don’t react whatsoever, you’ll naturally create a seed of doubt.
A seed of doubt you can later exploit.
Finally, chip away at your opponent’s now frail psyche by working your tennis-obsessed behind off every point. Every shot. Every lunge for a loose ball. The warmup, the stare-down, and the cold, dead eyes mean nothing if you don’t have the game to back it all up. Tennis matches can’t be won with the first point, but they can sure be lost. Take care and give everything you’ve got from the first serve until the last.
And watch your opponent squirm.