Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rivalry, Motivation, and Tough Qualification Standards

The USTA has proposed changes to the tournament structure for 2014. I don't know the details, but the gist of it is smaller fields for national championships and more play at the sectional level.

I haven't had a strong opinion on this. I've read some of the complaints about the changes and some of the justifications for the changes. I'm beginning to side with the reductions in field sizes and the tougher qualifying standards.

I'm coming to this position after a recent discussion with a local high school tennis player. In Colorado, high school tennis is structure differently in two significant ways from the high school and college tennis that I played. First, the regions for qualifying for the state championship are not simply base upon fixed geography from year to year. Instead, the regions are balanced by strength. Two teams in Boulder, for instance, are in different regions every year because they tend to be among the better teams in the state. Second, the regional and state tournaments are flighted tournaments. Rather than competing in dual matches, one team against another, to determine regional and state champions, players qualify as individuals in three singles and four doubles positions. Points are tallied to determine team champions.

When I played high school tennis, the format was different in both those regards. The first is the most significant one for this post. In Minnesota, the high school regions were geographic. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area had a few regions due to the population density. Southern Minnesota was its own region. Duluth and St Cloud roughly had regions. Maybe the Iron Range had one and so did the northwestern part of the state. There were eight regions. Those regions applied to all sports.

In tennis, the metro regions, especially the region I played in, had a great many good tennis players. Yet only one team (we played duals for the team title) qualified for the state tournament. This made for fierce, quality rivalries. It also motivated us to play and practice more. If instead of just two singles players and two doubles teams making the individual state tournament every year from our region, new more balanced regions were set up allowing two, three, or four times the number of qualifiers, that would greatly reduce the struggle to get to the next level.

I think the same thing happened in our section for national tournaments in the summer. We usually only got two players into the big national tournaments (hard courts, clay courts, nationals in those days).  I was one of those two players from age fourteen to eighteen. The motivation to get to those tournaments was big when I first learned of them at age twelve. But the experience of playing in those events was far, far less valuable to me than the stress and struggles to get one of those two spots. The pressure was off at those national tournaments. I had no shot at winning those tournaments. In fact, any wins were gravy. We occasionally had players win rounds at nationals, but mostly we got beat.

But I think this system of highly competitive competition for scarce spots in higher level tournaments produced better players in Minnnesota those days than the more lax structure in Colorado and the USTA today.

So I guess I'm coming down on the side of reducing opportunities for national play being a good thing, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. I want kids to have to battle their guts out, feel disappointment, and get up and work harder to get those scarce spots in the national championships.

I don't resent rich people who take their kids around the country chasing points, looking for different and better competition for their kids. I get it. I think some of that is good.

I just think an environment that creates quality rivalries and motivates kids to get out there and beat people in their neighborhood, city, state and region before stepping up to play national tournaments produces better players.

No comments: