Choosing what tournaments to play can be tricky. You shouldn’t be getting blown out every match, but you don’t want to win every match without a challenge either. Your goal should be to compete in tournaments where at some point, there will be a player there to make you work hard to win. This is how we learn to be better competitors and improve our tennis games.
Here are the steps you should follow, in order, when trying to navigate the world of tennis tournaments:
1. Determine Your Skill Level
You need to honestly assess where you are in your tennis career, what your strengths are, and what areas of your game need improvement. Look at your match results over the past year. What NTRP rating (i.e. 2.5-5.5) are you? You can also ask your tennis friends and instructors who have watched you play on their opinion of your skill-level. Based on their feedback and your own self-analysis, you can figure out what level of tournaments will most effectively challenge your game to improve.
2. Write Down Your Goals
Figuring out your short and long-term goals will help you choose what tournaments to play. For example, is your goal to become a 5.0 singles player, improve your doubles game, or practice competing in preparation for a bigger tournament? To help you figure out how to create SMART Goals, check out this post. Your goals will help narrow your focus to the tournaments that will accomplish your goals in the least amount of time. For example, if your long-term goal is to become a 5.0 singles player, you will realize that you should concentrate mainly on playing singles tournaments. You can download my free guide (with fillable worksheet) on how to set SMART Goals below.
3. Find Out What Tournaments are Available
Figure out what local, sectional, and national organizations run tennis tournaments, go to their websites, and familiarize yourself with their tournament search site. For example, the USTA is the organization that manages the majority of tennis tournaments (via tennislink) for players in the United States. If you are a member of a tennis club, ask a pro or fellow player for advice on how to enter tournaments. It never hurts to ask! And many tennis clubs host tennis tournaments by age and skill-level. Choosing what tournaments to play can be daunting with so many options, so now let’s figure out how to do it.
4. Register for Tournaments at Your Skill Level
Start testing the waters of tournament play by entering ones that correspond to your skill level. For example, if you are a 4.0-level player, enter tournaments that say “NTRP 4.0” or something similar. The ratings/skill-level nomenclature can vary depending on what region or country you are from. Play these tournaments and track your results. I recommend playing a minimum of three of these tournaments before you can accurately assess your next steps. I would also stick with tournaments in your age group in the beginning. And the tournaments you play should align with your goals that you determined in step 2 above.
5. Assess Your Results and Reevaluate
If you are consistently reaching the semi-finals or better, then mix in tournaments into your schedule that are one-level higher. For example, if you reached the semifinals of two out of your last three 4.0 level tournaments and won the other one, make 4.5 level tournaments a substantial part (around 1/3 to 1/2) of your schedule. When I first started playing tennis, after three junior futures tournaments (beginner-level at the time), I knew it was time to move to the next-highest level of tournament play after my results: win, semis, win.
Once you are dominating tournaments at your skill-level, make the permanent leap to the next one, assuming your goal is to become a better tennis player and not just to collect trophies. This will ensure you keep challenging your game so you can improve, just like the weight lifter gradually increases reps or weight to build strength and muscle. Conversely, if you have been struggling to get past the first round, consider playing lower-level tournaments (if allowed), or work on your game for a few weeks and come back stronger for the next one.
6. Sparingly Mix in Tournaments That are Substantially Above Your Skill Level
I believe that occasionally playing tournaments that are a full point (i.e. you are a 4.0 and play a 5.0 tournament) or skill-level (i.e. intermediate to advanced) above what you currently are can help your game. Sure, you are likely to get blown out, but there are huge benefits to sparingly playing at a very-high level relative to your skill-set.
First, playing against extremely good players will give you extra motivation to see where your game has the potential to be if you train smart and hard. Second, playing against this level will fill you with an intensity and focus that you have never felt before, because if you don’t push yourself to the limit during these matches, you will get clobbered. Third, by establishing relationships with these high-level players, you may find a new hitting partner or friend that can help mentor you (remember, you need to be friendly and talk to players to make this happen!). You can learn a ton by sitting down and watching these players. It wouldn’t hurt to take a couple video clips, play them in slow-motion, and see the differences in your strokes and footwork, either!
On Episode 21 of The Tennis Files Podcast, I talked about my experience playing an ITF Futures Tournament at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While I am a 5.0 player, I wanted to really push myself to the limit and experience what it was like to play against professional tennis players who are trying to make it on the ATP Tour. I played the 11th seed in qualifying who was ranked around 1100 in the world at the time, and I lost 6-1, 6-0. While my opponent beat me pretty handily, it was a thrill and a big eye-opener to be around such amazing players. It filled me with intense motivation to train and helped me figure out what I needed to improve in my game to confidently perform against this level of players without being exploited. It’s been a few months since the tournament, but I am still pumped thinking about playing it again next year and coming back stronger.
How Frequently Should You Play Tournaments?
The most important considerations for this question are your physical fitness and enthusiasm to compete. When you keep playing tournaments, you acclimate to the environment of competition, intensity, and pressure situations. The best way to become more comfortable in a new setting is by repeatedly putting yourself in that same situation. Therefore, if you are in good physical condition and have the passion to compete, then fit as many tournaments as you can, within reason, into your schedule.
For a serious tennis player, playing two tournaments a month and reevaluating this frequency after three to four months is a reasonable way to figure out the optimal frequency for tournament play. It is critical to reevaluate your body’s capacity to perform at high intensity after each tournament to prevent injury and burnout. Additionally, if there are major parts of your game that need improving (especially technique), this can be another factor in potentially reducing the frequency of your tournament play.
When Should You Reduce Tournament Play?
Tournaments are an integral part of any serious player’s development. However, there are times when playing tournaments can stunt a player’s growth. Here’s when you should reduce or suspend tournament play:
1. When You are Changing Technique
The bigger the technical change, the more you should be willing to suspend tournament play until you are comfortable with implementing the change in pressure situations. When a match gets close, you will feel the pressure to win and will revert back to what is most comfortable. This wastes all the time you spent trying to change your technique in the first place. Because we are competitive, it takes a huge amount of discipline and focus on our long-term goals to maintain a new technical change during crucial points in a match. Instead, you can accelerate the mastery of your new technique by practicing it in a pressureless environment (i.e. practice with a coach or fellow player) and then gradually move to point, set and match play when you are ready.
A normal progression would be something like this: spend two weeks practicing your new service motion with your coach and by yourself, then play practice points and games with your training partners for two weeks. If you can maintain your new service technique throughout the practice games, then start playing practice sets and matches with your training partners. If you are comfortable with your technical change at this level of intensity, then consider playing tournaments. If not, go back to one-level lower of intensity (practice) and reevaluate after a week or two.
The most important consideration is that you prioritize your long-term goals when you make a technical change in your game. This will help you concentrate on implementing the change in your game even if it means playing less tournaments for a while and losing more matches in the beginning.
2. When You Are Injured
No matter how passionate you are about tennis, it is not smart to play tournaments and matches with an injury. The severity of the injury and the importance of the tournament are highly determinative of whether you should play. But injury is a signal from your body that you need to rest and recover. Unless the tournament is of extreme importance to you and your injury is minor, will not become worse, and is manageable, you should not play the tournament.
3. When You are Burned Out
There’s no point in playing a tournament unless you are ready and capable of giving 100% effort. This all starts in the mind. If you are mentally exhausted, you need to take a break and do something fun. Take a week off tennis and play a different sport. Try a less intensive format of tennis like World Team Tennis or a charity event. Go paint some pottery (yep, I did this last weekend, and it was awesome)! You will come back refreshed and ready to rock it the next time you are back out on court. A true passion for tennis will give you the best chance of excelling in this sport, and when that passion runs low, go have some fun to rejuvenate your body and mind. The courts will always be there for you.
4. If you are a Beginner
If you just started playing tennis, you should first get to a level where you can competently play a match. If you can’t hit more than a couple balls across the net at a time, then playing a tournament and getting blown out can potentially discourage you from playing the game for good. And a beginner lacks many basic fundamentals and techniques that need to be developed before competition. When you start competing too early without these fundamentals in place, you will start ingraining bad habits into your game that can become permanent and take a long time to fix if not monitored and corrected by a coach or self-corrected.
Check out my Ultimate Beginner’s Guide if you are relatively new to tennis. It will show you how to improve your skills to the point where you will be ready to start competing. And my free eBook, The Building Blocks of Tennis Success, will show you how to maximize your tennis development.
Tools to Organize Your Tournaments
Here are three simple (and free!) tools you can use to help organize your tournament schedule which I have recommended in previous posts:
Mind Meister – Free mind maps (aka organizational diagrams) to chart out the steps you need to take to reach your goals. Click here to learn more about mind maps, and here to get started creating them!
Trello – Another awesome free tool to organize your workflow and track your progress on projects and tasks. I use Trello (not to be confused with Trollollo 🙂 ) to ensure my blog posts, podcasts, and tennis training gets done on time. You can add notes, checklists, attachments, and even pictures to your entries.
Google Calendar – Just open up google calendar through your gmail account on the interwebs and schedule all your appointments and set alarms to help keep you working towards accomplishing your goals.
Take the first step at the top of this post right now: determine your skill level.
Starting is the hardest part to accomplishing anything in life. Once you know your skill level, progress to the next step of figuring out your SMART Goals in tennis, then find and register for tournaments at your skill level and stay focused on continually improving your game.
I hope this post has helped you figure out how to choose what tournaments to play and encourages you to get out on the court and compete. As you can see, selecting the right tournaments isn’t that difficult, either. Playing tournaments will improve your game and teach you how to become a strong competitor. Now that you know what steps to take, make it happen! If you have any questions about tournaments, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more advice on how to improve your tennis game, get a free copy of my eBook, The Building Blocks of Tennis Success, by filling out the short form below!