Embracing “No Man’s Land” in the Era of COVID-19

By Ian Westermann

Three weeks ago, the entire Essential Tennis crew flew to California for our yearly group and private coaching schedule, in conjunction with the BNP Paribas Open.

Like many of you, we were shocked to learn of the tournament’s cancelation just hours before it was scheduled to kick off. Texts and emails flew in from fans, students, and fellow coaches as we tried our best to make last minute decisions.

We pushed hard to conduct our sessions as planned but it quickly became clear, however, that we couldn’t possibly continue, as club after club shut down and attendees were told not to travel.

As the coronavirus sweeps across the world, all of us are experiencing doubt, uncertainty, and fear. So I want to take a moment to address its impact on tennis and on daily life, while also shedding some light on how things are holding up here at ET.

A quick scroll through social media makes it obvious that much more than tennis is being affected. Jobs are being lost. Businesses are shutting down. Schools are closing their doors from San Francisco to Mumbai.

Our hearts go out to every one of you reading this message who have been affected directly or indirectly by the pandemic.

For so many people (our whole team included) one of the most difficult things is simply not knowing what to expect or what will be next.

It’s scary to think that I don’t know if the life I’ve worked hard to provide for my family will be able to continue – and I’m certain a great many of you reading this feel the exact same way.

One thing that keeps me focused and moving forward is actually a favorite tennis metaphor of mine:

The idea of embracing “No Man’s Land”.

If you’re not familiar, no man’s land is that rectangle of court between the baseline and the service line that you’ve probably been told to move out of a million times over the years.

Why do coaches insist you avoid it at all costs?

It’s because when you stand in no man’s land you’re too far away from the net to hit most incoming balls as a comfortable volley, but you’re also too close to hit them easily as groundstrokes.

We all generally like to hit shots from waist height and can’t stand the ball down by our shoelaces. Standing in no man’s land exposes us to our least favorite scenario.

So we should avoid that vulnerable position at all costs, right?

I beg to differ…

Most players don’t realize it, but there’s an opportunity cost to only traveling through no man’s land when they’re invited forward by a weak, easy shot from their opponents.

When you do this, you’re forced to play on your opponent’s terms instead of your own.

Point after point, your ability to attack, apply pressure and hit directly at the other side of the court is dictated completely by the player on the other side of the net. He gives you something weak, you move forward. He doesn’t, you don’t.

Ultimately they control your fate. Simply by keeping the ball deep they severely limit your tactical options because you won’t dare tread on that forbidden ground of your own will.

Can you still win a tennis match pinned back behind the baseline? Yes. But wouldn’t you rather do so because you WANT to instead of being forced because you don’t know how to transition forward effectively?

Of course.

The more tools you have in your toolbox the easier it is to find the right one for each job.

And so, the solution to this problem is counterintuitive: purposefully spend time in no man’s land! 

The only way to calmly and confidently take time away from your opponent on your own terms is to practice closing forward and taking the ball on the rise, inside the baseline, instead of waiting for it to come to you…

…or moving in and taking a deep, floating ball out of the air as a topspin or backspin volley…

…OR coming up towards the net immediately after your serve or return and hitting a half volley right off the bounce…

All of which require you to do something you’re currently uncomfortable doing: playing a shot from no man’s land.

In other words, you must embrace no man’s land instead of resist it if you want your game to develop.

Life works the same way.

The more you stay in your comfort zone and avoid things that stretch it, the more scary the uncertainty of different challenges becomes.

What makes the current coronavirus situation so terrifying is we’ve been FORCED into the no man’s land of life.

None of us chose to lose our job, shutter our business, or be forced to stay at home with our kids instead of providing for them.

Now, suddenly, we’re 30 feet from the net and the ball is flying towards us at 100mph. How do we respond?

To be clear:

What I’m NOT saying here is “If you left your comfort zone more frequently before this whole COVID-19 thing it would be a piece of cake – so if you’re stressed out it’s your own fault!”

These are unprecedented times. Nobody is immune to feeling their effects.

What I AM saying is this: we all have the chance to view this crisis through one of two lenses.

Lens one: panic. The one ruled by fear that leads to bad decisions.

Lens two: opportunity. We all have the opportunity to leverage this situation to our advantage by developing personal and professional assets we didn’t have before. By learning about the gaps in our careers, finances, and personal lives so we can work on making them whole moving forward. By broadening our perspective on life and deciding what REALLY matters to us so we can realign our focus and energy as things stabilize and recover.

That kind of personal growth doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by getting our feet held to the fire and refining our character and resolve, adapting as best we can, just like our on-the-rise groundstroke will never get better unless we close forward into the discomfort of short-hop timing that happens within no man’s land.

Does that mean the short term is easy?

NO — but at least we can see the big picture and know the pain and suffering is going to somehow pay dividends in the end.

Trust me, I’m right there alongside you.

Four families with a combined eight children rely on Essential Tennis for support each and every day. The future of Essential Tennis hangs in the balance as we work hard to adjust, evolve, and figure out what will work moving forward.

I don’t have all the answers but what I do know is tennis players that never stretch their comfort zone never develop the games they dream of.

The same is true in life. So I hope this message gives you just a little bit of hope and optimism during this difficult time.

If you’re reading these words please know I appreciate you tremendously.

And please know that I realize how important tennis is in your life.

One might think that if ever there were a time to put the tennis racquet away, this is it. With jobs being lost, schools closing, and so many unknowns ahead, who cares about kick serves and forehands?

In fact, I feel that tennis is more important than ever.

With all the chaos around us, tennis provides us with more than just an escape, but with actual hope. The hope that we’ll soon be back out there on those beautiful courts. The hope that no matter how good we are now, there’s a chance we will one day be better — and that we, and no one else, are the ones who decide if this happens.


Ian Westermann, a member of the Tennis Congress Faculty, is the Founder and Head Pro at Essential Tennis. He and his team recently published a few videos focused on how to improve your tennis at home:  

Video 1 – Setting Powerful Goals – Click Here!

Video 2 – Improving Your Footwork – Click Here!

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