Couples Therapy Lessons From Tennis Camp

Pete and Ellyn at Tennis Camp

Recently I took a long weekend to go to The Tennis Congress with Pete.
For a long time, I’d wanted to know how top-level tennis players think. So, off we went to Tucson, Arizona for 3 days of instruction, both on and off the courts.  I loved the off-court instruction because the lessons were so parallel to what I believe about good couples therapy.
I wanted to share some of those lessons with you, and then talk about how they relate to couples therapy.

1. Every shot has not just a target but also a reason.  We know that great tennis players are aiming for a certain place on the court. But more than that, they are setting up for a desirable outcome.

Just like in couples therapy when we are strategic, our interventions have a definite purpose leading to a clear outcome.

2. Good tennis players learn to read nonverbal cues quickly. They don’t get caught up in blaming themselves for failing shots, Instead they focus on what is happening on the other side of the net, so they can respond quickly and effectively.

Effective couples therapists pivot quickly during sessions, when they read nonverbal cues. They know which cues to respond to and which to ignore and quickly make adjustments. These therapists don’t get stuck blaming themselves about whether their interventions are ineffective.

3. Practice your skills under pressure. One coach said, “You have to learn to function under pressure. I make my players practice under pressure. I drill them by having them play lots of tie breakers and matches that start with the score at 5-5. This gives a tennis player a very small margin for error. It is the only way to discover if your foundation is strong enough not to break down under pressure.”

When we do the Initiator-Inquirer process on high-tension topics with our couples, we are giving them a chance to practice their skills under pressure. It’s also why they need to get proficient in the office or their skills will breakdown at home under the emotional heat of the moment.

4. Another coach asked us to frequently answer the question,  “What kind of person are you becoming from your involvement in tennis?”

If you follow my blogs, you know Pete and I ask our clients, “What kind of partner do you aspire to be in your marriage?”

5. Great tennis teams communicate all the time. When the father of doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan was asked why they are such a great doubles team, he answered, “Good tennis teams communicate. Great tennis teams communicate all the time.”

Even though the Bryan brothers are twins and have been playing together since they were very young, they don’t read each other’s minds. They talk. They tell each other what they are going to do and why.

6. And a great piece of wisdom from a father-son coaching team, “Make your partner feel safe. When they are having a bad day, instead of over-coaching them, say “I’m here for you.”

7. Lesson from Gigi Fernandez, winner of 17 doubles grand slams and 2 Olympic gold medals “Control what you can control. Don’t waste energy on what you can’t control.”

How does Gigi’s advice make sense to you as a therapist and also in your own relationships? I’ll enjoy reading your comments and joining the discussion.

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Love it thank you.

Kathy McMahon, Couples Therapy Inc.
Kathy McMahon, Couples Therapy Inc.

Both encouraging, practical, and logical.

It is so easy in this work to both overthink and under think what you are doing with your couple. Both can stop you from focusing your attention on the current moment. I love the image of having a location to direct each “shot” and watching the non-verbals. It is so common to play as if just hitting the ball is the point. Great players bend instantly to not only where the ball is coming from, but where they want the ball to go. This is what makes training in the Developmental Model a notch above, and what makes Ellyn such a great “coach.” “What were you trying to accomplish by that question/statement?” is a regular ask. It keeps us focused on where we are aiming, and less on simply “hitting the ball.”

Brilliant metaphor, Ellyn. Thanks.


Gigi’s advice makes sense to me from the prospective of control of myself in the room with a person or couple… understanding my role, purpose and my own reactions


Love this practical encouraging analogy. Very helpful nuggets of info here I can use today! Thanks Ellyn.


This is meaningful to me in my own relationship. I especially can relate to the last paragraph. About a month ago I began feeling a lot of stress and stomach upset. I decided I needed to limit my “monkey brain assumptions and stressful thinking”. I am a very visual person so I visualized a square with a heart inside. I called the heart “Venice” since I have such a beautiful person (inside and out) as a partner. I made little visual waves around the heart whenever my thinking went astray with things I had no control over (small couple irritations) and I filled the heart with positive words as I saw things that were loving, kind, generous and so on. The waves were my fleeting thoughts and the solid words described my beautiful “Venice” partner. This has cut down on the stress and made me a very happy camper!

Nancy St. John
Nancy St. John

This is such an excellent blog post, Ellyn.
Soon after reading it I was working with a couple and paraphrased your example about knowing where you want the ball to land. It was really exciting to see the husband get it!


Sound advice for the tennis player, therapist and couple.
Thanks for the great analogy Ellyn.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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