The Typical Life Cycle of a Tennis Player

Jimmy (little Johnny is on vacation) started playing tennis at age 8. It wasn’t love at first sight, but he enjoyed the sport as much as he did the other sports he was participating in at the time. Over the next two years, Jimmy started to play more regularly and took note of his improvements. He fell in love with hitting the ball cleanly, constructing points and using his superior athletic ability to beat players who had been playing a lot longer than him up to this point. His improvements made him want to play more, and before he knew it, he was playing almost every day.

Jimmy started participating in tournaments and by the age of 12, he was competing at a national level. He loved the thrill of travelling to play tournaments in unfamiliar places against different opponents and was making new friends all over the country. He was winning a few more matches than he was losing at this level and finished his last year in the under 12’s ranked 57th in the country. He and his parents were thrilled with his progress and looked forward to many more tennis experiences in the years to come. Jimmy wanted nothing more than to play in Wimbledon one day. By now, his parents had learned as much as they could about the tournament and ranking systems. They talked to other parents about coaching, equipment and everything else tennis related so they could get Jimmy up to speed and on a similar path to those players playing at the national level.

Over the next few years, young Jimmy got a little bigger and taller. He did the usual group coaching and private lessons and played all the tournaments that everyone else his age was participating in. He started doing some strength and conditioning exercises like many of his peers had started to adopt. He did all the same drills and practiced about the same number of hours as everyone else his age.

He finished his final year in the under 14’s ranked 61st in the country. He was still loving his experience playing tournaments, practicing with his friends and receiving praise and acknowledgement at the local level for his tennis accomplishments. His goals had now shifted from playing in Wimbledon one day to becoming a top 250 ATP player after a year or two at a top NCAA Division I college on a full scholarship.

As Jimmy transitioned into the under 16’s, he started to put more pressure on himself. The gap between him and the players ranked in the top 20 nationally had widened and he lost some belief that he could ever close the gap. He started to feel a huge amount of tension before and during matches, and could never really settle down and play the way he knew he was capable of playing in practice. The tension was not that obvious on the outside; but inside, his mind would be raging with “what if” thoughts. He would work through this tension to the best of his ability as he was a good competitor, but he would be drained after matches due to his mental output rather than his physical exertion. He would struggle in his second match of the day or over the course of several days. His coaches and parents could not really see this tension as it was quite subtle. Jimmy was reluctant to address it. He figured it was just part of being an athlete and it would resolve itself one day. He was still working hard and doing all the same things his peers were doing.  His ranking at his final year of the 16’s was 54th in the nation.

Jimmy adjusted his goals yet again as he moved into the u-18 category and commenced the college recruiting process. He had given up on the possibility of playing at the pro level but hoped to receive a partial scholarship at a top NCAA Division I college. He battled through the u-18 years, enjoying more of a social life but still working hard on the tennis court, doing what was expected of him by his coaches.

He finished his junior career with a ranking of 58th in the nation and a partial scholarship to a traditional top 25 NCAA Division I college. He was very excited to be playing college tennis now and went on to play mostly at # 5 and # 6 on his college team over the next four years. He did everything his teammates were doing and was always a very coachable and compliant student-athlete. He never really got over the tension he felt during matches but managed it to the best of his abilities.

Jimmy went on to meet the girl of his dreams during his senior year of college and they lived happily ever after. THE END

Hopefully reading through this you have taken notice of everything I have put in bold and underlined, but let me break it down a little further.

Jimmy, like many tennis players, gets stuck in a certain ranking bracket or place on a college team because they:

a.)   Accept the status quo

b.)   Do the same things everyone else is doing

c.)   Adjust their goals to match their current rankings/form/training rather than adjust what they are doing to meet their goals.

Create new pathways to the goals you desire…

Create new pathways to the goals you desire…

Jimmy had a wonderful tennis career that most players would be very happy to have. But I assure you, Jimmy could have accomplished a lot more. Jimmy stopped believing in himself because he never really saw any major progress in his ranking or results after the age of 12. He also did not address some of the issues he was facing around the tension he was experiencing before and during competition. He lowered his standards and decided that what he was doing was good enough. His coaches were happy with him and he did everything that was asked of him. He never challenged what was asked of him, or asked what he could be doing more of, differently, better. He put his development in the hands of others rather than taking more responsibility for his own game and development.

All players hit a plateau at some point in their tennis career, but the best ones hit many plateaus. What I have seen from coaching players, as well from my own experiences as a player, is that once we hit our first plateau, we get stuck and accept it. We justify our acceptance by telling ourselves we are still working hard and doing as much as the next person. Our results never really get better, but they don’t get any worse either. We believe we are maximizing our abilities, but our mindset to training and competition remains the same as it did when we were 12 years old. We are physically stronger, and our technique has become more refined, but we haven’t explored the habits and thought patterns that are now very well embedded into our neural pathways. So, we stay stuck and accept the status quo.

 

If you are like Jimmy and had set high goals for yourself at age 12 but have since reduced them greatly, what happened? Are you willing to put those goals back on the table and start adjusting your approach and push past this current plateau you find yourself in? I hope you do. Learn from Jimmy’s mistakes, keep your standards high and if you want extraordinary results, then you can’t just do what everyone else is doing.

 

 

ARE YOU DENIAL?

Hey you…. Yeah you…. Have you ever withdrawn from a tennis tournament because you did not like your draw or were scared of losing to a potential opponent? Have you ever retired from a match because you had convinced yourself that you were too injured, sick or tired to keep going but you really just needed an excuse because you were going to lose?

 I played a open tournament recently which was made up predominantly of junior players. Here are the frightening statistics:

  •  The tournament included two draws (men’s and ladies) of 16 - 32 players in total

  • The draws were made and published 4 days before play commenced

  • 4 male players dropped out before the tournament even started

  • 3 male players dropped out of the back-draw matches and 1 player retired after losing the first set in the second round

  • In the ladies draw, 2 players dropped out from the back-draw matches and 1 player retired during her last match of the competition

This means that of the original 32 players, 9 players dropped out before the tournament had started or were competing in back-draw matches, and 2 players retired during their matches. I cannot believe that 35% of these players were sick, injured or had something better to do – THIRTY FIVE PERCENT!!!! Think about that for a second…I hope that is not a common statistic but even it is 10% I believe that is still way too high. I understand that nervous feeling of having to play someone you are expected to beat, or to feel so sick or injured that you wanted to quit during a match. I can relate to the feelings, but I cannot relate to the attitude of acting on these feelings and quitting. Why are spending so much time on the practice court if you are just going to drop out of competition? I thought the whole point of training was to prepare for competition?

There is obviously something a little more to this issue than what appears on the surface. There is no way that all 35% of these withdrawals were legitimate. I believe that many of these players were influenced by other factors. I am not doubting that some of these players may have been slightly under the weather or slightly injured but not to the point where they had to withdraw. I also know that some of these players felt a level of shame about their withdrawal and had to deal with that nagging little voice in the back of their head telling them that their excuse was not exactly bulletproof, and if they really wanted to persist, they could have done so with no repercussions to their health.

Stop ignoring the problem….

Stop ignoring the problem….

 

So why do many of junior tennis players choose not to listen to this voice and fail to explore the real reasons for wanting to quit. What might happen if they allowed themselves to feel what they were trying to avoid? How do you think they might grow or develop from sitting in this uncomfortableness?

So back to you….yes you……What would happen if you persevered through the next match even if you did not feel your best or were worried about the consequences of taking the loss? What do you think you might learn about yourself if you stuck with something when all you wanted to do was quit? Don’t you think you might become just a little more resilient? I do. Regardless of the outcome of the match you will be so proud of yourself for sticking with something challenging and fighting through some small adversity that the sting of losing won’t actually feel that bad. Rather than avoiding eye contact when someone asks why you withdrew, you can look them in the eye and say that you got outplayed and your opponent was better than you today. You may still catch some grief from you Mum or Dad about losing to someone they believed you should beat, but they don’t have a clue about what you just went through. Unfortunately, some parents can’t help but have their own ego tied up with your wins and losses and will actually support you wholeheartedly in your decision to withdraw or quit. They may even suggest it as they see you grabbing your shoulder or some other body part. They don’t fully understand how they are robbing you of this golden opportunity to grow and evolve. But hopefully that little voice in your head will be buzzing and extremely happy for what you just accomplished. No need for excuses or to justify your loss, you know that you just persevered through something even though your body and mind was telling you to STOP. There are very few better feelings than this on this planet. Who knows, maybe you will then be able to take that extra bit of resilience into your next competition and be just a little harder to beat. This new toughness may even spill over to how you view other challenges in your life. You might find you start coping better with your anxiety, worries and fears because you trust in your resilience and willingness to face whatever adversity comes your way.

“Mental toughness is associated with the use of problem-focused coping (active coping) as opposed to avoidance (denial) or emotion-focused coping strategies” (Kaiseler, Polman and Nichols, 2009). Most of us learn through experience. If you keep actively avoiding problems, then you cannot learn what it means to be mentally tough regardless of how many Rocky movies you watch. You will only learn by attempting to actively cope with the next issue that arises in your life. Don’t deny that this issue exists. Attempt to work through the problem even when all you want to do is stop and run away. Remember that real growth begins at the end of your comfort zone.

And please, if you are not willing to see out your commitment to playing through an entire tournament, back-draw and all, then don’t enter it in the first place! College coaches would prefer to see a big L beside you name instead of a W/O. If they see too many W/O’s on your record they will most definitely be walking away from you as a prospective recruit.

 

 

BE NEGATIVE, ANGRY & STOP SETTING GOALS….

If you are a positive, calm person who has no problem setting and achieving goals, and your current state is working for you, your relationships and your tennis, then stop reading this now. If, on the other hand, you tend to be a little negative at times, get angry when things don’t go your way and struggle to set goals (never mind trying to achieve them!) then you might find the next few paragraphs helpful. It is a little counterintuitive but what the heck, we are all different and what works for one won’t necessarily work for us all.

BE NEGATIVE:

Yes, that’s right, be as negative as possible. The glass is not just half empty, it is bone dry and slightly cracked!

Most of our fears and worries are not rational. As humans, we have a tendency to “catastrophize” and think of the worse-case scenario when things are not going our way and even somehow manage to do it when they are going our way! How often do we challenge these thoughts and actually play out the worst-case scenario to its most logical conclusion?

Imagine you are set point up and you miss an easy forehand volley into the bottom of the net. You might think, “That was the best chance I was going to get to win this set, I cannot believe I missed that!” – okay, so you missed an easy shot.

What happens if you lose the next point? Well, then I am down game point

And what happens if you lose that point? Well, then it is 5-5 and it is close to a tiebreak and I NEVER win tiebreaks

And what happens if you lose the tiebreak? Well, I lose the set

What happens if you lose the set? Well, I might lose the match

What happens if you lose the match? Well, I will be upset, and my ranking might drop

What happens if your ranking drops? Well, I don’t really know, I guess I won’t be able to get into that college I hoped to get into.

What happens if you don’t get into that college? Well, I will go to another one

Ok, do you really know one way or the other that this college will be a lesser experience for you or provide less opportunities for your future? Well, I guess not, no

Ok, so stop stressing about missing that easy volley and get back to competing…..

So, go ahead, knock yourself out and think through just how bad it can get and you will see it is not that bad after all!

GET ANGRY: I used to show my teams a YouTube clip of Tommy Haas losing a match at the Australian Open. He came to the changeover and started berating himself, basically telling himself that he is a worthless tennis player and overall useless human being. For about 60 seconds he went to town on himself, got it all out in the open for everyone to see and hear. However, as soon as the referee called time, he said, “C’mon,” skipped out of his chair and went on to dominate the rest of the match. He had turned his frustration and anger into pure determination, demanding more from his body and his mind.

Sometimes we are trapped by what others tell us we “should” do…

Sometimes we are trapped by what others tell us we “should” do…

I am not condoning bad behavior by any means, so please remember:

 Smashing rackets is STUPID and EXPENSIVE.

Cussing up a storm is STUPID and EMBARRASSING.

Punching the fence, your racket or something else is STUPID and will probably HURT.

Let out a yell, slap your thigh, bang the ball on the ground on your side of the court (not against a fence or over the fence!), or talk to yourself like you would your own worst enemy. Do all of these things but ONLY doing them if it is a cathartic action. You must be really willing to let go of it all and use that energy to make yourself more determined for the next point or game. In the long run, it has to provide you with POSITIVE energy, not take energy away from you in a “I’m feeling sorry for myself” kind of way. These are two very different states and should not be confused. I see plenty of players getting angry and look like they live under a grey cloud by adopting a miserably mopey demeanour. In fact, they just look like spoilt little brats that believe that life is unfair. Every so often I see someone get angry, become more determined and demand more from themselves. They recognise that feeling sorry for themselves has never once worked in helping them play better tennis and problem solve how to win a tennis match. With every outburst their body language improves dramatically, and they are ready to compete now that they have let go of their frustration.

DON’T SET GOALS: I know, I know, I know, I have spoken about the importance of goal setting before, and again a lot of research has been done on the positive effects of goal-setting but I just don’t believe it is the right solution for everyone. Sometimes setting a goal and falling just short of it can lead to doubts and too much rigidity.

Case in Point: You are currently ranked 184 in your state you want to be ranked in the top 50 in the state by the end of 2019. Then you get to the end of 2019 and you are ranked 62, should you feel poorly about this or believe you should have done something drastically different? Of course not, but some tennis players can be guilty of this way of thinking.

The other potential issue with goals is that you are assuming you will feel a certain way about a certain goal at some date in the future. This assumes a lot. We are constantly evolving, and we have no idea the type of person we will be, and the things we will value a year from now, never mind in 5 years. Maybe you would be better served now, and in the future, focusing on the task at hand and less about the outcome or final result.

I am not saying you should do all three of these things. In fact, I am not saying you should do any. What I am trying to do is get you to explore your own views about all the things we are supposed to conform to as a tennis player. You will be told time and time and time again to “BE POSITIVE,” to not get “ANGRY” and to set “GOALS” by many well-intentioned people. But these same people may have heard it from other well-intentioned people and so on. They may have never stopped to question whether it is valid or works for their day to day life; it is just something they heard, and it sounded like good advice. I want you to explore the why of these things. Is there another way to do it that works for your personality and temperament? Sometimes it is healthy to conform and sometimes it can be extremely unhealthy.

SHAKY FOUNDATION - PART 2

In Part 1 of “A Shaky Foundation,” I pose several questions about the current high- performance tennis coaching model. In Part 2, I do my best to answer some of these questions. In recent years, I have spent time looking at my environment and examining my relationship to the world around me to determine when I am just following the crowd and mindlessly conforming to societal norms. I am fascinated by different people’s thought processes, how diverse cultures view the world, and when and why they conform to certain behaviors that may not always serve their best interests. I am also curious about what actions really count; what decisions or actions really move the dial in igniting change in our world?

SHAKY FOUNDATION - PART 1

I remember qualifying for the U14 Orange Bowl World Championships in Miami, Florida in the mid 90’s. I had never seen so many good tennis players at one site. I felt very intimidated by the quality of the players I would see practicing or playing on every court. Even Anna Kournikova was there with her entourage! I can distinctly recall the final between two players who, 10 years later, would be top 100 on the ATP world rankings. And you know what? Their games were almost identical to that of their 14-year-old selves

Have you ever seen the YouTube clip of Nadal vs. Gasquet at 13 years old?

I WORK HARD; WHY AM I NOT WINNING?

Just work hard and the rest will take care of itself.”  

“All you have to do is believe in yourself and anything is possible.”  

“Stay positive, set goals and get a little bit better every day. Do this, and your dreams will become a reality.”

We have all heard clichés like these throughout our lives. While, they can be inspiring and comforting, are they really true for everyone or apply to just some people?

PARENTING FOR DUMMIES

Before I get started, let me just say that I hit the lottery when it comes to parents. They gave me every opportunity in life to be happy, and to lead a productive life. They sacrificed, encouraged and took the time to discipline me and love me. As a parent of two children myself, I now have an obvious appreciation as to how challenging it can be to navigate the parenting process which is fraught with missteps. Fortunately, I had two great role models in my parents, and view my role as a parent as the most important task I will be ever faced with during my short time on this planet.

MAYBE IT IS TIME TO LET GO...

Wow…. Congratulations….your child just received a tennis scholarship and will be off to college in a few months. How quickly the time has passed. I am sure you are reminiscing about all the ups and downs of this crazy whirlwind the junior tennis scene can be. The days were long, but the years were short! Undoubtedly, you are very proud of what your child has accomplished. I know how much you have sacrificed to provide the opportunities necessary to develop and showcase their talents in order for them to realize this goal. They are now part of a tiny percentage of the population competing at this elite level. So, what happens now that they are off to college and you don’t have to get them to tennis practice or give up your holidays to fly them across the country for yet another tennis tournament?

LET'S START OVER

Okay Millennials, Snow flakers, and up and coming Gen Z’ers, Linksters or whatever else they are calling you these days. I am referring to those of you who are entering into adulthood, and more specifically, those entering college campuses these next few years. We coaches are starting to accept the fact that you are not going to change or meet our long-established expectations and norms. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s us?

A SIMPLE CURE

I had to retire from the finals of the Irish Junior National Championship Finals when I was 18. This was a huge deal to me at the time, and it should have been the impetus for some changes in my approach to the care of my body. The reason I had to retire was that for the first time in my young tennis career I experienced a significant injury. The culprit was the lower right side of my back, and it felt like a debilitating injury. I could not even put my socks on the morning of the final, never mind try to run around a tennis court!

GIVE ME A BREAK

Now that I am no longer coaching on a regular basis I am not around competitive tennis tournaments as much as I once was. However, in recent weeks I spent a significant portion of my days viewing a men’s and ladies futures event, a Junior National Championship and competed in a Men’s Open money tournament myself. I observed a lot of really good tennis but also some ludicrous behavior that does little to help these players or the sport of tennis. There appear to be certain behaviors that are embedded in our consciousness and culture at  high level junior, college and professional tennis in every part of the world, that we don’t seem to question, and accept as the norm despite there absurdity. I would love to say I wasn’t guilty of conforming to many of these cultural norms, but I will hold my hand up and say I was every bit as ridiculous at times. Here are a few examples:

TENNIS PARENT QUESTION

QUESTION: “Hi!! I m a mother of a 13 year old boy and a 10 year old girl. Both my kids play tennis. My son is really struggling to win matches and losing to players he used to beat a few months back. In the fear of losing a match he doesn’t even give his best on the court. He is lacking courage to play big. He really loves the game and is willing to do anything to get better. But how do I make him more stronger mentally. Is it important to make him play
more matches to get over his fear??”

DOES ANYONE REALLY KNOW HOW TO PRODUCE A CHAMPION

Did Erik Spoelstra suddenly become a worse basketball coach when Lebron James left the Miami Heat? Was Bill Belichick a bad coach when he got fired from the Cleveland Browns, and will he have the same success after Tom Brady retires? Would Phil Jackson have won 11 NBA titles if he was the coach at the Minnesota Timberwolves or was his timing just impeccable?  Is Boris Becker responsible for Novak Djokovic’s recent domination, or would John Smith be having the same impact on Novak’s game? These are just a few examples of why I am a little dubious about how much impact a coach really has over elite athletes and who is truly responsible for athletic success at the highest levels. It obviously depends on the sport but in most sports I just don’t believe it matters as much as we seem to think.

HOW TO RAISE A HAPPY ATHLETE

You know the scene: you are standing a few feet away from that “crazy” parent yelling at the referee, cheering wildly any time their child touches the ball, wins a point or hits a good shot depending on the sport. You think to yourself how “nutty” that parent is acting and you even feel bad for their kid. You thank the heavens that you don’t act or behave in a manner that could embarrass yourself or your child. However, you may unintentionally be acting in a similar fashion to that crazy parent, just in a more subtle and less obvious way. If this is the case then you are most likely impacting your child’s love for sport participation and, more importantly, you may be indirectly hurting your relationship with him or her for years to come.

Why My Roommate DID NOT Fail as a Tennis Player

A few months ago, I explained some of the reasons as to why I failed as a professional tennis player. This time, I want to discuss how one of my college teammates and roommates made it as a professional tennis player. His name is Peter Luczak and he reached number 64 on the ATP world rankings, beating several highly ranked players and reaching the 3rd round of the Australian Open twice. Many of you may not have heard of Peter, but to give you some context, if he was one of the world’s top 100 soccer players, he would be playing for Barcelona or Juventus. If he was the 64th richest person in the world, he would have a net worth of over $15 billion. He was at the pinnacle of one of the top 5 sports in the world!  

STOP THE MADNESS

There is this kid I know who is a talented soccer player. He trains twice per week with his club, two hours at a time. On the weekend, he and his teammates get to the grounds an hour early to prepare for their league or cup match, and sometimes they may have up to four games over a two-day period.  All the players are very technically sound and understand how the game should be played. The team has three coaches and they trawl the sidelines during the games criticizing, correcting, reinforcing good plays, congratulating successful and unsuccessful attempts, but they all appear to be a little on edge throughout the duration of the match.

Everything is Amazing and No-one is Happy

What I find troubling is that a high percentage of collegiate tennis players are quite unhappy with their student-athlete experience. They get to their college campus full of excitement, a little scared and a lot clueless. They have been told that their college days will be the best days of their lives, but fail to understand that they can only be the best days of their lives if they are willing to go through some adversity. It seems to me that nobody wants to explain why college can be some of the best years of your life.

WHY I FAILED AS A TENNIS PLAYER

anuary, 2003: I’m sitting on a Cliffside, overlooking the east coast of Australia, contemplating my future as a tennis player. I just battled through four rounds of qualifying to make it to the first round of a futures event. Today, I was up a set, 5-4 40-0 and lost in three sets against the 4th seed. My elbow is throbbing, my back is bothering me and my first round losers paycheck will only cover two nights of hotel bills. Is this really worth it??

TALK, Talk, talk....

I recently heard a statistic claiming that roughly 70% of what Donald Trump presented to the American population during his presidential campaign, was, in fact, false. There is a lot of debate about what President Trump truly believes and what he just put out there to grab headlines in his bid to win the election.

This serves as a reminder that we are all guilty at times of some delusional dialogue about ourselves and our goals. Throughout my years of collegiate coaching, I listened to many bold statements from players, and I learned to become increasingly skeptical when I would hear these lines from recruits or players on my team.