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?

When I was 12 years old, my mother managed to get us onto the grounds of Wimbledon the day before the main draw matches started. We stumbled across Stefan Edberg (my childhood hero) practicing with Michael Chang. I studied every move they made for the next 30 minutes, but the one thing that stood out to me more than anything was the size of their calf muscles! I don’t know why, but as I walked around the grounds that day watching players get ready for the biggest tournament of the year, I started checking out the players legs! Sure enough, all the male players had monstrous calf muscles! Based on this experience I believed that one ingredient to becoming a professional tennis player was to have big powerful legs. I assumed that with the right training, nutrition and commitment, I too, would someday have calf muscles that size! But for me, that day never came. You see, I have more of a long-distance runner’s body. I wasn’t built for power, I was built for endurance. It did not matter how many calf raises I committed to doing, I was never going to replicate the same powerful, tree trunk legs of the players I saw strutting around the courts of Wimbledon years earlier. Why?

 Not my calves…

Not my calves…

In my teens, I remember some tennis players dropping out of school to commit to tennis full time. They would play 3-4 hours per day and would receive coaching several times per week. I continued with my 1 hour of tennis per day, maybe a few more at the weekend, while I stayed in school. I could never understand how I could still beat these players so comfortably. I would notice some improvements in their game, but they never caught me and eventually quit (the sport altogether) much earlier than I did. These players had far more hours of on court training time, coaching and competition, yet they could not catch me. Why?

Once I entered the college coaching profession, I finally started to understand the limitations of certain players. Early in my coaching career, I wanted to believe that talent did not matter. Rather, I thought that with the right mindset and work ethic, there would never be any limit to my players’ results. I found it frustrating that some of the hardest working players were not rewarded with a high win count or even a place in my line-up! I yearned to reward them for all their hard work, but when it mattered most, the more “talented” player usually beat them out for that spot. It soon became clear to me that players who experience the most success typically had “talent” as well as a great work ethic. You see, I have come to learn that talent and genetics REALLY matter.

As a college coach, I was aware that a player’s ability to compete is not derived solely from the number of hours they practice. After a number of years coaching both men and women at an elite collegiate level, I could see there were a number of distinct factors that contribute to their ability to performs and now science has backed up my experiences.  

The book “Top Dog,” by Bronson and Merrymen, digs a little deeper into this topic. It sheds light on the fact that thousands of hours of practice just isn’t enough to compete at the highest levels of any profession. One of the studies in the book I found fascinating focused on the topic of how people handle stressful situations. When someone is under duress, the synapses in the prefrontal cortex are flooded with dopamine. We use the COMT enzyme to flush out the dopamine. Most of us were gifted with both fast and slow acting enzymes from our parents while others have only fast acting enzymes. An unlucky 25% of the population possess only slow acting enzymes. This means that these people will have a very difficult time calming themselves down after a stressful encounter. The dopamine will stick around far longer than needed. Now imagine you are a high- performance tennis player and belong to this 25% of the population. You feel pressure from yourself and others to get a win. You get a commanding lead but blow it and you feel the stress building. The dopamine is now flooding in, but you are powerless to wash it away because of this genetic code you have been dealt at birth. Every muscle in your body is tight as you hit a trail of double faults and have a complete technical meltdown. As a coach or parent, are you really going to get mad about this? I did. At least until I read this study and realized one of my players most likely had this genetic code and was always going to be susceptible to “choking” when a match got close.

Another book I recently read, “SUPERHUMAN,” by Pullman discusses studies that show “about a quarter of the variation in the amount of practice people put in could be explained by genetic factors.” That means that a quarter of the drive to go and practice is genetically influenced. Practice also magnified the effects of innate talent. In short: genes influence how much you practice, and also how successful you end up being. This book also explains the Multifactorial Gene-Environment Interaction Model (MGIM) – In a nutshell MGIM recognizes that practice can’t explain achievement and accepts that both genetic and non-genetic factors are essential for expertise. Those involved with this model have done studies which “found that the amount of practice someone put in accounted for 30 percent of the variance in performance. In other words, factors other than the amount of practice put in accounted for 70% of the individual differences in performance ability.”

Basically, genetics impact every aspect of an athlete’s life. I could cite many more examples than I have included in this short blog, but hopefully these few little-know examples will make you think about some others. This goes way beyond what we see on the surface: height, weight, speed, jumping ability, etc. Genetics impact how an athlete deals with stress and even their commitment to practice! We may think it doesn’t impact on these subtler areas of an athlete’s development because we cannot see it with our own eyes. We are almost hoping it doesn’t exist with our “work hard and never quit” adages.

It is my hope that coaches and parents can better understand that developing a high performing tennis player is an extremely complicated process. You have no idea in which areas your child/pupil will begin to reach a plateau in their career due to their genetics. We want things to be neat and simple, and “experts” will sometimes sell you on easy solutions. Tennis development, like personal development can be a full of potholes and missteps.

Parents will look to coaches to explain why their child is not improving or why they are losing matches. These are good questions to ask but you must also understand that your child may have inherited a number of limitations beyond their control that might actually be able to explain your child’s lack of results.

If your child loves tennis and has big dreams, absolutely support them in the best way you can but make sure you maintain realistic expectations along the way. Recognize that an innumerable set of factors must converge in order for a player to reach a world class standard. Such a standard is out of reach for most of us, but if we love to play and truly want to improve then we should do our best to maximize whatever genes and environment with which we have been blessed. We all have our limitations; it is not something to get upset about.   

 

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.

The Three Neutral Phases

Unless you have a huge first serve or a blistering return of serve, your success as a tennis player is often going to be determined by the quality (pace & depth) of your neutral ball.

To me, a neutral ball is one that is not an obvious offensive position where you are equipped to end the point with a winner or even force your opponent into an error. It is also not a ball that puts you on flat-out defence where you are scrambling just to get the ball back in the court. A neutral ball is typically one that is just continuing the point without much drama. However, I think the ability to understand what phase of neutrality you are in will often determine your success as a tennis player.