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.
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.