January, 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??
We love to read the success stories of the greatest players in the world. We learn about the ups and downs they endured along the way, but eventually made it to the top. However, we rarely look at those who did not achieve the same level of success in their chosen area of excellence and try to dissect why. I think we could learn a lot from these stories, too. What if we could avoid the mistakes these “average” people made while still aspiring for that top tier of excellence? If we aspire to be “great,” of course we need to understand how the elite reached that level of excellence, but we must also understand why so many others fail along the way.
Admittedly, I had a very below average professional tennis career and I don’t feel bad about it one bit. In fact, I don’t think you can call it a professional career as I was very much in the red throughout it! I don’t have any regrets or think that I could have raised the Wimbledon Trophy one day, if only I had just worked that bit harder, and ate more spinach! I believe if all the stars aligned, and I committed to a professional career for about 5-7 years, perhaps I could have reached about 300 in the ATP singles rankings and top 150 in the ATP doubles rankings. Instead, I played for about 6 months and reached a career high of 943! During that time, I spent about $25,000 and made roughly $11,000 (thanks mostly to money tournaments without ranking points).
The reality is, even if I had reached a ranking of 300 in the world, I would not have fared much better financially. Whether I was 300 or 1200, I would still be struggling to play in the events I dreamed of when I first started competing in the sport. There is absolutely nothing wrong with staying out on the tour for years if you love the lifestyle, and are still very passionate about training and competition. It’s an expensive passion, but if it is financially feasible for you, then why not? I am all about doing what you love! However, I made a lot of mistakes along the way and these are a few of the lessons I want to share with young players who have the same dreams I had as a young teen.
1.) MENTAL: “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu.
People don’t care about your results and performances as much as you think they do. Playing an individual sport, we tend to be somewhat narcissistic and think that everyone is watching us. In truth, they are watching two people and where the ball is going, then they look at their smartphones between points. They cheer, they clap, they judge, but at the end of the day, they go home to their own lives, their own problems, their own passions. They don’t really care all that much about who won or lost, or who is playing well or not improving. I know as a young tennis player, I would get so consumed and worried about what other people thought of my performances for all sorts of reasons. Instead, I should have been spending that time and energy critically evaluating my own performance, and what I could learn from it in order to apply it to my next match. Instead, I was overly concerned about pleasing others.
But, Coach Mullins, what about my parents, my coach and my best friend, Mike, don’t they care? Yes, they care, but not as much as you probably believe.
If you have overbearing parents, an intense coach or a buddy named Mike that appear to care a little too much, it is probably more of a reflection of their own issues in life and far less about yours. Again, proving that they are more consumed with their own image and how your tennis is impacting their precious place in this world than you! Your tennis performances have nothing to do with who you are as person. Learn to separate the two.
2.) GOAL SETTING: “Life favors the specific ask and punishes the vague wish”- Tim Ferriss.
I had many vague wishes and no specific asks. I was very guilty of selling myself short, and a lot of that comes from my background and culture. When I decided to play full-time after college, I took the approach of, “Ahh, sure we will see how it goes,” and, “Hopefully I can pick up a few points here and there.” There was no plan, there were no concrete goals, there was no vision of how to accomplish anything. I was just reacting and going with the flow. Hopefully you have a coach, mentor, or parent in your life that can help guide you on occasion in these areas. If not, there are plenty of books out there that can get you on track. One of my favorites is “The Slight Edge,” by Jeff Olson. It discusses the power of taking deliberate, consistent actions every day towards your goals.
3.) PROCESS vs. WINNING: “If you’re looking for a formula for greatness, the closest we’ll ever get, I think, is this: Consistency driven by a deep love of work.” – Maria Popova
Winning is great, and when you go out to compete, you should strive to win with every part of your body and mind. However, it has taken me a very long time to understand that it is not about the final goal, it is truly about the process. Yes, we hear it all the time, but it is incredibly difficult to put into action. What matters far more than winning is what you put into preparing to compete and staying present throughout that process. I rarely walked on the court believing that I had done all I could to put myself in a position to perform at my best. Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard, but there was so much more I could have been doing to take care of my body and my mind. If you can fall in love with the process, and put all your energies into your preparation, you will be far better off in tennis and in life, and winning will most likely take care of itself. Ultimately, I never learned to love the process. The majority of the best tennis players I have been around absolutely love that process, and approach their tennis practices with childlike enthusiasm.
4.) NUTRITION: “We are what we eat” – anonymous.
I failed miserably at understanding how to fuel my body. I always felt sluggish in practices and workouts. I had a hard time finishing long matches in warm temperatures without my body breaking down. I had a lot of injuries from age 17 onwards. I attribute much of this to my cluelessness about how to fuel my body. Here was my typical daily intake of food during my college years:
Breakfast: Two Oreo Pop Tarts and a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal
Lunch: Teriyaki Chicken Rice Bowl and liter of Mountain Dew
Practice: All the Gatorade I could drink and a banana
Dinner: Five 49 cent McDonalds Cheeseburgers and French Fries with a liter of Coke
Desert: Chocolate Milkshake
Supper: Another bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch or some toast with Nutella
I look at this menu now and I want to puke! I was operating at 60% capacity most days with a game-style that required peak physical fitness. Athletes in general are far better educated nowadays on how they should be fueling their bodies, but I still see players making detrimental nutritional choices. You may be getting by just fine on your crappy diet, just like I thought I was, but understand you are not even scratching the surface of your true capabilities. “Getting by” is not the same as maximizing your body’s potential. The cleaner you eat, the more in tune you become with your body, which in turn allows you to sleep better, recover faster, and reduce the risk of injury, just to name a few benefits.
5.) MONEY: “Never spend your money before you have earned it” – Thomas Jefferson. Well Mr. Jefferson, when it comes to starting out as a professional tennis player I am going to have to disagree with you.
I graduated college in December of 2001. I returned home for Christmas, then hit the road in January and did not return for 6 months. I stayed on the road, sleeping on floors, sharing hotel rooms with three other dudes, eating cheap processed food, stringing my own rackets with my drop weight travelling stringing machine. I received no coaching or did any training blocks during this period. I just travelled and tried to save money in every area possible. I was rarely prepared mentally or physically to give even close to my best effort. Looking back now, I see that in my attempt to save money I was costing myself a great deal. If I had spent more I would have won more. If I had won more, I would have received more money. If I had more money, I would have played longer.
If I could do it differently, I would have gone on the road for 2 to 4 weeks at a time. I would have played fewer tournaments and spent more money at each event in order to put my mind and body in a place where it could perform its best. I would have let my body rest, ate nourishing food and received some feedback and help with my game and body. Instead, after 6 months, I was out of money, injured and had lost most of my desire to continue playing. Resources are often tight for those starting out in the professional ranks, so you need to get clear on where best to spend those limited resources. As a junior player, you probably should stay in crappy hotels, take 17-hour bus journeys, string your own rackets and wash your socks and underwear in the sink. I think there is a lot of value in dealing with adversity on the road as a junior. However, if you are serious about trying to maximize your time as a professional in a small window of opportunity, then don’t skimp in areas that will potentially be the difference between winning and losing.
If you are serious about your tennis, do not make the same mistakes I did. You can apply these lessons to many different phases of your tennis career. Some of the mistakes I made were out of ignorance, some denial and others laziness. Once you have established a reliable technique and game-style you must start respecting all the other areas that impact your performances and training. These things will set you apart and give you a realistic shot at reaching your potential. Good luck and learn to love the process!