“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?
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.