Life as an aspiring professional athlete differs from regular life in many ways, and one of them is the requirement to be among the top in the world at a relatively young age. While a businessperson may reach the peak of their career in their forties, a professional athlete is likely to retire some time in their thirties. And while the age of the top 100 is increasing, the age that the average player enters the top 100 is still hovering around 21. On top of that, tennis is unique in the fact that it is an individual sport that cannot be practiced easily (one needs access to a court, transportation, amenable weather, and more) and the fact that it doesn’t (yet) allow for in-match coaching. It’s for these reasons that players wishing to reach their full potential must possess one more quality beyond being a hard worker and a fast learner: maturity.
Let’s look at the indicators of a mature player and some thoughts on how we can develop them.
3.1 I do the right things without being told
Foam rolling. Meditation. Baskets of serves. There is a lot of work that must be done “behind the scenes” – away from the practice and match courts. It is not and cannot be the responsibility of the coach or parents to remind a player to do this work – they have to do it on their own. The proclivity of a player to do this work independently and consistently will go great lengths to determining their future success.
We often talk about the life lessons that high performance sport can teach, but how often do we actually teach those lessons, rather than assume they will simply be learned? This is a great opportunity to teach a lesson in accountability and routines. There are a few different systems a player can adopt to teach themselves to be more accountable. And if they sound a little gimmicky, remember that these are the same systems that you and I probably use.
Keep a to-do list
I would recommend finding an app that can not only manage a to-do list but also send notifications and reminders.
Build in a reward system For example, “I can only watch an episode of my favourite TV show after I roll out.”
Establish what I call “when/then” rules For example, “when I wake up in the morning, then I do my visualization” or “when I finish practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then I hit an extra basket of serves.” The logic is that it is easier to do something if it is scheduled for the present moment than if it is just meant to be done “at some point” (for example, if you say “I’ll do my visualization at some point today” or “I’ll hit two baskets of serves at some point this week”). It is also easier to remember to do it as you’ll usually be reminded at that moment of the day.
Part of being mature is knowing what works for you, so help your athletes self-reflect and experiment until they find a system that helps them be accountable.
3.2 I know when to be serious and when to joke around
If you are introduced to the sport at a young age and go on to play in college or on the pro tours, then you will be playing, taking lessons, and training for close to, if not more than, 20 years. The process must be enjoyable for anyone to last until the end. Watch any professional athlete practice and you will see the little moments, the inside jokes, and the goofing off, interspersed with the moments of sacrifice and discipline. The key to not only to continued improvement but especially to longevity lies in getting this balance right. You cannot achieve success with only one or the other.
A huge part of the responsibility for this is borne by the coach and the environment they set. We cannot expect our athletes, usually juniors, to be able to shift between seriousness and playfulness if we cannot do so ourselves. Therefore, there is a level of emotional maturity required on our end. We have to understand that tennis is not everything, and even if we are in a serious mood, whether because we are training hard, because the athlete is not playing great, or because we’re having a bad day, we still have to be able to lighten things up. At the same time, while coaching tennis is the best job on the planet, there is still work to be done – we can’t afford to be on cruise control.
I’m sure there are a few different techniques one could use to develop this ability in one’s players, but I believe the two most important ones are tone and body language. A coach needs to be able to clearly demonstrate through their voice, language, and the way they carry themselves whether it is time for work or time for play. This is especially important when working with younger children, although it applies to everyone. Done well and consistently, players will learn to sense what mode they should be in.
3.3 I don’t make excuses – I take responsibility
There’s an old saying which goes, “your culture is what you allow.” What a player says to themselves may be more impactful than anything anyone else says to them, so it is vital that as coaches we monitor their self-talk vigilantly. Sometimes it is obvious when they are making excuses – “I lost because she cheated” – but other times they are shirking responsibility more subtly – “my serve sucked.” In all cases, our culture is what we allow, and we have to intervene and try to re-frame any unproductive thoughts. A few examples are:
I lost because she cheated -> I lost my cool after she made a few tight calls
My serve sucked -> I started rushing and missed my serve
The wind messed me up -> I didn’t adjust to the wind
These corrections are minor, but they all shift the responsibility away from an external factor and back onto the player. Now, it’s important for players to understand the difference between responsibility and blame, and it’s important for coaches not to assign blame under the guise of responsibility. If players feel, whether rightly or wrongly, that they are being blamed or criticized, they will shy away from responsibility. Responsibility is power. Both players and coaches need to fall in love with the idea of responsibility, because to be responsible for something is to have control over it. And that is the dream of the mature athlete: to be in control of one’s destiny.
3.4 I understand that my destiny is in my hand and nobody else’s and I act accordingly
It seems fitting that we finish on something a little more poetic. Contrasted with all the other indicators, which I would argue are skills that can be developed, whether by oneself or by a coach, this is simply a belief, one that must be felt deeply and reinforced constantly. You cannot control the outcome – you can only control your approach to the outcome. However, no one will control that approach for you. I started this series by quoting John Wooden and I’ll finish it in the same way: “Success is the peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” Life is not what happens to you; it is how you respond to what happens to you. You have control over virtually every aspect of your life – not necessarily the circumstances, but how you handle them – and the sooner you realize it and embrace it, the sooner you will be on the path to achieving success.
For an assessment sheet that covers all the Success Qualities and their indicators, click here.