The refiner's fire

'No man can climb beyond the limitations of his own character' (unknown)

If the above quote is true, those of us with a desire to get better 'results' ought to invest more into developing our 'characters'.

How do we do that?

Well, an inspired man once wrote that in order to develop our character we need to learn to persevere, and to develop perseverance we need to 'suffer'. Hmmm, doesn't sound like too much fun does it, but this can help us make some sense of those times that all athletes will spend in the 'wilderness'. This might mean a bad run of results or really struggling to find the motivation to continue to train day in day out with the right intensity and commitment. It might mean being out for months with an injury or being on the receiving end of a poor ratings/rankings decision. Whatever your wilderness experience has or is going to be, you can be sure that it will be a period in which your 'character' is developed. In my opinion 'character' is a key requirement to help you through those critical moments in competition, so let's look to welcome those opportunities we have to suffer just a little!

Even gold is subject to the refiner's fire, so character forming wilderness experiences ought to be treasured! Counter-culture thinking, but what else did you expect?! Oh, and that inspired man goes on to say that the end product of suffering, perseverance, and character is HOPE, or in our context as athletes an OPTIMISTIC view of the future and what we can achieve.

Call your child talented?

It has been said that one of the cruelest things you can do to your child is call them 'talented'.  Daniel Coyle writes is his book the Talent Code: 'When we praise children for their intelligence (talent), we tell them that's the name of the game: look smart, don't risk making mistakes....we are exquisitely attuned to messages telling us what is valued, and true to findings, each of the (talent) hotbeds I visited used language that affirmed the value of effort and slow progress rather than innate talent or intelligence.  As Spartak, for instance, they did not 'play' tennis - they preferred the verb borot'sya - 'fight' or 'struggle'.  Coyle continues: 'The truth is, when you are starting out, you do not 'play' tennis, you struggle and fight and pay attention and slowly get better.  Effort based language works because it speaks directly to the core of the learning experience'.

A child who is constantly told how good/clever/talented they are will begin to develop a 'fixed' mindset (Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck) about their abilities and then spend the rest of their lives trying to validate them.  Every 'challenge' becomes a major validation of their fixed 'talent' and failure is disastrous.  Far better to not even 'try' (tanking as it's known in tennis) than actually put my 'talent' on the line. The growth or effort based mindset sees failure as a necessary part of the learning process and is in fact welcomed.

Observe your language and the language around you - is if effort based? Fight for everyball!

Value-based coaching; Commit to fight for every ball

Last week I asked a number of our players what they understood by a 'value'.  Getting some rather vague replies I asked whether 'family' was important to them.  Naturally their reply was 'yes, of course!'.  I probed further by asking how they demonstrate that family is important to them.  The answers were numerous ranging from eating meals together round the table and playing the Wii together.  We decided that a value was something in which we place great importance on and is backed up by certain behaviours.  When we don't demonstrate behaviours to support a particular value, the value is compromised, and so are our emotions – we feel bad.

It's the same as saying, 'you'll only do what's important to you'.  I've long since been in love with the idea of playing the guitar, but since being lent one by a colleague three years ago, I've only picked it up once!  Why?  Because I only like the idea, I'm not fully committed to it and have not built a 'value' around doing so.

At our academy, one of our key values is our commitment to fight for every ball – so much so that we've named our Academy after it.  Fighting for every ball – head, heart and legs.  We fight with our heads by making smart decisions, we fight with our heart with a Nadal like 'never give up' attitude and we fight with our legs by being in the best possible physical shape to compete.  Running down every ball, no matter where it lands, getting up to the top of the bounce and recovering appropriately after each shot are key ingredients in our value of fighting for everyball.

Perhaps all this is obvious – doesn't every player do that? The answer is no. Why? Because just like me and my guitar, it all sounds nice, but the reality of doing so on an everyday, consistent basis is much tougher.  Therefore, as coaches we work hard to help our players build a true value around 'fighting for every ball' – this is in my opinion THE key coaching skill and one that challenges and stretches us day in day out.

In fact, change in any dimension is far better supported by building a value around the change you are making.  Building a value around use of the chopper grip will help your player 'buy in' to that change far quicker than if you just teach the chopper grip.  Creating values creates buy in, and buy in means a steeper learning curve and greater improvement.

When I see one of our players not getting up to the ball or allowing it to bounce twice without maximum effort to get there, a key value is being compromised, and as the leader of the organisation I feel this deeply.  What are your values and can you be more of a value-based coach?

Where attention goes, power flows

Hi friends and practitioners of 'everyball':

I was reminded a couple of days ago about the story of Victor Frankl.  His career as a psychotherapist and neurologist was interrupted by the Second World War and the Holocaust.  He spent three years in four Nazi camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering III, and Turkheim.  He lost his wife, Tilly, and his father, mother, and brother in the camps.  Surviving he wrote a book called Man's Search for Meaning and in it he wrote:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the hut comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offered sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one's own way.  And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you will become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

You might think this is pretty extreme, and how does this relate to your tennis?  Well, we are always encouraging you to think positively and choose your attitude. Even for people labelled as positive thinkers, negative thoughts, images, fears etc WILL come into your mind.  The key is whether you SUBMIT to these thoughts/emotions and let them control you, or whether you exercise YOUR freedom of choice and respond in a different way.  The saying, 'Where your attention goes, power flows' is directly linked to these ideas.  Whatever my attentional material, the more I focus on it, the more power I will give it.  Best then that your attentional material  is constructive and helpful to your performance - a task for each point, a powerful image of you executing a new technique, etc.

The great thing about our game is the numerous opportunities it provides you to 'fail'.  We lose points, games, sets and matches and in these 'failures' (if we want to call them that - I'd prefer learning opportunities) we have the opportunity to choose our attitude, to exercise our ability to respond in a different way.

Over the next week, consider the quality of your response to error or set-back - what 'thoughts and images' do you feed and are these helpful?  And remember, where your attention goes, power flows.