Throughout my years of collegiate coaching, I listened to many bold statements from players, and I learned to become increasingly skeptical when I would hear these lines from recruits or players on my team.
I would try to decipher whether these players believed what they were telling me, or if they were just selling me a line to get what they felt they desired. Here are a few examples of statements that would be voiced to me on a semi-regular basis:
“I want to play professional tennis”
“I love tennis”
“I am a really hard worker”
“I want to play higher in the lineup”
“I like to be criticized”
“I am really tough competitor”
It was not just players who expressed these thoughts; parents and coaches voiced them too. I listened to a lot of talk while witnessing a great deal of inaction. Usually, the players who loved tennis worked extremely hard, embraced criticism, were tough competitors and played high in the line-up rarely spoke about possessing these traits – they just lived them. It was like the ones who openly voiced these statements were constantly trying to convince themselves, their parents, or me that they were something they were not.
I tried to remind myself that it is not solely the fault of the young athlete. Most of them have been bombarded with all sorts of confusing feedback and advice from coaches, parents, and social media throughout their junior careers. These players were once that big fish in a puddle, and innocently believed their own hype. They often lacked a level of self-awareness and knowledge of what actions they should be taking to back up their goals.
You should think critically about what it is you want to accomplish, and have a sense of when you are being overly influenced by your peers, coaches, parents and even social media. Ask yourself if what you are saying is truly what YOU desire.
College tennis coach reality check # 1
You don’t have to be the hardest worker, the most coachable player or the toughest competitor at your club, academy or team – AND THAT IS OKAY!. Those titles are not for everyone. Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on maximizing your own potential. College teams are hopefully made up of a group of hard workers and tough competitors, but not everyone can be “the” hardest worker or “the” toughest competitor.
I will work through a few more of these statements and give you some brief insights into what college coaches actually hope to see and hear from potential recruits.
“I want to play professional tennis” – This statement became a lot more prevalent from recruits in my final years of coaching. I am not exactly sure why this was the case. However, I have a few theories! I know for certain that some of these players had been told by their junior coach that they would only work with them if their goal was to play professional tennis! Maybe these coaches know they can extract more money from a pupil if they keep convincing the parents that their kid is special, and “has what it takes” to become a professional tennis player. Parents, understand that this kind of coach is also telling another 40 players that they also “have what it takes”.
I believe that if junior players hear this kind of talk from parents and coaches, they are likely to internalize such messages without understanding what is actually required to make a living as a pro tennis player. Unrealistic expectations rise and they erroneously convince themselves that college coaches need to hear about their professional aspirations in order to be interested in them as recruits. It has now become a throwaway line that means very little at all, especially when the actions are not there to back up such statements.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to play professional tennis, I know I did. However, ask yourself if professional tennis is truly something YOU want or if it is just something you think you need to tell parents, other players or coaches to validate their investment in you and your tennis. If you don’t want to play professional tennis, then don’t state that. Instead, focus on maximizing your capabilities during the time you are willing to devote to your tennis. Being the best tennis player you can be doesn’t always have to involve some grandiose goal.
College tennis coach reality check # 2
College coaches are no longer falling for this line, but will play the game and entertain your interest in pro tennis. They know which players truly have pro potential and a mindset to match it. A coach will be far more interested in you if you set goals for college, are a process-oriented individual and are willing to work for your place in the line-up and in the college game, before setting your sights on something bigger.
Break down your goals into manageable chunks and prove yourself at each level before setting a new performance related goal. Understand the difference between goals and dreams. Dreams usually leave people in a fantasy land, wishing for the thing they want to happen overnight. Goals involve an action plan and a timeline.
“I am a hard worker” – compared to who? The other kids at your local club? Your high school team? Your siblings? Usually we have a very small community in which to compare ourselves, so we believe we are working extremely hard because those around us are in awe that we might go for a 3-mile run at 6 am. Ultimately, we don’t want to compare ourselves to anyone, and we want to be honest with ourselves about our effort and output. We SHOULD also want those advising us to inform us when they believe we can be giving more.
My point is that if your goal is to be a top college player, or even a professional player, then you better be sacrificing a great deal. Your work ethic/sacrifice should match your goals. The bigger your goals, the more discomfort and sacrifice you need to be willing to experience. I have come across many players who had audacious goals but their physical and mental output, and the level of discomfort they were willing to endure, did not even come close to matching their ambitions.
College tennis coach reality check # 3
Stop talking about how hard you work, and focus instead on being very intentional with every aspect of your training. Take inventory of how much of the training you do is done in a deliberate manner. You may, in fact, just be going through the motions and checking off the hours logged. College coaches want players that can fully engage with the 15-20 hours per week that they get to work with them.
If you are on the court yelling or moaning about how badly you keep hitting your forehand, or appear distracted by the test you have 48 hours from now, then don’t expect them to be impressed because you did an extra set of sit-ups in the weight room one Wednesday afternoon. Let your consistent actions speak for how hard you are working. Most importantly, ALIGN your goals with your ACTIONS and be brutally honest with yourself when they are misaligned.
“I am a tough competitor” – remember that one time you came back from a 1-5 third set deficit to win the match 7-5 in the third set? It felt good, right? Unfortunately, that one performance does not mean you are a tough competitor! It is difficult to even define what a tough competitor looks like, especially when the # 1 player in the world, Andy Murray, looks like a whiney little baby on the court half the time.
However, competitiveness comes down to a player’s resilience in pressure situations, or times when they are feeling far from their best, either physically or mentally. Regardless of the situation, a tough competitor puts forth a consistent mental and physical effort despite the score-line or circumstances, and is always willing to push past what they perceived were their limitations in every match they play.
College tennis coach reality check # 4
College coaches love to see emotion and enthusiasm for competition, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with showing your passion on the court, pumping fists and all that jazz, but are you that way all the time, regardless of who you are playing? Coaches want to see and coach a player that is consistent with their approach to competition.
That looks differently for all of us, and sometimes certain circumstances will bring out more emotion than others. Stay true to who you are, increase your understanding of your thoughts during competition and be honest with yourself when you have given less than your best, or if you are making excuses during or after a loss.
Build your resilience every chance you get. We are hard wired to gravitate towards what is easy or convenient in life. If you want to achieve your potential, then look towards the more difficult path. When you feel terrible on the court, that is an opportunity to build resilience and not succumb to what is easy, which would be giving less than your best. Treat your resilience like a muscle, and when you get put in a tough situation understand that you can either train that muscle or let that muscle atrophy.
As a player, I was guilty of some of these false beliefs and statements. I did not know what it meant to work hard, be a tough competitor or let my actions speak for themselves. I learned this throughout my college years. Hopefully you can learn it sooner than I did, but it is never too late.