In an ideal world, competition should not exist. But in the world where we live, it is a key component. Since we were born, our parents have compared us to our siblings, our cousins, our classmates, our friends, or to the children of their friends. We all grow up competing, and this can be so stressful that some kids cannot handle it. In school, it is with grades, in life, it is in relationships, and with work, it is with our colleagues, and all this competition is very tiring.
There are people who deal with it better than others. However, it is clear that those who have played sports since they were kids have a unique advantage. They are used to finding solutions when things get tough thanks to their athletic experiences.
When I teach coaching courses through our International Coaches Institute, we always talk about the four Pillars of Tennis: Technical, Tactical, Physical and Mental. It’s important to note that adversity can attack any of the pillars and with a multitude of possible consequences.
When adversity attacks the Technical Pillar (which is comprised of our tools: Serve, volley, footwork, etc.) this can cause a crack in the foundation of the building. For example, if our serve is a work in progress and has not yet been consolidated, we will most likely revert to old techniques when we are under tournament pressure. This leads to a loss of the competitive state, knocking us out of the match on that day.
When adversity attacks the Tactical Pillar (knowing which tools to use and when), we struggle to organize our tools, and we don’t know which tool to use in which moment. As a result, we lose competitiveness and the outcome is unfavorable.
The Physical Pillar is key in today’s world, as good health allows us to live better, and permits us to compete longer. If we rest, work, eat and hydrate well, we can do the things we do well for longer and we become survivors. On the other hand, if we don’t rest, don’t eat, or don’t drink enough, we run out of fuel and can no longer compete effectively.
But the pillar that is most bombarded by adversity is the Mental one. Negative emotion, loss of control and those things that we cannot see can take down all three remaining pillars immediately. If we cannot stay calm, focused, driven and passionate, then we cannot use our tools (Technical), we cannot organize them (Tactical), and it doesn’t matter how much pressure our bodies can resist (Physical), because the mind is the boss and ultimately determines whether we compete successfully.
In order to compete, our mind must face its strongest rival: Adversity. When I was 15, I was having a rough time, and couldn’t beat any of the other players in my age group. I was bumped out of the top training group in Spain and forced to play with girls. I had to listen to the Federation’s general director say: “This kid is a waste … he’s a small, fat loser.” Such kind and motivational words from the Spanish Davis Cup captain!
I was about to quit tennis. My family had always supported me but didn’t have many resources, and luckily my club let me continue training and I kept working on my tools. By the time they fired the general director in the Federation, I had grown and was competing with players of the same height, and my hard work and talent began to show. Suddenly, my losing streak became a winning streak, and all the matches I previously lost became victories. When I turned 18, I was the National Champion, playing the Davis Cup, and ranked number 60 in the world.
I am so proud that I didn’t quit and worked hard on the fundamentals of the game. By not giving up, I was ready to jump when the opportunity arose. When several players who were better than me had injuries, they couldn’t go to the European Championships, and suddenly it was my turn. I was on a plane to Switzerland representing Spain for the first time. I made it to the final, and was recognized as a promising talent.
My advice today is to train consistently and develop your tools for competing, even during difficult moments of your development. When I finally matured, I was ready to compete on par with my opponents because I had focused on developing my tools at the right time. Don’t give up. Hard work and perseverance will pay off in the end.
Now, I try to inspire and encourage our student-athletes with stories of my past, and I believe it helps them in moments of difficulty. I never criticize their physical abilities when they’re still growing. The general director used to make regular appearances in my nightmares, but finally, the nightmares transformed to dreams through hard work and perseverance.
You can read more of Sanchez-Vicario's coaching tips on his blog.
<p><em>Emilio Sanchez-Vicario is an ex-ATP player who was ranked as high as number seven in singles and number one in doubles. He won 50 ATP singles titles and 50 doubles titles, including three Grand Slams, in his career. He is USPTA Master Professional Elite Certified and RPT Master Professional Certified. He is the CEO of Sanchez-Casal Academy and is the coach of current ATP pro Fernando Verdasco.</em></p>