Over the many years that I have coached top juniors, it's clear that some players dwell on failure more than others. Some move on after a small or even large setback, while others make excuses and remain stuck in place. No matter how good a player you may be, the simple fact is that there is no certainty in tennis and, as I remind my students, "that's a good thing."
Imagine a video game in which you are shooting with unlimited shots at a target that doesn't move and can't fire back. Great game, right? Of course not! Such a game would be boring. You need uncertainty to feel challenged and motivated, and you need to fail sometimes to help you to strive further. It's not a question of "if" you fail but "how" you react to failure that determines how far you will go.
While tennis players manage outcome uncertainly and stress in many different ways, they often follow three prototypes: The "Blamer," the "Shamer" and the "Claimer." Perhaps something sets off a player during a match and they seethe with anger. Maybe it was a missed easy overhead on top of the net, or one too many double faults. Sometimes it's not even their own behavior that riles them up. Their opponent slaps their leg and shouts "come on!" to the world as others clap obnoxiously after you hit the ball into the net. They may know intellectually that a negative reaction will undermine them yet time and time again, they act out of uncontrolled raw emotions and assign culpability because others did something "wrong” or they did something "stupid." They may "blame" others, or "shame" themselves for failure but some players are very different. They are too busy solving problems to bother assigning blame. These are the "Claimers" of the sport, and they go far on the court as well as off it too. They don't think about the bumpy road of failure, they only focus on the smooth path to success.
Some players blame everyone and everything but themselves for failure. They assume no responsibility for mistakes but stake full credit for successes. They have often been brought up in a world that seeks simple explanations for outcomes with a zero sum, "Us" against "Them" mentality. Since they believe the world has plotted against them, they are simply defending themselves by acting badly. If they make bad line calls it's not cheating, but a noble attempt at justice since their opponent has already cheated them many times, and if they haven't yet they surely will. "Blamers" may love to compete but they rarely embrace the joy of playing tennis; it's the outcome, and not the process, that they focus on. They are compelled to play to prove their value to the world and their opponents. They often see the world as a hierarchy with the best players having the greatest status and success. The goal for these players is to ascend in status but their poor behavior is counterproductive because they rarely succeed to where they are content.
Some players throw a pity party for themselves every time they play. They are "Shamers" because every mistake is seen as failure. Such a mindset leads to pessimism and an attitude of questioning, "What's the point of trying if I'm going to fail anyway?" Sometimes it's a defense mechanism protecting players from recognizing failure with the rational, "I didn't really fail because I didn't really try." This undermines effort since optimism and perseverance are identified as two of the three most important personal qualities for achievement. If you believe you will succeed you will see failure as part of the journey and you will continue to try your best without being discouraged. More efforts are like buying more lottery tickets. They improve the odds of winning. "Shamers" decrease the odds of success.
The third quality vital for achievement is opportunism, and this is the defining characteristic of a "Claimer." Claimers are too focused on solving problems and trying to succeed to worry about assigning blame to others or themselves. They see each moment as a chance to solve a problem instead of a chance to internalize anger and angst. Claimers see the flaws of others as well as their own flaws as an opportunity to learn to adapt. "Claimers" are practical and realistic in that they recognize the attitude that the best players embody and they copy and internalize it.
The irony of the "Blamer" and "Shamer" is that they usually want to succeed so badly, and this very desire tends to promote the behaviors which undermines them. They indulge in negative thought patterns and behaviors which might momentarily make them feel like they have greater control but like scratching an itch they lead to a vicious cycle of irritation. The first step to becoming a "Claimer" is to recognize that the goals you seek and practice the skills that led to success. Be grateful that you are challenged enough to fail because we all love the opportunity to play up.
Anyone can identify problems, the best players solve problems.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.