You are not as good as you think you are, and you are not as bad as you think you are.
This paradoxical statement is as true in life as it is on the tennis court. I consider it the balancing bar a tennis player must stay on to remain motivated and inspired to keep on improving and growing. If you lean too much to one side, you will fall off and hurt yourself.
A few years ago, I was coaching a highly-ranked junior player and accompanied him to an important Sectional event at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In the semi-finals, my student, “Ernie,” was a clear favorite to win his match. He was the second seed in the tournament, and he had never lost to his opponent. He faced him numerous times throughout his junior career, so he was very confident he was going to win. In fact, he was already looking forward to the final, to be played later that same day. In the final, he would most likely face “Bert,” the number one-seeded player, a player he had never faced before. Ernie had his hopes set on facing Bert, and was very excited to get a crack at him. I’m sure you can already picture what was about to unfold. When you look too far ahead it is easy to trip on something right in front of you.
Believe me, I tried my best to keep Ernie in the present, and to keep him focused on the task at hand, the semifinal match. Ernie assured me he was ready, and I believed him. As soon as the match got started, I knew it was going to be a struggle. Ernie appeared nervous, and played very tight. His opponent on the other hand was playing very well. To make matters worse, in the first set tie-break, Ernie made a slide, snapped his shoe laces, and his shoe broke open. Ernie tried to “MacGyver” his shoe together the best he could as the umpire gave him a time violation and a point penalty. Ernie ended up losing the match, as his poor play while dealing with unexpected shoe problems and an unforgiving umpire proved to be too much for him to overcome. When he came off the court, he was devastated. He had been completely blindsided by his back luck, poor play, and this lousy umpire. He called it: “The worst match of my life.”
On this day, however, the universe provided Ernie another opportunity. Bert, the first seed, had also surprisingly lost his semifinal match. Ernie was going to face Bert after all, in a match for third and fourth place. We had a little over an hour to prepare for it. During this hour, Ernie, normally not known as much of a talker, spoke almost uninterruptedly. All of his frustrations about his first match came out in a never-ending waterfall of words. I couldn’t get a word in, so I remained silent and allowed him to carry on. It turned out to be some of the best coaching I ever did.
When I sensed he was finally ready for some input, I gently reminded him of his previous excitement over facing Bert, his next opponent. I also reminded him to be courageous, to step up into the court and to try and dominate him with forehand to forehand exchanges. I tried to make him aware of how much faith I had in him, and in his ability to bounce back from a defeat.
After just a few games I could tell that this was going to be a great match. Ernie appeared confident, relaxed and inspired. Bert, on the other hand, seemed a little flat and perhaps a little confused by Ernie’s bold strategy of attacking his forehand. The match ended up being a straight set victory for Ernie, and he came off the court with a proud smile and said, somewhat incredulously, “That was the best match of my life!”
When I left the National Tennis Center that day, I remember marveling at the extremes of the day. As a coach, I had first tried to warn my player for his overconfidence (you are not as good as you think you are). Even though I was unsuccessful, I am certain that Ernie learned the lesson. Later, I tried to show my faith in him by allowing him to express his frustrations, and fears, and then gently nudging him in the direction of courage (you are not as bad as you think you are).
It was a memorable day to experience both sides of this paradox so obviously displayed to me. Coaches and parents can be very helpful by restoring the balance when the player has lost perspective. I believe I was helpful to my player that day, and I cherish that memory … I do some of my best coaching when I get out of the way.
Tonny van de Pieterman
Tonny van de Pieterman is director of tennis at Point Set Indoor Racquet Club. He was recently named USTA Tennis Professional of the Year for the USTA/Eastern-Long Island Region and helped the Eastern Section win this year’s Talbert Cup. He may be reached by phone at (516) 536-2323 or e-mail Tonny@PointSetTennis.com.