| By Dr. Tom Ferraro
Photo courtesy of Getty Images


In any sport, all the greats have one thing in common: an iron will to win. Tom Brady in football, Wayne Gretzky in hockey and Michael Jordan in basketball are all examples of players who were not physically imposing, but they all had that fire in the belly that makes for greatness. Roger Federer is a good example of someone who is not physically imposing but he keeps on winning.

Tennis greats like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were all smaller than average, but they too had an amazing desire to win. The 39-year- old Connors’ performance in the 1991 U.S. Open is considered to be one to the great runs in tennis history because despite age and injury, he defeated top seeds and made it to the semifinals based upon sheer will power and the support of an adoring crowd.

Let us take a moment to deconstruct the will to win and see if we can determine both what it is and how to channel it. The following three ingredients are involved:

1. Growing up in hardship

Serena and Venus Williams grew up on the dangerous streets of Compton, and they continually faced racial slurs throughout their careers. Connors witnessed the severe beating of his mother and his grandparents when he was eight-years-old, Novak Djokovic was raised in war-torn Serbia and Tiger Woods faced racial slurs growing up in California.

“That which does not destroy you will make you strong.”

There is truth to that quote in fact in a study by two psychologists about the most eminent persons in American history discovered that the vast majority of them grew up in pain and deprivation. There is something about early childhood suffering that acts like a crucible of pain and produces an iron will power.

2. Unconditional long term support and guidance

Despite their tough upbringing, Serena and Venus Williams had incredible parents. The film King Richard was about Richard Williams and demonstrated his parental devotion and protective support needed to nurse prodigies. Research shows that parental support is needed for at least ten years before a talented child can display his or her true power. Steady protective support instills a sense of safety in the athlete which gives them that never give up attitude which is a part of the will to win.

3. Reasonable expectations

An interesting trait of most champions is humbleness. Anger, mistakes, and disappointments are part of sports. The tennis player must learn how to cope with disappointments without undue anger and champions have the ability to do so. Every sport is designed to be difficult and it is crucial that the athlete master their anger if they are to master their game. Tennis players, even the very best tennis players, double fault, hit long, hit into the net, endure bad calls or bad weather nearly every match they play. If these problems are not immediately accepted and managed well, they lead to more mistakes, panic, despair, and losses. Out of control anger has to do with unrealistic expectations, and therefore reasonable expectations are another key in the will to win.

So the will to win requires early hardship as we see in the Williams sisters or in Djokovic. This hardship made them humble and made them strong. They also needed prolonged and protective support from parents who sheltered them and also solaced them.

In the end, it can be seen that champions have a very healthy core which gives them trust in themselves, it gives them resilience and it gives them humbleness and a reasonable view of what to expect from themselves. They all know that they will not have their “A” game every time they step onto the court and they manage these lulls with grace and acceptance.

But not everyone has these experiences in childhood. Not everyone gets unconditional love. If a person grows up with self-deficits, they feel defective on the inside and will never feel satisfied, will not be able to digest victory and will lack confidence.

Behind every great tennis player are parents who give unconditional love and support over many years. These parents give guidance and allow the player to feel good about themselves without undue pressure, without guilt and who are reasonable in expectations. And when that occurs, you create an unstoppable athlete with an iron will to win.


Dr. Tom Ferraro

For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.