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Why do some athletes improve faster than others?

In today’s blog, we’ll consider the following:

  • Exercise class or training lesson – the 97:3 rule
  • Hard work vs. Sacrifice
  • Falling off the Great Mental Plateau.

Do elite athletes have a secret weapon to help them constantly improve their level of play? The answer is yes. They know the ability to make progressive modifications in their game is not easy, but it is worth it. I believe there is one concept of transformation that is underestimated and undervalued. Sacrifice.

Exercise class or training lesson

Have you ever looked around your tennis club (or golf or archery or any sport) and spotted players who seem to stay at the same level — sometimes for decades? And, many times, these ‘same-level’ people are continually taking lessons. With all these lessons one might expect to see a talent pool developing. Over my tenure as tennis pro and coach, I’ve watched players faithfully take weekly lessons, but mysteriously never capitalize on the techniques offered and never seem to reach a higher level of play. On the other hand, I’ve seen many players advance methodically – growing, learning, changing, and honing their skills – to become accomplished players. 

Maybe for some, it’s status to ‘take a lesson.’ Or maybe it’s the cool thing to hit with the Tennis Professional. (And, of course, it is!) I’m going to use the 97:3 rule here. I estimate about 97% of formal lessons and training are social in nature. The other 3% are performance-changing lessons.   

For the 97%-ers, the reasons for the lesson are to get on the court, have a great workout, enjoy time with friends and maybe prepare for the next team match. I consider these lessons to be a form of exercise class. These kinds of a lesson are not tailored to an individual’s needs, and thus, not geared toward advancing the technical aspects of an individual’s skills. That said, these ‘less-than-skill-enhancing’ lessons do offer great value – the value of camaraderie and connection. 

What about the other 3% of training lessons? These are typically private lessons devoted to specific technical aspects of a player’s game like biomechanics or techniques. The ultimate goal of the player and the pro is to move the player up to the next level. I will give you a few checkpoints to see if you are in the 3% group:

  • In your private lessons do you have one or two things that you consistently work on with continual assessments as to how those skills allow your game to grow?
  • Do you keep a notebook? Are you sitting with your coach checking off learning points and processes?
  • How much time between lessons are you specifically working on these things? This may include, but is not limited to, ball machine practice, drill partners, off-court training, etc.
  • Are you sticking to your development plan in practice sessions and match play?
  • Are you implementing these new aspects into your match play, and have you improved? 

If you are in the 3%, be warned: Regrettably, players frequently abandon their planned progression in order to win matches – and sometimes even win practice sessions. This is part of the rationale behind the lack of real improvement. Falling short of harnessing the power of persistence can derail progress, especially in the face of frustration. 

Every great player knows that to advance one must sacrifice – sacrifice the old motion for the new skill, sacrifice the familiar strategy for the new tactic. Sacrifice is very different from the ethic of hard work. Both are vital; however, sacrifice is woefully under-rated. Sacrifice requires commitment. The temptation to return to what’s most comfortable is always there. 

Coach’s Side Bar: For those players working on specific biomechanics, one caveat to training regimens is that Overuse Syndrome or Repetitive Strain Injuries are more common here. It’s imperative that players balance these advanced specific training repetitions with proper overall exercise and stretching routines to reduce the chances of chronic injuries.

Hard work vs. Sacrifice

Let’s use a tennis example to describe the difference between hard work and sacrifice.

Coco Gauff is a very hard-working US tennis player with brilliant talent. Many people think she is headed for Grand Slam wins. Maybe it’s not whether she will win, but how many she’ll win. Coco came on the scene at a very young age. She is the youngest player ranked in the top 100 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Gauff won her first WTA singles title at the 2019 Linz Open at age 15, making her the youngest singles title-holder on the WTA Tour since 2004. Gauff received a wildcard into the qualifying draw at the 2019 Wimbledon Championships where she became the youngest player in the tournament’s history to qualify for the main draw.

Most of the WTA players weren’t familiar with her ‘game’. New phenoms sometimes rise to greatness through the benefit of their unanalyzed game. With Coco’s explosion onto the world stage, coaches have been dissecting her every strength, weakness, preference, and vulnerability. Today, every one of Coco’s opponents will have access to intel on how to play against her. 

How can Coco maintain her momentum? How can she secure a career-winning record? Let’s break it down. In my professional opinion, a flaw that needs to be corrected is Coco’s forehand. It is only average at best. Without improvement, it can and will be exploited. Therefore, Coco and the team must make a tough decision. Does she pause and fix her forehand, which means mechanical changes and sacrifice? Or does she push ahead making only slight improvements through lots of hard work? Remember at this point there are pressures of endorsements that likely muddy the water of this essential future decision. 

Herein lies the key difference between working hard and sacrificing. In this example, Coco has two choices: 

(1) She and her team could choose to abandon the opportunity to make a meaningful change through sacrifice and instead choose to work hard with an average forehand. If her forehand is not changed now, it’s likely that in ten years she will still not have a great forehand. In my opinion, this will limit her future success. Remember, hard work and repetition are only helpful if you are doing the right thing.

(2) If Coco and the team can make the sacrifice now to adopt change, it will pay big dividends for her future career. A change of this magnitude may take at least 3 to 6 months of dedicated training and process. It means Coco may play less competitively. She would probably drop in rankings and even in skill level for a time. However, if she can make this correction and bring a powerful forehand to her game, there will be few opponents who can stop her! 

Will Coco choose to make the sacrifice to scrap her current forehand and build a formidable weapon? Or will she be haunted throughout her career by choosing to march forward without the necessary change? The entire tennis world is watching. There is a lot of money on the line. As we have seen, journalists and history are not always kind to public figures like top athletes. We will watch Coco’s career unfold. I sure hope she and her team can see long-term and make the sacrifice to allow her to reach her highest potential.

Falling off the Great Mental Plateau

This dilemma plagues many athletes across all sports. I call it the “Great Mental Plateau”. It’s hard to make significant progress when stuck on the Plateau. As the adage goes, “It doesn’t matter how hard you work. It matters how smart you work.” Great athletes become great because they know a chain can be no stronger than its weakest link. These top performers know to stop, remove the weak link, and replace it with strength. Tiger Woods has reinvented his game notably at least three times. Roger Federer switched to a bigger racquet which helped him improve his backhand. Sometimes fans are either unaware or quickly forget about these career sacrifices. The greats see into the future. They recognize and appreciate their long-term “why”. They have the courage to jump off the “Great Mental Plateau” and fall, for a while. But when they climb back, watch out! Why do some athletes excel beyond others? Because they possess the awareness that improvement involves sacrifice and the perseverance to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

In tennis, from beginning to intermediate to advanced, players can increase their level of play – barring injury. Remember that no two players are created equal. We all have different limb lengths, strength levels, range of motion restrictions, and coordinative abilities. And no two players will strike the ball in the same manner. We can all improve – if we choose to do so. For players who have been playing with the same strokes and strategies for many years, change may be more difficult. It is a conscious choice, and it will require sacrifice. 

To sacrifice means to relinquish your current position, rating, or ranking. To make meaningful improvements (usually un-learning and re-learning) requires a short-term drop in performance level to gain a long-term beneficial improvement. You may lose more often for a while until the new habit is formed. This is not a clearly defined linear progression. Without these short-term sacrifices, you will be on the long-term Plateau. If you like the Plateau and are content there, then by all means stay where you are. Enjoy your game. Nothing wrong with that.

If you are the rare bird (3%) that can accept falling on your face to scale new heights in your performance, then you will succeed with a careful plan and dedication. Remind yourself that your best tennis is almost certainly still to come. Don’t beat yourself up if you stumble a few times before your new way is entrenched.

If you want to change a tennis habit, you must commit to it. You can’t approach the task half-heartedly. Embrace the challenge, get some help, and keep persevering. It will take time to change a habit – to change your muscle memory – but it can be done. I have done it with my own game. The body has an unbelievable ability to seek efficiency and a stable equilibrium if you are patient and give it a chance. The most elite players in the world have done it. Now, it’s your turn.

Until next week my friends, be thoughtful about your long-term potential and move through it!

For more learning related to this topic, click the links to previous blogs below. 

Breaking News Is Broken

Mental Meltdowns

Have a thoughtful day,
Coach Fred

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