We arrived in Heraklion, Greece, with some players who train in my academy, to play several Future Tournaments. The idea behind this experience was to make first contact with real tennis: engagement, order, patterns of play, intensity, focus and consistency, but particularly with the essence of competition. The insistent and permanent message is that a competition is to give one’s all with the risk of ending up hurt, almost dead, but having earned self-respect and the respect of others and that a competition includes considering all possibilities, even the most impossible possibility.
It was in Heraklion where, due to destiny, I coincided with an Argentinian player, Alan Kohen, who had been more or less 750 ATP in about 2015, until a time when personal problems prevented him from traveling. He was 24 years old when he decided to try again and it was during that new attempt that we met for a couple of weeks, sharing trainings, meals, talks and especially tennis matches.
One’s first impression is that something does not quite fit: height 1.81 metres (5’ 11”), weight 70 to 72 kilos (154 to 158), he plays with a Head Prestige racquet, strings pattern 18/20 and 70 centimetres (27 inches), which is to say a racquet more suitable for breaking stones than playing tennis. Well, for strange particularities, tennis players are unbeatable.
Perhaps because I had already shared talks and training sessions with my players, I decided to see one of Alan’s Pre Qualy matches, or in colloquial Argentine language to “stand firmly” or show support. My attention was immediately called to his attitude. He was running for every ball, even for those balls for which nobody runs, and I saw him recover 3 or 4 points which could only be reached by a few, and that in a Pre Qualy. If nothing strange would happen, he surely had to win. When he finished playing he sat next to me, took of his socks and had blisters on almost almost all his toes, and his only comment was “They bother me”.
The following day, another match, so I watched him with more attention, knowing how painful blisters are, especially on a fast court. It was a much tougher match than the previous one and Alan was like a Greyhound, running for every ball, every point life or death. He was talking to himself and looked like Spartacus fighting for his life, demanding a little more: “this point is yours”, “you have to win this point”, “fight, fight, fight”!!! Every point the same, all points were important, all were the last one. Difficult to explain, but it was like a child playing only for the experience , not for the prize. And in my mind I could not stop imagining how those blisters were. The match is over, he has won, he takes his socks off and, of course, his blisters are raw meat and again the simple comment: “You don’t know how much they hurt”.
Perhaps I am a romantic who still believes that there are players who play with passion and not only to figure in the ranking, but after seeing him compete in this match, immediately a video came into my head, which is on YouTube and can be found under the title of “Messi es un Perro” (Messi is a dog), the text of which was written by Hernan Casciari.
In many talks this video about Leo Messi is mentioned in an attempt to explain the transcendent sense of sport. The video compares Messi to a dog obsessively chasing a yellow sponge. It is a perfect description of what it means to feel and practice a sport with passion, to enjoy it with all it’s consequences, the good and the not so good, despite the results.
Having watched two or three of Alan Kohen’s matches, I had no doubts that I had found the tennis version of “hombre perro” (dog man), the player connected to the essence. Alan Kohen was the dog man, more specifically a “Greyhound” running and recovering the impossible. In two weeks he lifted a 1/5 and a 0/5 in order to win, recovering 6 or an average of 6 lost points per match, driving his opponents crazy. Of course! How could they not become unhinged? They did not understand; they had entered unknown territory, where the ball that never comes back... comes back and comes back. Opponents with expressions and tears of impotence, glances to trainers looking for answers outside the court, the universal gesture of raised shoulders depicting “I don’t know!” Shouts, rackets flying, heads full of questions or doubts and defeat knocking at the door. And Alan’s feet continued as raw wounds, like the brains of his rivals: burned out.
It is impossible to attain the narrative perfection of Hernan Casciari in order to explain the feeling of witnessing sport in it’s pure state of honesty, passion, competitiveness, engagement and something which, from my point of view, is a rarity almost extinct in sport: absence of excuses: “He played well”, “What can one do if the opponent is good?”, “He has surpassed me with that backhand stroke”, or when a stroke fails and one says: “It was that ball”, or “I played it properly, what a pity!” No tough self-criticism, only some words of adjustment before the energy volcano may again control one’s human condition and focus oneself to send the ball to the other side. A very complete manual on how to compete in one page: to give one’s all without excuses. It looks easy, but it is not so.
I do not know how far he will reach in the Ranking, although he deserves to reach high, very high. As a selfish lover of sport, it is irrelevant to me where one arrives. This is very far from the bright lights and benefits of the superstars; this is related to the very essence of sport, in the greatness of the simple, in the transcendence. This is about a person who loves what he does and what he does is done with absolute honesty and coherence between what he is, what he feels, what he thinks and what he does. Perhaps a little tired of the present reality, where the majority of players are playing tennis in order to get results at any cost, instead of paying the cost in order to learn and play tennis and then have good results. To compete is not a question of level, but to give one’s all. The same applies to the ranking, whether it is a club tournament, or the final of a Grand Slam. To compete is to admit what one is and to accept the opponent as an indispensable ally.
In the end, tennis is an excuse, a good excuse, if "good " excuses really exist, to look at our souls in the mirror. Forehand, backhand and serve are easy, but it is difficult to control the Ego and to be able to listen to the Great Master: The Tennis, which with methodical insistence says, repeats and demonstrates our limits, cruelly reflects the difference between what we want to be and what we are, and even shows our complexes and more hidden facets. Everything comes to light in a tennis match and although we may try, it is not possible to hide what we are.
I am writing this at the Athens airport, waiting for my flight to Barcelona. We are going back with bags full of experiences; all of us have learnt, played hours of tennis and shared good times. But the most important thing is the breath of fresh air, the satisfaction of having found a great player who reflects what I want to transmit to every one of those players who are attending my academy: that good results are a consequence of performance, that to compete is an attitude, a decision so that at the end of a match one does not owe oneself anything.
A good example is worth more than a thousand words. In the end the only thing I said to my players was this: “Do you want to play tennis? Disguise yourselves as Alan Kohen”. Far beyond my words, at last I could actually see and show what it means to be a “dog man”.
The Transcendent Self.
Before we talk about the Transcendent Self in tennis, I would like to share my experience as an amateur runner.
For many years I have practiced running. I’m training almost every day, continuous intense training, running series on the treadmill, using the gym and everything that involves physical training. Quite often I run races of 10km, 21km and even 42 km.
Popular races have between 3,000 and 20,000 runners participating. In a 10km race, the winner finishes the race in 30 minutes on average and the person coming in last finishes in 1 hour or maybe more. So, my question is: What motivates the person who ends in last with a time of over an 1 hour to run when he knows in advance that he will not win? What leads him to train almost every day?
If you have ever run a 10km race you will have felt the lack of oxygen, sometimes the urge to vomit, and the pain in the legs. What makes a runner to push himself to those extremes whilst knowing that he will not win the race or win anything at all? Runners are not a few people, we are thousands of people running knowing that we will not receive a prize, so where does this energy come from? The answer is simple: Self improvement
Within the enormous and endless learning process offered by running, it teaches something very important: winning means beating yourself. Running teaches you to focus and improve yourself. You do not compete against anyone, only against yourself. Once you have finished the race, your mind immediately starts devising a plan on how to do better in your next run. The focus is a 100% on yourself.
In many talks I have had with tennis players, I always tell them the same thing: "each person should run a marathon at least once in their life". After running 30 km, it reaches a point where the mind tells you to stop, to leave, which is called the famous "wall". If you think that you still have 12km left after running the 30km, you will give up, and you will perceive it as an impossible feat. However, something inside you pushes you to continue. You focus on the next step and every step which follows. At that critical moment, it is only useful to focus on going step by step, to only to situate yourself in the present. If you look too far ahead, it is almost suicidal. The body and mind focus on short, manageable goals.
In the previous blog we had mentioned that the competitive self has 3 possible answers from the survival: Submission, Flight and Fight, where the fight was, from the competitive point of view, is the best option. However, there is something else, there is a status of very high competitiveness that is above the fight and is the status of "maximum performance"(the Zone). A status where no matter who you are, the commitment and focus is on doing and acting with complete honesty, regardless of what may happen. There are no judgments, no prejudices, no expectations or obligations. The focus is on doing it (your current activity), and on seeing how it can be done better.
There is a video on YouTube that explains that status very well, the video is called: "Messi is a dog" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-3HrqDXpUE&t=42s)I think that video shows exactly what I mean. Messi not only plays against opponents, Messi's competitive self is totally focused on what he does and not what happened, is happening or could happen, Messi is only interested in scoring a goal.
There is a tennis player who reminds me of that video: Rafael Nadal. Nadal is also a dog, no matter the result, the blisters on his hands or feet, if he is winning or losing, Nadal keeps running and competing, does not judge the ball as possible or impossible, Nadal runs, hits and immediately goes out to for the next shot, there is no judgment, there is only pure action. Many athletes can be mentioned with these characteristics: Federer, Djokovic, Sharapova, Michael Jordan, and many other athletes who reinvent themselves continuously. All of the have the same characteristics: they want to be better than they were yesterday today, and better tomorrow than they are today. The focus is on the development and constant improvement of technical, tactical, physical, mental, emotional skills, etc.: "The Ideal Self as a source of goals that inspires the Training Self that looks for tools for the Competitive Self to try to apply them in the competition in self-respected environment ". That is, Teamwork: The Transcendent Self.
Every time I compete in a race I feel that energy that comes from the Transcendent Self, not only in me, but in all the runners despite knowing we will not be the person who finishes the race first, we will give everything to improve by 5 seconds on our best Time. We might not win the race, but we will win by improving ourselves.
On the other hand, I have seen and I see too many tennis matches where the players totally lack that spirit, the spirit of the "dog". I see too many tennis matches where the players justify themselves behind excuses not to compete and thus be able to "explain" the defeat. Players who are more aware of the "what they will say" and what they can say on Facebook, that focus on competing with dignity and respecting themselves and their opponent.
Players with tremendous conditions, who crash and fail because they are not able to focus their Selves in the same direction. Players who seek for respect without respecting themselves, who seek for recognition without recognizing themselves, to be accepted without accepting themselves, to compete without being competitive, and who seek to win, without having learned how to lose, and, most importantly, without first having dominated their ego.
It is more than clear that the training of tennis does not happen only to train the shots, the tactics, the fitness, that is the easy part. The difficult part, at the same time the great challenge, is to work on the emotional management, and understand that what is beyond tennis. First there is the development of the person, their environment (parents, friends, brothers, family) while teaching and proposing to:
The best performers are not necessarily those who are the most talented in their sport technically or physically, but those who have great resilience. Their ability to learn from failure and their ability to insist when others gave up is what sets them apart. The best performers win, even if they lose
A player has many more chances of being successful if the Ideal Self, Training Self and Competitive Self work as a team, if it is consistent between what they think, feel and do. Hitting the ball is easy, physical improvement is easy, the hard part is knowing how to compete and to compete is to assume the commitment to give everything, winning or losing. We must finish them match empty of energy, whilst being full of satisfaction and being proud.
Developing my competitive self 2º Part
In previous blog we talked about the different "selfs" that we face in a competition. We explained the ideal self, the training self and the competitive self.
The development as a person and player will depend on how we relate and integrate these 3 identities through our integrative self that includes all our versions, the observer, the one that identifies the other I's. We will analyze the role of the integrative self later.
We said that, if we want to develop our game, the most important "self" is the Competitive self, since it reflects what we are capable of doing in the present moment, and I insist that this condition can change, raising or lowering the level very quickly if we are able to listen or not listen to the signals that the Competitive self sends us.
If we are and compete in the Vertical mode (survival mode), it means that the competitive self is subordinated to the Ideal Self, we react to a situation of stress exactly like any other animal. Although during a tennis match there is no real risk to our lives, our Instinctive / Emotional brain identifies the situation as stressful and understands that it is a survival situation.
There are 3 instinctive / emotional reactions (from the survival): Freezing / submission, Flight and Fight.
1- Freezing, Submission
a- Submission to the Opponent: They recognize them as better because of their ranking or their previous match results and surrender before they play.
b- Submission to Coach / Parent: Tennis and sport in general is full of cases where athletes compete and even have very high performance when they are in this mode: Parents / Coaches, in this case are clear representatives of the Ideal Self, who punish and humiliate to the player. The brain understands that if it does not compete or train to the maximum there will be punishment, the defense strategy is to compete to satisfy the punisher, trainers and parents become "circus tamers" and the players are the "Animals" that act not to be punished. Although from the point of view of results we cannot say that it is inefficient, from the human development point of view the player is degrading. The players who have developed under this mode will most likely have psychological problems, the list of these athletes would be endless.
In this case, the player looks for excuses and justifications as to why they will lose before playing or while they are playing: injuries, illnesses, the court, the wind, the racket, the tournament, the place, the opponent, the coach. All these variants of flight are given if the ideal self (where the ego resides) feels threatened. The player literally "throws" the match. The strategy of the ideal Self is very simple: if I give 100% and lose, it will be a fact that I am worse than my rival, so it is better to invent an excuse to lose or not to compete.
Examples, I can give many:
a- Players who have problems with younger opponents
b- Players who have problems playing against lower ranking opponents.
c- Players who do not compete at the local tournaments so nobody can recognize them if they lose.
d- Players who become sick / injured before a committed tournament/match.
e- Players who only look for tournaments that they can win.
f- Players who avoid tournaments where certain players go.
g- Players who do not compete as much as possible with training partners.
h- Players looking for higher level tournaments and if possible far away from other peers observations, so they dont to give an explanation as to why they lost.
i- Players who do not fight so there’s an excuse as to why they lost.
j- Etc, etc, etc.
If you are reading this and you are a coach, you will understand very well what I am talking about. If you are a player, look honestly in yourself, can you identify any of these strategies? If yes, ask yourself if you really want to play Tennis.
The strategy of flight was good when we lived in the jungle 200,000 years ago, when we had to flee from predators, but to play and develop as competitors, this is the one that gives us the least chance.
Within the options focused on Survival, this is the most suitable to compete. This type of player does not give up, no matter who is in front of them, these players, do not fear to fear or be under pressure, they may even enjoy that feeling.
Although it seems the ideal profile, the negative point of this mode is that the focus is placed on the opponent, that is, that they work and improve with the focus in being better than the opponent. This often brings up frustration when after much effort, the opponent is still better perhaps because of variables that we cannot handle.
However, I insist that there is an even better possibility. My proposal is to develop a Competitive self, focused on transcendence. Where the focus is on self-improvement and the result is understood because of performance and not as a goal. In short, not to compete from the survival, but from the transcendence. With this I do not want to neutralize the energy that comes naturally from our survival instinct, but to use it to focus on improvement and performance instead of defeating the opponent. Use the vital energy of survival in the pursuit of transcendence. In the next post I will explain the Transcendent Self.
"When you lose, you will be forgotten,
When you win, you will be recognized,
When you fight, you will be respected,
And what’s the most important
That you will respect yourself "
How to address competitive under performance
There are a very large number of players who are frustrated by not being able to compete at the level they train and much less at the level they want to play at.
A few years ago I read a book that influenced my coaching career the most, "the Inner game in tennis" by Timothy Gallwey. Gallwey's work simply reveals "self 1" and the "self 2" showing the existence of different "identities" within each one of us.
With Gallwey's permission I would like to propose a variant of his idea. There is no doubt about the existence of our different "self's". We are one when we are among friends, another when we are with family and another when we are alone. Without reaching the point of having many personalities it is a fact that we have different facets.
Within sport, and specifically within competitive sport, I have realized the existence of 3 "self's" that are part of our totality and that have to work with each one in their role to have more chances of success, these are:
1- Ideal self (IS): what I want to become
2- Training self(TS): What I can be
3- Competitive Self (CS): What I am
Having consulted with many players, to a greater or lesser extent, they all identified those parts. Depending on how those three "self's" interact, it is how we will advance continuously or crash with our limitations.
1- Ideal Self (IS): what we want to be:
It is our vision, our model, the player we want to be, maybe it can be a certain model of player, a game style, a ranking, etc.. There are 2 variants of the IS.
a. Focused on Goals (ISG): Work to make something happen.
If the IS is working properly it must be the lighthouse that guides us towards our goals, it must be the source of our commitment and motivation.
b. Focus on Expectations (ISE): Expecting Something to Happen
On the contrary, if it works from expectation and is contaminated by parents, coaches or ourselves and our ego, then it becomes a source of expectation and pressure.
2- Training Self(TS): what we can be, the test bench.
It is what our capabilities allow us to do, or perhaps what we will able to do. Our training version is the one that allows us to expand, to try, repeat and learn based on trial and error. Let's say it is the transition between knowing how to do (knowledge) and how to apply (wisdom)
It also works with 2 derivative versions of the Ideal Self:
a. The Training Self guided by the ideal Self with Objectives: if so, there is no conflict, they work together and there is an understanding of the process of work and development. There is an acceptance that errors are something of a necessity and as a learning opportunity.
b. The Training Self submitted to the Ideal Self with expectations: If the Training Self is in this position, normally the player hides behind "perfectionism", tends to have a lot less tolerance of errors and does not attempt too much out of fear of judgment and criticism from the Ideal Self. The player prefers to keep the bad instead of trying something new. He's terrified of "change." He looks for excuses as to why he is not progressing and usually wants to train with players who play better than he does and obviously prefers to play practice matches with weaker players or those against whom he has nothing to lose.
3- Competitive Self (CS): What I really am, the most important
It's what I'm really capable of doing right now, it's what I am now and not what I'll be in 10 minutes.
We have 2 types of Competitive Selfs:
1- Those who compete better than they train: In this case the competitive Self is in balance with the other two, they work as a team, complement each other and provide feedback. compare this with a company, this would be a horizontal structure, where each work alongside each other.
2- Those who compete worse than they train: in this case the competitive Self is afraid of losing because it is afraid of being judged by the other two "self's". Using the same comparison of a company would in this case be a vertical structure, where when you win, the responsible is the ideal Self and when you lose, the responsible is the competitive Self and then they normally seek external reasons: referees, court, wind, coach, etc....
Let us consider for a moment that the Ideal Self is the Father and the competitive Self a Child.
The Competitive Self is the weakest link, the most susceptible as well as the most important. Yet he is the most humiliated and punished, by the Ideal Self. Comments and thoughts like:
They are all phrases directed from our ideal Self to the competitive Self: punishments, reprimands, disrespect, humiliations, contempt, criticisms and comparisons. The ideal self then seeks for excuses and justifications: He gets angry, throws the racket, throws the match, maybe "invents" an injury, all of this is to justify to himself, "to be right"(that he is right/ to prove he's right) and somehow keep the ego in order: if I get angry it is because I care.
If we press our Competitive Self to do things at a level in which it is neither technically nor emotionally prepared for, we will limit belief and create trauma. It's like pushing a child who is scared of the dark into a dark room. If we want the child to overcome his or her fears, we need to support, listen, respect and show him or her that there is nothing in that room to be scared of and not to humiliate and make him or her feel like a coward.
Respecting, caring, listening and guiding our competitive self, accepting that the player needs time is very important in the development of his/her confidence. Don't rush him/her, wait until he/she feels ready and not when we push him/her indiscriminately to be ready.
Note: all this analysis is related to the attitude of the player, there are situations where the player does not know what he knows, in which case it is the role of the coach to show him the possibilities, or on the contrary there are players who know that they do not know but are not interested in knowing, in which case, these players have already failed.
Many players and coaches have come to my academy to improve consistency in a specific shot, believing the problem is technical. While it may be one of the reasons, the most of the times it is not the main one.
Although there are several reasons for not having consistency: Attention / focus, Emotional, Visual coordination, intension / responsibility and also technique. Now I want to refer to the easiest to solve: the expectation.
Suppose today you achieved your driver's license, you have 20 or 30 hours of practice, you get into your car and start driving at full speed through the center of your city, avoiding cars and people, accelerating to the maximum, taking the curves very fast and braking in the limit. Is this logical? I do not think so. The most healthy strategy would be to drive very carefully, taking all precautions and gradually taking confidence based on correct decisions and actions and in consequence, be consistent in driving.
In other words, consistency is based on the reliability that we have to perform successfully in a specific task, which gives us the confidence to, little by little, try new challenges. Then we can say that consistency is the correct balance between my actions and my abilities. Anything that goes too far of my capabilities will has very little chance of success.
"The higher the expectation the lower the consistency"
If we talk about tennis players who lack consistency, most of the times it is because they are hitting and playing in a higher speed than they really are able to manage, they have very high expectations on their shots.
To adjust this, it is necessary to understand that consistency is playing with the correct balance between technical, physical, coordination, visual and emotional capacities in relation to strategic and tactical decisions. That is, do not play too above possibilities and accept what you know/have and what you do not know/have, just be realistic: If you can not hit a topspin backhand, you can not expect to hit a short angle backhand running In an emotionally stressful situation.
"Work slow to improve faster"
This can be solved very easily, you only have to slow down until the you find the rhythm where you are able to put 15/20 balls in each rally, a status where you can feel that you are controlling the situation and not the situation controlling you.
By slowing down, you will increase the ability to organize movements and improve decision making, you will have more confidence and will magically start to hit harder and with much more consistency but with a big difference: you will now do because you choose to do. Be consistent is to decide each stroke according to the current level and not the "expected" or "desired" level. Being aware of what you are and what you have is the best starting point to design the correct strategy to improve faster.