Tales of Player Discovery through Adversity

Contrast: Push, Pull, Hold

This week we share two contrasting stories, that provide a balanced view toward helping players face adversity. We  are seeing the beginnings of a massive shift in sporting culture.  Like a mighty ship that turns ever so slowly from the steering of what is a relatively tiny rudder, so the culture of sports coaching is making that shift.

Smart People

Our friend Izabela Lundberg, transformational coach and creator of High Performance Impact Evolution™, after her many travels around the world in the Olympic sports arena, shared  the following:

Through my conversation and interviews with professional coaches and athletes, a vast majority of them are not happy with “the old school” coaching and training approach. Concerns that they identified ranged from relationships and expectations between coaches, players, and regulatory agencies, expectations and attitudes of players to the physical environment in which they train, training techniques, and lack of science and innovation in their overall training process. Today, we have more than ever opportunity to revolutionize the sports arena. 

The Big Turn

In sharp contrast we were very happy to receive input from Martin Blackman, Director of Player Development for the USTA, who asked a coach to submit the following piece.  We love it on a number of levels. After you read this, we will go over some points that are really awesome:

A Small Push, Leading to Discovery

There is no a better feeling for an athlete, than accomplishing a goal; experiencing success and tasting glory after facing real adversity.  As a National Coach at USTA Player Development, I have had the opportunity to deliver the message to my players, that the sense of reward that they will experience from persevering through difficult situations is something they will always remember and carry with them for the rest of their lives. They might not always win but the fact that they faced the challenge will only strengthen their character and refine their identity as a true competitor.  Helping athletes understand the value in embracing obstacles and being resilient are at the core of my message to the players that I have worked with.   

The best example I have of a player valuing adversity was when one of our junior US boys got sick with a cold during the warm-up tournament the week prior to a junior Grand Slam. The player had lost first round in the warm-up event and he was ready to withdraw from the slam and head home.  He was plagued with doubts, along with dealing with his cold, but at the core of it, maybe he was  looking for an exit to release all of the pressure from playing the junior Grand Slam.  We ended up having a long conversation about the opportunity he had to bounce back strong and navigate some uncharted waters that he had yet to experience in terms of toughness, will and resiliency.  He admitted that his cold wasn’t that bad and that he felt he was able to perform physically. The real issue was that his will to compete was not strong because of his doubt. We also touched on the fact that “the body achieves what the mind believes” and this player in particular had proven consistently to have a very strong mind.  I reminded him of his mental toughness and the work he had put in and how proud I was of him. By the end of the conversation, the player had realized that he did not want to hide from the adversity and that he wanted to test his limits today and lay it all on the line, rather than wait until tomorrow to face the challenge.

His realization was that adversity was part of life, and will always be present. Therefore, the logical decision was to accept it, overcome the negativity and give his best effort.  He ended up achieving his junior career best at the junior grand slam event but more importantly, he had discovered a lot about what he was truly capable of physically, mentally and emotionally as a competitor under duress.  This player showed what is possible when athletes are able to perceive adversity as an opportunity rather than a burden and use every ounce of their character to overcome the challenges before them both on and off the court.

I also learned that as a coach, the most important skill is to inspire through a process of positive discovery. As a result of self-discovery, my player gained real belief and confidence that transcends wins and losses and will give him the ability to overcome adversity in life, not just on the tennis court.

Nicolas Todero

National Coach

USTA Player Development

USATennisCoach Analysis

Paragraph by paragraph lets take a look at what Nicolas shared.  First, he derives his satisfaction from the overall development of the players. He also seems grateful for the opportunity to work with players at this level on these issues of character development.  Players learn to embrace obstacles.

This player described was at a crisis point, and Nicolas could have withdrawn or shamed the player.  Instead, he engaged the player in a discussion of the issue at hand.  When pressed, the player came to his own conclusion, that he might have been using the fairly minor illness, as an excuse for not digging a little deeper. The coach identified a strength in the player to help him navigate through this difficulty. The player then rose to the challenge.

A pivotal outcome was achieved. Instead of going home, never knowing what might have happened, he competed and achieved a higher level of achievement than ever before.  Moments like these can change the course of someone’s life for the better.

A process oriented coach, facilitated a minor miracle, by helping a player during a crucial time of self discovery!  We love that.

We know that some people may take the above story and maybe take it a little too far.  The important part is the player knew that his cold was not that bad. Some coaches may prod, and push a player who is seriously ill to play, or play with an injury that could become a much more serious issue if the player, or send their player into a tailspin from overtraining which won’t be helped if the player does not stop playing immediately.

The Pull Away from the Cliff

Here is an interesting moment from one of my high school tennis coaching experiences.  During a four year span where we won the only two titles in school history over a 45 year span, my team was on the edge.  Our team had battle through some very tough close emotional wins, since our players were not blessed with a tremendous amount of offensive ability, we had to win smart and the hard way. On the schedule for the day, in our periodized practice schedule, I had the players slated for a pretty tough practice, with the last extreme fitness blast before the last phase of competition. However, my team seemed a bit listless.

I gathered my three team captains together. Aaron, the top captain, Noli and Vincent came over to talk. Aaron is a very fit player, and very loyal to me, Noli is a nice kid who goes along with the plan, and Vincent was a quiet guy who had really been ground down the year before, and performed poorly at the end of the season.

I told them that I had a tough practice schedule, and wanted their thoughts before we go through with it. Aaron was in agreement we should have a tough practice. Noli didn’t see anything wrong with it and while he felt tired he would do it anyway.  Vincent was opposed saying, “Coach, I am pretty tired and 4 or 5 of the guys on the team are pretty tired too.”   I asked, “Do you think they are near a breaking point?” He said, “Yes”.   I knew what I was going to do, but I wanted to make it an object lesson for my captains.  So I asked them, “Vincent, Noli, its 2-1 in favor of having a tough work out, what are we going to do?  Is it a democratic decision?”  They looked puzzled, they assumed I would just push it through. They both answered that they thought we should still do the tough workout. I asked them if they were saying that because they thought that was what I wanted to hear.  I honestly forget their answer, but even so I stated, “We are going to take it easy today, since there are important players including Vincent who are at the breaking point, so if we break them, then they are not going to be any good to the team, for a week or two until they can rest.”  As it stood we finished the season with some thrilling 4-3 victories in matches that took close to three and a half hours to complete, and secured our second title.  We will never know what might have happened if I pushed hard that day, but my gut tells me some players would have fallen apart.

Get Involved in our Sandbox

In the final analysis, coaches need to really know their players, listen and understand.  Players need to be a part of the decision making, if not the key people in decision.  Also, it’s not always majority rule, because their are many unwise decisions that can be made on that basis.  We at USATennisCoach hope to hear many more stories like this coming from USTA Player Development, and we hope you will share your stories with us.  Be wise, promote discovery, balance, harmony and empower players as decision makers.

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