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Delusions of Granduer

One morning last year I was teaching some teenage boys who had come to clinic straight out of bed – rumpled t shirts, messy hair, sleepy. When they started to compete I noticed they were all hitting as hard as they could, which resulted in an occasional spectacular shot punctuated by a series of errors. The boys all showed frustration at their errors but, undaunted, kept swinging away. They were suffering from what I call “delusions of grandeur,” limited awareness of reality combined with high expectations. Or, to put it another way, thinking you are great at something when you aren’t.

High performance is earned through discipline, focus, and attention to detail (like getting out of bed to eat breakfast before a morning workout.)  None of the boys exhibited these qualities but nevertheless were expecting to hit shots like Nadal and Federer. The first thing they needed to do was get a grip on reality. The harder you hit, the more balls will go out. That’s just a law of nature in tennis; no one is immune regardless of age or ability. I explained to the guys that consistency and power are inversely proportional (I figured if I used big words maybe their brains would engage) - if one goes up the other will come down.  Expecting otherwise is delusional. I suggested the following progression to guide their thinking: consistency first, add placement, then think about hitting with power.

Players who can keep the ball deep, move the ball side to side, and rarely Meratol miss always beat those who can only hit hard without regard for placement or consistency (trust me on this, I watch A LOT of tennis). The boys had reversed the progression by starting the day focused on power; consistency and placement had not entered into the equation.

When the guys went back out to play after my inspiring talk I didn’t know what to expect. One of the guys, Scotty, seemed to get it right away. He started to go for a bit less power, aimed closer inside the court, and added some spin for control.  He didn’t miss a ball for the next series of points. Every point he won was on his opponents’ error.  I could tell it took discipline for him to resist the urge to constantly go for winners. There is a strong voice inside the head of a teenage boy that tells him the only points that matter are the ones on which you hit a winner, that if you don’t hit a winner first, then the other guy will. This is another delusion that leads to playing tennis like an idiot. It takes tremendous discipline to block that voice, but Scotty was winning the battle in his head, and as a result started to win points consistently. He gave me a knowing glance as if we were the only two people who knew this amazing secret to success. The other guys were still in various stages of delusion which was fine with him.   

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