Mental Toughness
Part Four
Goal Setting

I once owned the business of a tennis club where I was also the Head Pro.  To my surprise, I was approached by another pro who had, years before, coached some of the biggest names in professional tennis.  He wanted to get back into teaching and wondered if I would take him on.  I was enthusiastic--until we sat down and talked.  He had big plans for my club, wanted to bring in name professionals for exhibition matches and clinics.  That sounded great, I told him.  Then he said, "The standard of play at this club is too low.  Players don't try hard enough to be good.  The play is so far below professional standards, it's laughable."

I knew at that moment that he'd fail.  I gave him a shot, but my premonition proved quickly true.  His goals were too high.  He didn't understand that recreational players have wide and various motivations that get them on a tennis court, and that none of them are wrong or right, better or worse.  Some play for the exercise, some to be with friends, some to win trophies.  Certainly, a teacher has no place setting standards for or judging his students; his job is to help his students achieve their own goals.  And the students that did pay his high price for lessons soon felt judged and wouldn't go back to him.  He quit before I had to let him go.

I tell this story because the teacher's mistake is obvious.  What's more difficult for my students to see is that their goal setting is often flawed, as well.  Some, for example, don't make a distinction between short-term and long-term goals.  Once I had a student who was plagued by double-faults.  He just wanted to get a serve in so he didn't give away his service games.  Understandable.  But his goal was so short-sighted that he wouldn't take out a bucket of balls and practice a spin serve, which, down the road would have been the most reliable solution to his problem.  Why?  Well, the spin serve was new, and he hit it about ten times worse than the flat serve he already couldn't get in.  It was literally too scary.  He couldn't see the bigger picture, down the road.

I remember another student whose best friends played on an A-level team and she wanted to join them.  They all knew each other a long time and they got together off the court, as well.  My student was the only one that didn't play at the A level, and she felt left out.  She wanted to be an A player--but like tomorrow!  Getting to the A's should be a long-term goal for a B player, and for some, a terrific and motivating ambition.  But every time my student lost or played badly, her goal seemed further and further away, and she got down on herself.  Her goal was punishing, not because her ambition was misplaced but because she mistook a long-term goal for a short-term one.  She became discouraged instead of inspired.

Of course, your goals shouldn't discourage you.  They should help you stay positive about your game and your commitment to it, at whatever level you play.

Get Real with Yourself

When I meet new students, I ask them what they want out of tennis and their lessons.  I don't have an agenda.  My job is solely to help students achieve what they want.  Sometimes, though, students don't know how to decide what it is they want.  Here are some questions that you can ask yourself that will help sort things out.

1.  How much time do you have to spend on the court on a weekly basis?  I mean really and truly, not in your wildest dreams.  Kids at home?  Working fifty hours a week?  Volunteering?  Travelling?  Playing other sports besides tennis?  These things add up, and if the bottom line is that you'll be lucky to get on the court once a week to play, don't think about being a competitive player in leagues or tournaments.  You don't have the time.  But you've got more than enough time to play recreationally and have a hell of a lot of fun.  And playing recreationally doesn't mean you can't compete!  Find a buddy or two and set up regular matches, maybe someone you can beat on and someone who beats on you.  You'll look forward to it every week, even the beat downs. 

On the other hand, if you can schedule a couple of matches per week, maybe take a lesson per week, and maybe, God forbid, get out and practice once a week, you've got the time to think about competitive tennis--if that matters to you.  Certainly, it doesn't have to.     Watching your game grow can be satisfying in and of itself without joining a league or playing tournaments on the weekends.  Maybe you'll be happy to beat the next guy above you in your club's singles ladder.  That's fine.  But you definitely have time to spend the necessary hours on the court to become a better player.  So maybe you'll measure that progress by playing tournaments or joining a league at your club.  That's fine, too.  But, either way, if you find that you love the game and have the time to commit to it, you'll miss out on one of the great pleasures of being a tennis player if you aren't trying to get better.  Your tennis should take you on a journey.

2.  How much do you love or hate competition?  Are you the guy that gets stoked just thinking about a match or the guy that gets nauseous?  Be honest.  There is absolutely no rule that states that to play tennis you have to want to compete.  For many, and for many good reasons, competition is a big turn off.  Opponents are crabby and sometimes cheat.  Somehow, between the lines, decent people become unpleasant.  They scowl, scream, pout and look miserable. And this is for fun?  Many of my students who play competitively all year refuse to play USTA Adult Leagues because of the strong tendency of people to go wacky over their ratings.  I don't argue with them.  I've seen those ratings turn people downright nasty on the court.  On the other hand, I've got students that love USTA.  They want to challenge themselves, play up at a higher rating, lift their games through stiffer competition.  I don't argue with these students, either.  In fact, the relatively short USTA season provides a great opportunity for players to try and compete at a higher level.  If they get creamed, the punishment doesn't last for months.

And I have other students that just aren't interested in organized competition.  They like to compete, but have had bad experiences on teams or don't know if they have the time to commit to a long season, and feel uncomfortable telling their captains that they aren't available to play.  So these students play socially.  They try to play at the best level they can, and they may even practice or take lessons as well, but they don't participate in leagues or play tournaments.  And I have other students that play just for health and social reasons.  They like the fun that tennis brings to their weekly exercise, and they like being with friends.  Some just like to rally and never score.  And other students just aren't sure.  They're beginning players and haven't tried league or tournament venues.

None of these positions are right or wrong.  But it's essential to your pleasure on court that you honestly try to answer whether you like or dislike competitive play.

 3.  What kind of shape are you in?  My wife loved playing competitive tennis--until she had a full knee replacement.  She's still wistful about getting back on a tennis court, but she doesn't dare.  She's a gym rat now.  And, sadly, as some of my students have aged, they, too, have developed physical problems that keep them off the court.  They're golfing now.  But for other students who are still healthy enough to play, understanding their physical assets and liabilities can be a confusing step in setting appropriate goals for their games.  After all, it isn't black and white.  I've coached grandmothers well into their sixties who played successful A-1 doubles.  They don't move like they used to, but they don't need to.  They know where the ball is going and they're there ahead of it, even with their plodding footwork.  And I've coached guys that were thirty pounds overweight that played successful singles.  Go figure.  But let's say you're a B player looking to get to the A level and you're overweight and have cranky knees.  If you push harder, your knees bark all the more.  You may have the talent to get to the A's, but before that goal can be achieved you may need to go on a serious diet and see an orthopedist about going under the knife.  Or you may have to decide to switch from singles to doubles.  Or you may decide to cut back on your hours on the court to give your knees a break, stay a B player and have as much fun as you can.  The point is, there's a definite physical component to the game.  One of the reasons A players get to the A's is because they tend to be better athletes--fitter, faster, stronger and more coordinated.  It's not always clear cut, as I mentioned, but it's a fact.  Take a look around at better players.  Be honest, and consider what shape you're in as an athlete in comparison to them.  Your conclusion may not be exactly palatable, but it will be a more bitter truth if you try to become something you're not and fail. 

Set Some Goals

Let's say you want to try and get better at the game.  This may or not be measured by playing competitively; that's entirely up to you.  But you want to challenge yourself and see if you can improve.  The first step is sorting out the difference between short-term and long- term goals.  And you need to write all your goals down, and figure out ways to measure your success in meeting them.

Short-Term Goals can be as specific as getting out a bucket of balls to practice serving the next week or losing four pounds over the next month.  Most importantly, they are things that you can control.  Stating, for example, "I'm not going to lose to Bob next time I play him," is not a good short term goal.  Bob may play out of his mind; you might form a blister of your foot.  S__t happens, like they say. So, if next time out, Bob kicks your butt, what good has your short-term goal done you?  Zip.  You're discouraged.

Let's say, rather, that you know your backhand is crappy.  You poke at the thing.  You can't follow through to save your life.  Your eyes come off the ball.  You've got one of those sticky papers taped on your back:  Can't Hit a Backhand.  So, okay.  Here are some short term goals that will help.  1) I'm getting on the ball machine once a week.  I'm going to start a slow speeds and slow feed intervals, and I'm going to practice hitting cross-court, down-the-line, short and deep.  Just a half-hour session, once a week for a month.  2) In my next match, if I get a good score, I'm going to try and hit out on a backhand return.  If I don't have a good score, it's okay if I poke the backhand over, but at least once per game, I'm going to try.  3)  I'm going to take a lesson, even just a half-hour lesson to work exclusively on my backhand.  4)  If I do any or all of these things weekly, by the end of the month I should have a steadier backhand with a fuller swing.  Now, a plan like that could change your life!  No one can deter you from accomplishing it.  But, if something like life intervenes so that you don't have the time to execute your plan this month, it's still a good one for next month. 

Be realistic with your short-term goals.  If, for example, you switch grips at net, getting comfortable using the Continental grip in only a month may be too optimistic.  Grip changes can be traumatic.  But you could, over one month, ask a friend to feed you balls at net while you tried using the new grip.  If you did this every week, by the end of the month you should feel more comfortable with the grip--your backhand volley not as weak as when you started, your forehand volley not closed and hitting into the net (likely initial results).  If that proved the case, over the next month, you might try and play some practice matches where you used the new grip, though in league matches, you went with the old stand-by.  Take it gradually.

But with any goal, short- or long-term, write the goal down and write down your weekly progress.  If you've chosen a goal that fits into a realistic short-term purview, you'll feel proud of yourself as you see your progress, even as you observe your effort.  You've posed a challenge for your game and you gradually worked at it.  Nothing could be better for your game and a positive attitude about yourself as a player!

Long-Term Goals should have some mystery in them, objectives that you may or may not be able to achieve--something within your reach but not necessarily within your grasp.  My student who wanted to join her A-level friends on their team was right to set that as a long-term goal.  She was a solid B player.  She had the time to commit to be on the court, practice and playing.  However, no one can be sure he or she can achieve such a goal.  Other players stand in the way.  Life intervenes, work and family.  Injuries occur, an illness.  As such, setting long-term goals means identifying objectives that inspire you to be your best yet don't punish you for not completely achieving them.  That can be tricky.  You need to set objectives that will test you yet are possible, and you need to be clear about how you'll measure both your progress and your ultimate success.  The goal should be no more than six months into the future.  Longer than that, and there's simply too much opportunity for a player to lose her focus. 

When I taught my student who came to me with serving problems, I told him that the spin serve might take him six months to master, that he'd have to practice it, and that it would be some months down the road before he'd try to use it in play.  Even then, I said, he would try it only as a first serve, so if it failed, he wasn't looking at a double-fault.  Adding a new stroke to your repertoire is a great long-term goal:  learning a spin serve, learning to chip and drop-shot, taking your returns on the rise, a topspin lob.  Adding new tactics can also be great long-term goals:  chipping and charging, serving and volleying, becoming a better poacher.  All these goals have in common that you're building on what you've already accomplished in the game; you're not inventing the wheel.  And, from your play, you know that accomplishing these goals will definitely make you more competitive.  So, you could also use long-term goals just to make tennis more fun.  You could set a goal of losing ten pounds in the next six months, or getting to the gym to strengthen your core, or simply working on your schedule so that by the end of six months, you could be on the court more often.

Four or six months is a long time.  When setting a long-term goal, you need to be religious about writing it down and writing down your progress, every week.  At the end of every month, you need to look at your written results and determine of you're on track or you need to do any fine-tuning or your program and plan. 

Consult a Pro

In life and on the tennis court, it's often difficult to see ourselves realistically.  And, as players, if we don't see ourselves clearly, it's both difficult to set good goals for ourselves and likely that the goals we set may very well be destructive.  The last thing you want to do is set goals that are out of reach and, ultimately, punishing.  Your goals should inspire and lift you.

If you're currently working with a pro that you know and trust, ask him or her to help set up some short- and long-term goals.  Insist that she be honest.  Tell her that you're going to make a list and that you'd like her to make her own so that you can compare them.  Especially if you find some overlap and common ground in your own and her opinion of where your game needs to go and might realistically aspire to go, both of you will more confident with your lessons and your objectives. 

If you're not currently working with a pro, it might be well worth the investment to take just a few lessons with someone you have good reason to trust.  Ask around, and ask specifically:  Do you know a pro that could help me with a realistic assessment of my game and to set some goals for getting me better?  Bottom line, you don't want to get hooked-up with a pro that's only going to see the bottom line, a student that he'll get to sign-up for months of lessons.  You won't trust his opinion if that's what he says.  And when you get on the court for the first time, tell him your objectives.  You want to take no more than three lessons, and after that, you'd like his opinion of what you need to work on and what might be realistic goals for helping you become a better player.

And Goal-Setting Relates to Mental Toughness How?

Perspective is so important to competitive success.  Years ago, I had a student with serious mental toughness issues.  We both listened to Jeff Greenwald's Fearless Tennis DVD, and we both learned a lot.  One of the ideas I stole from him was to try and look at the court differently if, in the middle of a match, things had started to go south.  He advised just walking back to the fence, just to get a longer look at the court and one's own place there.  So smart.  Such a move may not be a magic bullet, but it can restart your mind and your emotions, in and of itself, a necessary step in turning things around.

As much as your mental toughness informs your play in the middle of a match, your perspective or attitude about your play off the court also is important.  Players feel optimistic when they hit the court if they're playing well and feeling like they're improving.  And, of course, the opposite is equally true: if you're discouraged about your play, it's tough to bring a positive attitude to the court.  That's why goal setting is so important to mental toughness.  To feel like you're improving, to stay positive, you need to see concrete results, but those results must be more than your win-loss record.  If you feel like you have good short- and long-term goals, and that you're making progress in realizing them, even if you hit a bad patch and lose some matches, you'll still be able to feel positive about your play.  In fact, only the presence of such goals in your life will create the possibility of maintaining a positive attitude if you've suffered some losses.  You need that off the court perspective, the discipline of a program, the satisfaction of measuring your effort and accomplishment by goals you set and work toward, by a positive plan toward the future.

 c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Mental Toughness Part Five
Upping the Fun