Thinking Like a Pro - Embrace Failure

September 9, 2022
Coaches Corner

2022-Oliver Jones Headshot-100
By Oliver Jones
He teaches paddle and tennis at The Overbrook Golf Club in Villanova, PA.
Oliver holds a 9.3 PTI and competes nationally on the APTA tournament circuit with partner Jody Sambrick.

In this series Thinking Like a Pro, we are contrasting the mental approach of the professional paddle player to that of the amateur or recreational club player. (If you want to dip your toes into what the pros are doing and make the move from standard to great, these articles can help to get you there.) By highlighting the differences, we will begin to get a clear view of a pro’s thought process. A mindset that allows him to advance his physical and mental limits and edge closer to his full potential.

While we will be thinking within a platform tennis context, these concepts emphasize underlying mental models for learning, and thus undoubtedly apply in all areas of life in which we seek true mastery. Each article in the series will examine one specific area; in this second article, we are investigating failure.

In general, the amateur, or average club player, concerns themselves too much with the outcome of the match, be it in practice or formal competition. This focus on ‘winning’ is highly corrosive to their growth and progression as a player. Let us delve into why this is the case and why the best and most accomplished professionals adopt a contrary mindset.

If I am concerned mostly with the match result—winning—then I will fear incompetence and fear having any of my weaknesses identified, because facing these will (in the short term) directly hurt my chances of winning. I will thus want to stay only within my limited field of ability and will be reticent to experience any adversity in which my limitations as a player are highlighted. I will try with all my might in this endeavor to protect my ego, to keep it from being threatened by any situation where my ability will not match the image of the player I have in my mind.

Failure is not an option for this type of mindset, for failure is a direct reflection of a player’s shortcomings, and this could be devastating to the self-image a player holds in his mind. In short, the player that focuses solely on the outcome of the match is condemned to being oppressed by it. They will be a self-inflicted slave, owned by their overwhelming desire to win.

This is not to say we shouldn't want to win; of course we are always trying to find successful solutions to problems on the court. This is to say that, if winning is our goal, we need to be more sophisticated about what mindset will lead us to the optimization of our abilities. What mindset allows us to win more in the long term. To achieve our fullest playing potential and unlock peak performance.

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While the average amateur will shy away from failure, shy away from his own weaknesses, shy away from facing the demons of his ego, the professional seeks these things. The professional runs towards the fear of loss because the professional is truly curious to learn about his own limitations, so that these weaknesses can be improved and (with training) unable to be exploited. The professional wants any fractures in his game to be identified, so that he may use this new information to repair and fortify those vulnerabilities.

For example, the amateur will generally overcompensate in one of two divergent ways when faced with this situation in competition: 1) he will hit too safely, and pick shots that are too careful for the level he is playing, out of a fear that he will miss, or 2) he will hit too hard and go for too much, out of fear that he will be perceived as not able to compete with the opponents

Both are mistakes out of a fear of failure. The first example is fear of his own ability, that if he misses shots, even if they are the right ones, his ego can’t handle missing them, so best to let opponents beat him with their better shots. In the second example, the player overcompensates by hitting way out of his comfort zone and sphere of competency, out of fear that the match could be on someone else’s paddle and not his own.

We have all had these experiences in competition. Often going from one tactic to the other in the same set, the same game, even the same point! Any player that has achieved greatness is intimately familiar with these competing mindsets within their internal psyche.

In both examples, a player can explain away the problem—their opponents were just too good and played their best or the player had a bad day and his shots just didn’t land in—but will be missing the real issue. The real issue, of course, is that it was the fear of failure and the threat to the ego that inhibited the player.

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The professional is more inclined to look at failure objectively, as a tool for learning. To make the correct choices in matches, no matter the outcome, because this is the only way to gain true references, and the valuable information needed to learn and grow. For the professional then, failure is simply information from which a greater understanding and sophistication of his own process can be achieved. In fact, if it wasn't for this failure, true progress could not be made at all. Thus the professional craves failure, because it is the best and only way to improve.

New information to help improve the game of the professional simply allows for a “Software Update” and they understand that growth is the continual and relentless progression of software updates. The professional understands that his greatest moments of growth often stem from his greatest failures. The professional recognizes that failure is an integral precursor to future success, and that failure brings invaluable learnings, learnings which can be used to fail in new ways, from which we will again draw new learnings.

Do not run from failure, run toward it. Samuel Beckett said it best, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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