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The Story of the Big Fish in the Little Pond

” If one really wishes to be master of an art or sport, technical knowledge of it is not enough”, from Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

The story of the big fish in the little pond is an all too common one, and more often than not has a negative impact on many players; especially for those juniors who experience a degree of national or international success and recognition during their early developmental years.  During my career I have worked with many players who fell victim to this common attitude flaw and inner game hindrance.   And as their coach the circumstances demanded they be mentored to make the necessary, but delicate, attitude adjustments without damaging their fragile confidence and self belief, so they could then move beyond these hindrances that create barriers and block development of crucial outer game skills.

Just last week I caught a big fish in a little pond, who just so happens to be a young, up and coming, elite player from Singapore that I am currently coaching.  I thought it would be useful to share how I spotted, landed and handled this big fish in his little pond, and then immediately released him back into his ocean.  I feel by sharing the off court, training conversation, and how it created immediate benefits on court, it could serve as an insightful example as to how the wholistic approach is practically applied to dealing with inner game issues when developing players.  I also hope by sharing this inner game training it will demonstrate why the wholistic way is the approach to which every coach and player inevitably and eventually must abide.  And if not, they and their players are destined to fall short of ever achieving the excellence and potential they so earnestly pursue as dudes of tennis.

I should begin the story by sharing some revealing background information. This particular player came to me just over a year ago as a national champion and as one of his countries rising stars.  As a young player he had received significant media attention in his home country for achievements both at home and more recently aboard.  And though Singapore is not exactly a tennis powerhouse in Asia yet, this attention coupled with more recent successes in Europe was more than enough to convince him this fictional, fish story swelling inside his head was real.  The player’s attitude was increasingly and negatively influenced by the alluring appeal of recognition, and because it had gone unmonitored he had reached a tipping point whereby the player was starting to sink from the weight of a swelling ego.  I could see if this was not addressed not only would this be detrimental to his long-term development, but would inevitably lead to the drowning of this big fish in his little pond. As Roy Emerson, one of the greatest players to ever hold a racket, once said, “There is always more to learn in this game, no matter how long you have been playing or how many successes you have had.”

Upon his return from a successful summer in Europe, and despite having played well as was one of only sixteen, juniors players in the world selected to compete in the annual Longines Future Tennis Aces event as part of the French Open, and then going on to win and do well in tournaments in Slovakia and Czech Republic, I noticed he was struggling more than usual with the quality of his ball striking. He was frequently miss timing, shanking, and contacting balls late.  His poor ball striking had been a noted weakness and development priority since beginning his training with me.  We had focused on specific skills to help improve it without demanding he make the drastic changes to the swing pattern that were contributing to the poor ball striking quality.  And though it was a top priority in his development plan; especially for this age and stage of development, it was slow going due to his inner resistances to work on the remaining, key adjustments needed for consistent, quality ball striking.   But since he needed to plan for the European trip we had to prioritize the use of our time to properly prepare for the red clay, I left it until after the summer under the  work in progress file.

After three days back I began to discuss this with him, and suggested it would be the appropriate time to again start working on improving his ball striking skills.  I reiterated he would need to make the final, but significant adjustments, in order to achieve the quality he would need in the near future. He verbally agreed mostly out of respect for his coach, but his body language and reluctance to participate in the process was noticeable.  After practice that day his father shared with me that his his son had expressed concerns the night before.  He had asked his father, “Why should he change his forehand when he had done well over the summer winning a tournament and reaching the finals of another?”  So here it was, the source of resistance I had noticed the previous year and over the last three days.  This was the insight into his inner game story, and the key to breaking through the barrier if he was to move forward and develop these outer game skills.  I decided we needed an off court training to discuss how these inner game hindrances were negatively affecting his attitude and awareness skills.

Before practice the next day I began the discussion by recognizing in the presence of his father his successes and improvements over the summer, and legitimizing his concerns about making these necessary adjustments.  I wanted to avoid putting him on the defense and having him internally shut down while only pretending to listen and not actively participate in the discussion.  I needed to get through to the Big Fish so the motivation to change would come from within him, the only effective way to guide players into making quick and lasting transformations.  Also, I wanted to avoid harming in anyway the confidence and self-belief he had gained, which as we all know is such a delicate flower needing constant cultivation within players.  So, the tone of the conversation was intended to be much more cooperative rather than commanding and dictatorial.

I expressed my concerns that he was losing sight of the big picture, not seeing the ocean from his little pond.  I discussed how this seductive story was distorting his vision by the influence of two, disempowering hindrances, lack of humility and fear.  It was important he become aware of how lack of humility was a consequence of focusing on and placing too much emphasis on his recent successes and external recognition.  The fear hindrance was coming from an unwillingness to let go and trust the knowledge, the coach and himself, so he could evolve from a mediocre ball striker to a more effective and efficient ball striker.  This was a straightforward example of how the inner and outer games are inseparable and interdependent.   As Timothy Gallwey writes in his book, The Inner Game of Tennis“The goal of the inner game is to reduce the interference to ones own potential.”

So, that was the goal of this inner game training, to help the player see how his inner attitude was interfering with reaching his ball striking potential.  The conversation offered him the feedback needed to first; make him aware of the presence of these hindrances and how they were dominating his thought patterns, and second, how they were polluting his mind by creating barriers and blocking the doorway into an attitude of excellence and preventing progress in his outer game.   As a consequence he realized these hindrances were making him uncoachable and ineffective as a learner, and consequently preventing progress.  I suggested that though the current ball striking skills had been effective enough for him to win in this age division, it would not be effective in the older age divisions, so sooner or later he would have to progress and prepare for this new level.  He began to connect the dots, and realized if we did not address it now, all the other areas of his game would suffer, preventing him from having the whole game needed for the elite levels.  Finally, I pointed out it would be much more difficult to address these issues and make adjustments in the future because of the hours that he would spend repeating and reinforcing an ineffective swing pattern, so he should really consider doing it now.

The final part of the conversation was sharing with him stories of some elite players I had previously coached, who had suffered from these very hindrances, but had not dealt with them and as a result not reached their potential or achieved the level of success they aspired to.  We also discussed the well known story of Pete Sampras’ major change from a two handed to one handed backhand despite having been one of the best juniors in California and US at the time, and winning many tournaments.  I pointed out that Sampras and his coach had kept their eyes on the big picture and obviously had not been hindered by a lack of humility or fear.   After reassuring him these swing adjustments were not beyond his ability to implement, and that if we did trust and commit he would see immediate benefit, I made it clear it was ultimately up to him to decide if and when he wanted to proceed.  Having said that I did stress there was an urgency to develop and solidify these skills at this age, and there would be a noticeable, negative impact on other parts of his outer game should he decide against it.  We ended the conversation, and I left it with him as we went on court for our training session.

As we finished the warm up he approached me and said he was ready to begin the process to better ball striking.  His change in attitude and effectiveness as a learner was immediate.   There was no resistance just complete trust in the process.  It was clear he had broken through his mental barriers abandoning these attitude hindrances.  The inner game training had seemingly worked.  The result was we had one of the most productive training sessions I ever recall.  In ten minutes he was striking the ball on the forehand side with consistently better quality than I had every seen.  Not only had was he back on the path to improving this important outer game skill, but, perhaps more importantly, he had developed and improved the inner game skills that were no longer interfering with his outer game development.  By the sessions end I observed that he had felt this inner game transformation, and experienced first hand this improvement, which without doubt reinforced to him how important it was to cultivate the appropriate attitude.

“The game ends up playing the person rather than the other way around. There are two reasons: Success in the Inner Game is very often the deciding factor between success in your outer game and failure. Second the Inner Game is a fascinating game in its own right—and the only game that can be ‘applied’ to all other games.”  Timothy Gallwey

As mentioned earlier I decided to share this story as a blog entry to reveal how intimately interconnected the inner and outer games are, and because of this inherent inseparability, we as coaches should strive to consciously and intentional train and develop these two games simultaneously.   By training the inner and outer games as one game a player can develop and evolve into a complete player with a whole game.  Whether a coach is aware of this or not he or she is endlessly oscillating back and forth between these two games of being and doing, training both parts of the game whether the efforts are intentional or accidental.  To be aware of the interplay between these two games when training players is the key to getting players unstuck and out of a development rut.  This recent experience reminded me of how often it is the case with players that outer game challenges remain as weaknesses because of inner game blocks.   A key coaching insight and necessary realization that I believe is needed to becoming a truly effective and efficient teacher and coach.

So, as coaches if you have identified an outer game weakness and you feel your player is unnecessarily struggling to improve it, look to his inner game fundamentals; his attitude and awareness, this may be the barrier that is preventing his progress.  These inner game fundamentals are always effecting the outer game development either positively or negatively.  They are never neutral in their influence.  And as clearly demonstrated by the story above, the “Big Fish in the Little Pond” type of attitude can hinder and inevitably stifle the long-term growth and development of any player hoping to make the big jump from their little pond into the ocean.

“There are two games that all tennis players play, an Outer Game and an Inner Game.  The outside game is the one with outside opponents and is the game that most of us focus on and care about.  The inner game is subtler, less easily noticed, and more quickly forgotten.  It is played out in the arena of your mind.”   Timothy Gallwey – The Inner Game of Tennis


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