Why Failure is Necessary
  | By Steven Kaplan
Credit: Digital Vision

Perhaps the most important quality for success in tennis is steadiness and the avoidance of errors. It might come as a surprise then, that in practice "Blue Chips" miss more shots than “Five Stars,” while "Five Stars” miss more shots than “Four Stars,” etc.

If you are thinking that superior players miss more balls because they hit more balls, then you are on the right track, but that is not the complete story. Better players have a higher failure rate in hitting shots than lesser players, because failure is necessary for achievement. As psychologist S.W. Tyler points out in his extensive study on human performance, "The power of practice is most profound when it is challenging rather than nice and easy." Almost every study on performance excellence concurred that only by endeavoring to master what you cannot do, will you become an expert on what you desire to become.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book on performance, Outliers, talked extensively about the quantity of practice that is needed to become a master at any skill. He identified 10,000 hours of deep concentration in the performance of a skill that is needed to attain expert status. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, who performed perhaps the most extensive study on human performance achievement, calls this practice "deliberate practice." I would go further and call this “Practical Practice.”

The most productive practices are those which are challenging and specifically-designed to adapt to the demands of the skills necessary for achievement.

College coaches, for example, often have their team members run anywhere from one to five miles with the notion that, since tennis requires strong conditioning as does running, "If you can run two miles in 12 min., then you can play top-level tennis." This convoluted logic is straight out of the "Dodgeball" school of training, in which the coach threw wrenches at his players and said, "If you can dodge a wrench, then you can dodge a ball."

I call this practice "convoluted" because it does not specifically target and address the demands of tennis. The average run in tennis is seven feet, not two miles. The sport is a series of short, numerous, fast amortization, high intensity, multi-directional sprints, not a moderately fast, long and linear run. Moderate runs may actually be a hindrance since they encourage the development of a low running gait and slow twitch muscle fiber. If you are going to spend the time and energy on practice, then I suggest you first identify the actual goal and target the practice to be practical, addressing the specific demands of that which you seek to accomplish. In this case, if you wish to be adept at short, reactive, explosive, multi-directional sprints, then build VO2 Max with quick directional change runs using a 3:1 Tabata protocol.

Failure does not need to be discouraging since success does not impact the learning potential of the experience that can be achieved from feedback.

For example, let's say you and I are beginners at darts, and we each are given 1,000 chances to hit a bullseye from 10 ft. You get to closely examine the result of each toss, but I must look away after tossing the dart. If you toss too high, then you will immediately know and lower your aim. If you hit the bullseye, then you may reinforce your aim. As long as you have created perfect conditions for feedback, then you will learn and improve. Since I have no opportunity for feedback, I may succeed, but I will not learn and progress. Therefore, it is the quality of the feedback that determines the learning potential of the experience rather than the success of the objective.

The most successful players have internalized the joy of practice, rather than the thrill of victory. Monica Seles said, "I just love to practice and drill and all that stuff." Serena Williams revealed, "It felt like a blessing to practice because we had so much fun." Tiger Woods once said, "My dad never asked me to go play golf. I asked him." These players all demonstrate a growth mindset in which the joy of the process is the driving force for aspirations rather than a fixed mindset in which results are the motivation.

Many players confuse hitting tennis balls with meaningful and practical practice. In order for players to go from good to great, they must practice with a clear and practical purpose. They must step out of their comfort zone and take joy in the process of improvement, knowing that failures are inevitable. They must rid their practices of the emotional interference that is precipitated by failure, so that they get quiet and productive feedback. Every shot is a learning experience.


Steven Kaplan

Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.