In the 25 years I have been a tennis coach, I have encountered the eternal question from every parent, “Well, what does his/her potential look like to you?"
In most cases, of course, it’s impossible to know. The kids usually come to me at an early age and every child has a different pace of development. There are those who reach a reasonable technical level in a short time, and there are those who take some time to master the fundamentals. There is also a growth rate that varies, motivation levels that go up and down and lots of other factors.
I learned a long time ago that the main thing you need as a junior coach is patience.
But from time-to-time a child comes to me and from the first moment you can see that they have “it”. An athlete of the type that is the dream of every sports coach, and they come with natural gifts that make top athletes. When players like this come to me, my main job as a coach is to make sure that they are not injured and that they come to practice with a smile so that they do not lose the pleasure and retire early.
So what are these qualities that every coach is looking for? What makes a young player "special" and stand out above the majority?
When I was growing up in the 1970s the coaches of that time would talk about the good players in terms of the 'killer instinct'”. Later when I was growing up, I heard the term “invisible talent”, What makes these players special is a set of qualities that separate the average person from the pack, and allow them to become a top athlete.
After all these years of teaching, I’ve learned to recognize such traits in children. In most cases these qualities are the basis for success in all areas of life and, in some cases, negative personality traits can help a career. Not every player has all the features, there are several ways to succeed, but those who have most of the qualities that I will detail have great chances of succeeding in sports and probably in life as well. I have outlined eight of these qualities, and in Part One of this article, I will discuss four of them:
It’s not a coincidence that this trait is at the top of the list. Competitiveness is the fuel of every athlete. The natural desire to show everyone that you are better and the sense of satisfaction is addictive. A second after a victory you are already hungry for another one and because of this intoxicating feeling you will get up every morning and train to achieve it. Some are driven by their hate of losing, which is the other side of the same coin.
Today's generation is pretty apathetic. A large portion of my students take losses easily. The truth is that this drives me crazy since I was one of those competitive “animals” myself. As a coach, I’m always searching for those obsessively competitive kids who will not give up the win even if they were playing their grandmother. I like to train these kids the most. I have a story about that:
Once in a veteran tournament in Croatia I played a friendly doubles match with John McEnroe, against a 17-year-old girl and an older sponsor of the tournament. It is customary in these games to play gently, let the amateurs enjoy themselves and let them win a few points from time to time. But McEnroe did not let the girl express herself and kept hitting winner after winner. "Let the girl enjoy it John," I told him after seeing that the girl was a little frustrated. “Bloom, have you not realized it yet? I have to win”, McEnroe answered me with a cheeky smile. At least he has awareness. It is well known that the great champions are childishly competitive. I learned this time and time again from my acquaintance with quite a few of them (and I'm a bit like that, too).
Give 100 percent effort in training
The talent to work hard in training is a skill no less important than raw talent. I have countless examples of players who were magicians with the tennis racquet in terms of natural talent but were unable to push themselves in training. They just didn't have a high endurance threshold. Some will say it is physical and others will say it is a mental thing. Shlomo Zoref, my long-time coach, would always say it's all in the head, and I tend to agree with him. The ability to bring yourself to maximum levels of effort in every training session turns average people into great athletes. A huge heart and work ethic are worth more than gold. It is a certainty that, in order to reach the top levels, a high volume of training over a long period of time is needed. To get better you have to push the body to the highest threshold. In almost every workout, I remember myself doing strenuous sprints and workouts at 6:00 a.m. with my fitness trainer and getting my heart rate up to 220 pulses per minute. I went through hundreds of such trainings, and this is the main trait that helped me reach the pros. I saw quite a few players who grew up with me and were no less talented and athletic, but did not bring 100 percent effort in workouts. It is not only the physical engagement but also mental effort: the ability to be focused on every stroke is essential even though some of the exercises are Sisyphean and boring. When I see a child with work ethic and the ability to push themselves to the limit, I mark him/her as one who is going to be successful in tennis and in life.
If the child is a bit of a “jerk”
I mean this in the positive sense of the word. In English, there is a saying that “nice guys finish last". It's not really accurate. There are nice champions like Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg, Mats Willander and Rafa Nadal. But for the most part, these extraordinary champions are endowed with unattractive qualities like egoism that can put them in a not-so-positive light. Everyone saw the meaner side of Michael Jordan in the excellent series "The Last Dance". In my opinion, Jordan is a relatively nice person compared to other athletes of such stature like Lance Armstrong, Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams. The immense competitiveness of this breed of athletes, the egocentrism and sense of self-importance is pretty common. Their negative off-field traits have ironically turned them into tough athletes that are a nightmare to compete against. So sometimes when I see a kid who plays nicely but acts like a brat on and off the field I will try to educate them a little to be nicer but inside I tell myself, "He's mean enough to be a player at the highest levels". Because sometimes in life the ones who take what they think they deserve are also the successful ones. In sports, as in life, there is not always moral justice. I recommend to my students to be merciless on the court, in the positive sense of course. A certain cruelty is needed to dispose of an opponent and no guilt should be felt toward the other player. After the game, however, I encourage them to be the nicest person in the world.
Anyone who wants to understand what I mean can go on YouTube and watch my match against Jimmy Connors from 1992. My childhood idol behaved in a pretty unsportsmanlike manner, and while it did not help him in this specific match, it made me realize how strong the desire for victory can be.
Rapid recovery from losses
In tennis there is no player who is immune to losing. Losses can discourage players and lead them to thoughts of retirement, but you can learn a lot about players after losses. There are those that let every loss affect them; they dwell, lose confidence and make excuses. But for future champions, the loss is just a small stick in the wheels of happiness. The pain of the loss is the fuel that will motivate the next practice and the next match. There is a saying in sports, “You never lose, you learn". The ability to recover from disappointments and come out strengthened from them is one of the important things in tennis. This ability to forget the bad matches and get to every practice and game with a positive outlook is an essential ability for any tennis player because it can be very frustrating to put in the hard work on the practice court and to come up short in the matches.
At the end of 1988, I went through six months in which I barely won a match on the pro tour. It's not that I did not play well, I just did not win the important points. At that time my confidence level was so low, it felt like I would never win another match. My positive attitude is what helped me get out of this funk and to start winning matches again. It is very easy to get negative and self-destruct in situations like this. The hardest part is biting your lip, look in the mirror and tell yourself to move on and forget about the loss. Anyone who fails to deal with the losses will not get far in this game.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.