Before moving to China, Renato Canova trained Kenyan marathon runners. Since he is an extraordinary coach, he not only knew how they should run, but also how they should think. If a marathon runner told him that he wanted to train to win the gold medal at the next Olympics, Canova shook his head. He would not train him, because the athlete’s goal was misplaced. Indeed, it was poorly thought out. How could he, Renato Canova, coach an athlete to achieve a goal that was totally out of their control?
The athlete might train very well and follow all the coach’s instructions, but at the Olympics he might still run against someone who trained even harder, or is simply better than him. “I can train a runner to run a marathon in two hours and ten seconds,” Canova says, “but I cannot train him to win gold.”
The point is that there is a big difference between performance objectives and performance goals. The performance goal is often out of our control. As such, it generates anxiety and is a waste of energy. The performance objective, on the other hand, is completely under the athlete’s control. If an athlete undergoes hours of training, eats correctly, gets enough rest and has enough talent, he will likely manage to reach his performance objectives.
The goal of an Olympic medal, if properly considered, can be a great motivating factor. But what does it mean to properly consider a goal? It means that the athlete knows that he wants to win a gold medal, but he puts that thought in a drawer in his mind and keeps it there. If contemplated from time to time, that desire becomes a source of good motivation. But if considered every day, it becomes a source of stress, and weakens the athlete instead of strengthening him.
At the beginning of the season, I always meet with coaches and players and help them formulate goals for the next three, six or twelve months. Almost always, the first goals that athletes tend to focus on are results. They formulate their goals in terms of tournament wins and ranking points.
But we have just seen that the achievement of these kinds of goals are not always within the player’s control. It could depend on a particular tournament’s draw, how well the opponent is playing or just plain luck. When players and coaches focus only on these goals, they only create pressure and stress for themselves, which negatively affects their performance.
I have often seen players, when faced with these kinds of goals, turn to superstition in times of stress. They don’t want to step on the lines of the court, for example, or insist on bouncing the ball a certain number of times before serving. They are so worried about not being in control of their goals that they obsess about small things that they can control.
When you only play for the win, it gets really difficult to focus on the important things. So, at the end of the year, our athletes will be so frustrated that may think of abandoning the sport altogether.
This is precisely the reason why coaches need to help set objectives beyond their larger goals, ones they can focus on and realistically achieve – ones that are within their control. For example, improving baseline consistency is an objective that is within a player’s control, and is also something that will help improve their overall game. The same can be said of trying to improve first service percentage. Fitness is also a very common and useful objective. When focusing on these things, instead of stressing, reaching smaller targets will encourage both the player and the coach.
Another benefit of emphasizing performance objectives is that you can more easily identify what a player is doing right, and what he is doing wrong. This is not the case when goals are the only focus. Players then only tend to focus on the fact that they won or lost a match, and not why they lost that match, or how they can prevent from losing such a match in future. When objectives are the focus, a player always has something constructive to work on, something which they feel they can control and will make them a better player.
All of this is, of course, easier said than done. The importance of winning is so ingrained in our culture that it's hard to change perceptions and attitudes. From the time we are infants, we are taught the importance of results. From good grades to successful performances in school plays and sporting events – it’s all about the results. The culture of the result is part of us and it is hard to get rid of it. The only way to do so is to start training in the opposite direction. That is to say, trying to focus on the things that are in our power.
A typical exercise I like to do perform with students and coaches is to play important points during training. Before the point, the player is invited to think, at first loudly with the coach, then to himself, not so much about the fact that the point is important, but rather how he would like to approach that point.
This exercise, if adequately and repeatedly used in training, gets the player used to thinking about the process rather than the result.
Finally, and for the sake of clarity, I would like to remind you that, in this and other articles I write, I use terms, concepts, thoughts and advice that can be used effectively not only in tennis, but in life in general. However, to accurately improve someone’s mental strength, one needs must first know the individual’s potential and character. That is impossible in an article, but I hope these general principles will help you in helping yourself.