6 keys for self-improvement I have learned as a professional tennis player
“Become addicted to constant and never-ending self-improvement.” Anthony J. D’Angelo
I’ve spent all my childhood on the tennis courts. I wasn’t the most talented kid, but I was super optimistic, motivated and enthusiastic. After years of practices and hard work, I’ve started competing in national and international competitions abroad. At age 15 I was ranked on top 10 national ranking for the first time.
However, my career was over in a moment of thoughtlessness. I participated in an international tournament in Dublin, Ireland. The second day of the tournament was rainy and the courts were wet. Despite the rain, I decided to practice on the wet court. After 10 minutes of playing, I slipped and tore my knee ligaments. Sadly for me, that meant my “game is over”.
I turned to a different career and today I am an R&D manager in an amazing startup called WalkMe.
After 12 years on the tennis courts and another 8 years in the software industry, I want to share how my tennis career as a professional assisted and provided me keys and tools to continuously improve and become better in my private life and in my professional career.
As a young tennis player you practice most of the time with a group of players. Boys and girls at the same age, with the same goals and targets. One day, you practice together and help each other to become better and on another day, you try to defeat each other during an important tournament.
In practices, all the players try to be the best they can. The players help and challenge each other to improve and succeed. Although tennis is an individual game, the teamwork in the training is crucial and a major factor for a player’s success.
Everyone wants to succeed, achieve goals or advance professionally. We play our game of life as individuals but this game is based on friendship and teamwork. We have to learn, challenge and help each other all the time. We need our partners to succeed and go forward.
Think about it and start practicing together!
Know your strengths
At the age of 15 I went to a training camp in Croatia. One of our camp’s coaches was Croatia’s national team coach. In one training, he told me a story about the Croatian tennis players: “The Croatian players are very tall and therefore not so agile. Despite the fact that their movements are slow and heavy they still win and their ranking is very high.
They achieve it thanks to their big serves and a perfect net game, which is affected directly by their height and arm length.
The Croatian players transformed these disadvantages into weapons. They don’t concentrate on improving their feet agility. They understand that no matter what, they will never be super agile and their feet movement will never be quick enough. They have found their strengths and worked hard to make them unstoppable. They are experts!
After he had finished the story, he asked me: “what are your strengths? What is your advantage over others?” I had no clear answers.
He told me a sentence that changed my life: “Please don’t waste your time and trying to be the best at something you cannot, find your strengths and your specialties and focus on them. Be an expert, win in your own way”.
We invest many resources (money, time etc.) on our skill set improvements. If we consider the ROI (return on investment), we will be disappointed to know that it is not effective and despite all our efforts the improvement is minor. However, this does not mean we should stop trying to improve our weaknesses. We should always aim to improve both our weaknesses and strengths, but must remember to use the correct amount at the correct time.
Take a moment, think about your best skills and strengths. Now work hard make them perfect and be an expert.
Move step by step
The tennis match consists of points, games and sets. To win a single game the players should win four points. Six games are a set. To win the whole match the players have to win two sets out of three.
Each part of the tennis score system is an “atomic unit”.
On every new game and set, the score is reset and the players begin with a clean slate. At this moment, both sides are equal. Each player tries to gather points to win the next game, set and then the match. The whole game is a collection of small wins that turn into a victory.
Our life, like the tennis match, is a long road that consists of many “games”. We have to continuously gather wins. We always have to keep pushing and trying to win the next “game”, regardless of the previous result. Most successes were built in stages. We should concentrate on each stage separately. Each stage’s success or “win” is a step towards success. However, we should play only one game at a time but never forget the end.
So if you want to succeed, start playing the game, win point by point and move step by step.
Do it over and over again
As a young tennis player, my serve stroke wasn’t too consistent and stable.
I missed (hit the net and out of serve box faults) at very high percentages.
My coach saw my problem, gave me a full basket of balls and asked me to hit serves for one hour each day. Every day I hit hundreds of serves. On the first day, I missed around half of my serves. I kept missing these in the following days as well. After a couple of days, my coach approached me and told me to keep trying and to double up my daily serves. As a good student, I hit serves for almost two hours a day. A week later, my success rate was 60%. On each training session, I made statistics for myself. It helped me to visualize the improvement progress. After a month of practices and with a success rate of above 80%, I was ready for one of the most important tournaments.
Everybody knows that the best way to learn is to practice and experiment. Practice is a set of trials and errors. You try and fail, fix your mistakes and then try again.
When you practice, you’ll probably make mistakes, many of them won’t get any special attention. A real learning and improvement process requires mistakes that are monitored and analyzed.
Keep trying, do mistakes, handle and fix them, finally remember that the key is to do it over and over again!
During a tennis match, there are some breaks and timeouts. Between every two games and in the end of every set the players get a 90–120 seconds break.
As a viewer, it is easy to think that the players are “just” resting and drinking water. The truth is that the players are doing retrospectives. They look back at events that have already taken place and adapt their game plan for the next games. The tennis rules provide breaks especially for these reasons. Tennis is a tactical and a strategic game. The players have to react to any change rapidly. The breaks allow the players to prepare. They ask themselves a few simple questions that start a quick learning process. Example for a player’s key questions:
● What went well for me and for my competitor?
● What didn’t go so well for me and for my competitor?
● What am I going to do? What is my competitor going to do?
When the match is over, each player analyzes the entire matches’ statistics. The following training programs change in accordance to the match conclusions.
Similar to the tennis game our daily life also consists of “matches”. We try to succeed and “win” in anything we do. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The trick is to retrospect our wins as well. The retrospective can be short and quick and you can even do it in your mind. The timeout and thinking about the insights create awareness. Awareness is the base for a real learning process.
Find your matches and start to retrospect yourself.
Find a role model
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve watched all the major tournaments. I loved to watch Andre Agassi play. He was amazing, he had more desire and ambition than anyone else. Agassi had special attitude to the game.
He was a fighter on the court. He played each point, as it was the last point of the match.
Agassi was my tennis role model. I tried to move, hit and even dress like him.
Whenever I played I was thinking about Agassi, what would he actually do? When I was in trouble during a game, I would think — what would Agassi do if he were in this situation? I was inspired and it gave me power! The desire to be as Agassi challenged me and pushed me forward. I had been following most of the stages in Agassi’s career for almost 15 years until he retired.
Back to our daily life, there are many successful people in every aspect of our life.
They succeed because they do things better than others or because they know things that others don’t. It’s true that everybody can succeed in their own way, but the experience and the knowledge of these people can be a game changer that we might miss. A role model should make us inspired and challenged. In addition, the success of these people should challenge us and make us move forward.
I’ve already found my role models. I read, follow and learn from them all the time.
So, who are your role models?
To summarize, I want to cover my keys for self-improvement briefly.
Practice together — We need partners that can challenge us and make us better.
Know your strengths — We should find our strengths and make them our significant advantages.
Move step by step — A big success consists of many small successes. We have to gather small successes to achieve a big one.
Do it over and over again — The ability to be better depends on the number of times you have tried.
Retrospect yourself — A good improvement process consists of understanding the things we need to improve and the things we need to preserve. We need to retrospect ourselves in order to improve.
Find a role model — We should find people we really want to be like, read what they write, follow them and focus on the important things.
As Anthony J. D’Angelo has been quoted at the beginning, striving for self-improvement is a way of life and we should always think about it.
Before I finish, I want to thank the people who most influenced my life. My tennis coach Assaf, my partner Dennis, my incredible parents and the last but by all means not least, my best friend and partner for life — my wife Ilana.