The Key to Success is Trying to Fail part 2

A few years back, when I was still coaching a handful of tennis players, I had just wrapped a lesson and was waiting on the court for my next one to arrive. Hayley walks through the gate of the court, comes striding towards me and just before I am about to greet her says, “I can’t hit my forehand, it sucks.” Hayley is a 16-year old junior tennis player who is very skilled and regularly competes in Southern California junior tournaments. She is also prone to awfulizing—turning events into the “worst ever” perspective. “Good morning to you as well” I reply drawing just a slight grin from her noticeable “life sucks right now” disposition. Without prompting, Hayley goes into a description of how she lost a match yesterday against a player she should have beaten. “All I needed to do was keep the ball in play and I would have won” she complained, but “I could not hit my forehand in with any consistency”.

“Let’s do this” I suggest and instruct Hayley to walk to the baseline of the court while I position myself and my basket of balls on the other side of the net. I explain that I am going to feed 10 balls to her forehand and that the only thing I want her to try is to swing as hard as she can at each ball. I also emphasize that hitting the ball into the court does not matter. “Just swing hard” she checks, and I nod “that’s all”. I feed ten balls to Hayley and she crushes each one. Seven forehands fly into the back fence and the other three sail well beyond the baseline. “Can you do that” I ask, emphasizing the word “can”. “Yeah but, none of those went in” she objects. I reassure her that all I wanted was for her to swing as hard as she could.

 “Now” I explain, “on the next ten I’d like you to continue to swing as hard as you can and to also try to hit each ball with the absolute most topspin you can impart on the ball” (this is not something difficult for a player of Hayley’s skill). Hayley nods and I feed ten more balls. Of the ten forehands Hayley hits, six sail past the baseline and four land within the court. “Can you do that” I ask. Looking slightly less disgusted, she replies “yes, that felt a little better, but I still missed most of them”. Again, I reassure her that hitting the ball in was not the objective, only to swing hard with topspin.

I ask her to hit ten more and instruct that in addition to swinging as hard as she could, with as much topspin as she could, that I wanted her to aim to have each forehand pass exactly three feet over the net. I explain further that I am asking her to aim not necessarily hit the ball at that height. I also remind her that it does not matter if any of these forehands land in the court. I only want to see if she could do the three things I ask for. Hayley hits ten more forehands, on each she swings very hard while also imparting topspin. Of the ten, eight land in the court and two narrowly miss. Can you do that I ask. Hayley appears much more upbeat as she admits that those forehands felt much better.

“Ok, now let’s try one more thing” I interject, and continue, “I will keep feeding you forehands until you miss three in a row.” Hayley now has a puzzled look on her face, “you want me to miss three in a row on purpose?” I nod and explain that I want to see if she can miss three straight and explain further, “but it only counts as a miss if you swing as hard as you can, put as much topspin as possible, and aim three feet over the net.” Hayley walks back to the baseline and I start feeding her balls. She hits her first five forehands into the court with a noticeable bounce to her step and an air of confidence. I remind her that I want her to miss three in a row and she gives me this “what the heck?” look. On the next forehand, Hayley slaps a forehand that flies all the way to the back fence. “Did you put as much topspin as you could on that one?” I ask, knowing that she didn’t, “no” she replies. “It doesn’t count” I say smugly. Hayley hits five more forehands in a row into the court. “Try to miss” I remind, then she smothers a ball into the bottom of the net. “Did you aim three feet over the net?” I prod, to which she admits not doing. “Still at zero” I announce, referencing the goal of missing three in a row. For the next 15 to 20 balls that I feed, Hayley is hitting most of them in. She will hit 3 or 4 in then misses one but ultimately the next one goes in. When she does manage to miss two in a row, I encourage her by saying “one more miss” while also reminding “but remember that it won’t count unless you swing hard with topspin three feet over the net.” She hits the next one in the court. “Back to zero” I purposely express in a disappointed tone. As she hits more successful forehands in a row, I keep peppering her with comments urging and reminder her of the goal. “Come on, see if you can miss this one”, “one more miss”, “get another miss”. Visibly, I can see Hayley getting frustrated with me nagging her and finally after another stretch of made forehands, followed by a verbal reminder from me she belts out “I CAN’T MISS!”

A moment or two passes in silence before Hayley realizes the irony and starts to laugh. She knows that I just set her up. “You know why you can’t miss” I ask semi-rhetorically. “Because you suck at missing.”

What followed with Hayley was a wonderful discussion and a significant turn in her development as a competitive player. In my next blog, “The Key to Success is Trying to Fail part 3” I will explain what Hayley and I discussed and how you might apply it. Also, if you are a subscriber to this blog, thank you and if not, please consider subscribing. There is no cost and you will be able to have the blogs and other material sent directly to you as they come available.

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