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What are the Character Traits of a Tennis Champion?

Larry Lauer of the USTA discusses his work building mental fortitude and adaptability in young American tennis players.

The United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) National Campus in Orlando has been described as a ‘Disneyland for tennis.’ The 64-acre, $63 million, 100-court facility, which opened in the Lake Nona community in January 2017, has been designed to help the USTA meet its mission: to develop top 100 players that can push on into the top ten rankings of both the men’s and women’s games.


By John Portch

“There are people playing all the time, all levels of tennis,” Dr Larry Lauer, a Mental Skills Specialist for USTA Player Development, tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “You’ll see adults, high school children, college tennis, juniors playing local tournaments and juniors looking to play pro tournaments.

On any given day Lauer could be working with a number of them at any of the USTA’s facilities across the US. He says: “My role in support of the USTA’s mission is to oversee the players’ mental skills training, from one-on-one sessions and discussions with coaching staff to leadership and life skills training for players. It’s about helping players use their minds to perform but it’s also working with them to help them understand and manage how tennis affects them and their lives. In an individual sport, players aren’t often afforded the opportunity to work in teams and it doesn’t prepare them well for life in that sense.” We drilled down into the USTA’s work with young players over the course of the next hour.

What are some of the life skills you’re looking to impart?

LL: We want to help develop the communication skills of our young athletes, both verbal and non-verbal. We look at how they communicate with adults, whether that’s their coaches or performance staff. As a national governing body, we want to develop players who, in their early 20s, have the social skills, the independence, the communication skills, the leadership skills that allow them to create their own performance teams once they’ve been on tour and made some money.

In what ways might a tennis player need to demonstrate leadership skills?

LL: As pros, they can lead their own team by picking their coach, their strength coach, their physio, their mental coach. We try to use that model and teach the life skills through that; this is your team and they’re here to support you, you’ve got to communicate with them effectively on your needs and how things are going, ask them questions, be very clear about your goals, collaborate with your team on your goals, and your progress on those goals and how you plan to achieve them; and through that process gain even more independence, greater communication, greater leadership.

What are the marks of leadership at the USTA?

LL: It’s the skill of being able to work with others; to communicate in front of others; to communicate tough messages in a respectful way; to be able to voice your opinion when it’s not going to be popular with your coaches or your team; to think before you speak and actually plan what you’re going to say. It’s about relationships and managing those in a positive way.

 

 

Can you outline some of the benefits of taking a holistic approach?

LL: If you take a holistic approach you’re talking about life; life skills and character. Every player can enjoy a great experience through tennis whether or not they’re winning or reach their performance outcome goals. Everybody can become a better person from the experience and set themselves up for life. That might be a pro tennis career or it might not be; but because of this journey they’re prepared to move on with the rest of their life and be successful. I don’t think we can use an attrition model here and merely push them to performance and results and then get rid of them if they miss those goals. We want to develop the full person and they may end up getting that in different ways. If a person doesn’t go pro, you may have just developed the best coach or physical trainer. We know what these young people are capable of and we want them to be successful and be able to give back to the game that’s given to them.

You’ve said that character builds results. What are some of the ways in which that’s true?

LL: Anecdotal evidence suggests that if a player can develop resilience, her ability to bounce back, to problem-solve when things are not going well, perseverance; if she can develop that muscle then she’s going to be engaged for more points, which means she’s going to be focused, in the moment, on her plan, with belief and positive energy, which is what we ask our folks to do for every single point. If you can show up at the baseline like that over 90-95% of the time then it’s going to enhance results. If you haven’t developed resilience, when you make mistakes or lose you’re going to have a hard time adapting. We can also talk about independence; doing things for yourself creates confidence; confidence influences results and your belief in yourself. There are number of ways in which developing the character of young people is going to enhance their performance.

How do you work with players to help them improve those aspects of their game?

LL: It starts with creating an environment and a growth mindset. We’re here to get better every single day and that’s our goal: to develop these characteristics, habits and values that are going to lead to consistent performance. When they start to understand that it is a long-term journey, and if they can develop these areas, their resilience, their confidence their professionalism, their determination; they start to see how they influence performances. We talk about this after matches, after tournaments; they begin to buy-in; but starts with a growth mindset from everyone, including the coach, myself, the parents.

How might that look in practice?

LL: If they’re on court and they’re making mistakes we’re telling them, ‘hey, bounce back, find a way; right now you’re missing your forehand a lot; what can you do; what two things does your coach tell you to do; what are you missing; what could it be?’ It’s getting them to problem-solve in training and not just giving them the answers. ‘Persevere, hang in there, try to mix it up, maybe you’re becoming too predictable and your opponent is getting a good rhythm.’ So in working through the sport, through performances, we can highlight these different skills and attributes; when they do that they start to realise how important these skills are. It’s actually the most important thing because when you look back and people ask what kind of competitor was so-and-so they might say that was the toughest, most resilient, most respectful, humble person I’ve ever played against. If a player wasn’t a good character then that’s always going to come up; and you’re also going to know if you didn’t go all-in on this, that you left some chips on the table, that you could have done better.

 

 

What age are the players when you start to do this work with them?

LL: We’re still in the process and we’re trying to implement things and figure them out. At our national campus we have kids of 10, 11 and 12-years-old and to introduce them to these concepts we have devised something called ‘Compete Like a Champion’, which is our motto. We have seven values that relate to our motto: resilience, professionalism, respectfulness, confidence, determination, toughness and engagement. These things are priority for us from a young age.

What does your role entail on a day to day basis?

LL: I can be working with pros or kids on the same day. You need to be very aware of your audience and what your purpose is. The pros I work with have their needs, their goals, where they’re at; we have a plan for each one. They have certain exercises or things that they’re doing on a daily basis that we’ve recommended, that I’ve recommended, and we’re following through on that with a performance plan when they go to tournament; their routines before matches, between points, and at changeovers; what mental skills do they want to bring to bear in the match. We have players as young as 14 that I spend a lot of time with one-on-one but there’s typically fewer of those cases because of the nature of my job here. A lot of times it’s our national coaches who are actually implementing the changes with my support; I might develop the materials, provide a plan and some things to look at and work on based on my meetings with the player, but then the coaches implement it. We also have a number of mental coaches and sports psychologists around the country who also support the mission, who are working as consultants with the players. I’ll check in from time to time to see how it’s going.

Will you adopt a mixture of formal and informal interactions?

LL: Absolutely. With every player there’s a slightly different arrangement based on what we think is going to be most effective at the time, whether that’s because I’m not in the same location or they’re not just ready for full mental training. There is a lot of formal work where you’re sitting down and you’re doing education, you’re doing one-on-one consulting, at the same time a lot of it is informal work at practices; the five-minute talks, the two-minute talks, working through the coach where you’re creating different ways to get at the player. Sometimes it’s just providing resources; we have a couple of videos that we really like amongst our coaching staff and give it to the players; we ask them to maybe spend a few moments watching it and sending us their thoughts on it. So it’s just a number of ways we’re trying to get at this mission all the time, whether it’s the direct work or observing them and getting feedback through their coaches; working in group settings and having workshops, to meeting their parents, to providing resources along the way via social media or directly to them via text or emails. So it really is trying to hit them in a number of different ways so that the message is always there; and it’s also through the branding and the facilities; it’s knowing what our purpose is and what we’re trying to achieve.

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome?

LL: When they’re training and competing in this way in practice it’s trying to get it to cross over into the performance domain. It’s a sticking point and getting it into matches is a sticking point; that’s the longest process. We teach them the base but then there’s many years of helping them incorporate it into their performance environment because of the pressure to win and have rankings, sponsorships, whether to go pro or go to college; there’s all these stressors and dynamic that put you on the stumpy road of talent development. But if they continue to develop themselves every day and get better then it’s our belief that they’ll end up where they need to be.

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