When Serena Williams was penalized during the US Open, she turned her anger against her accuser — the umpire — rather than on her opponent. She lost. At the same event, when Roger Federer suffered from the high heat and humidity he couldn’t wait to get out of the poorly designed Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. He lost.
The obvious lesson? We defeat ourselves far more often than our opponents defeat us. Unforced errors in tennis are not just the problem of novices; they pervade sports. Why is it that despite the best coaching, phenomenal physical training and fitness, vast sums of money and even decades of experience, we remain our own worst enemies?
I believe it is because we start out that way. As children, our errors of both judgment and action are met with a wide range of responses. Our teachers and parents may exhibit love or disdain for our actions. They may respond with a teaching moment or with severe discipline, but in either case, they hope we will learn our lessons.
What may be needed instead is training in the skill sets that enables young people to control their emotions and their thoughts — skill sets that empower them to become tactical when faced with adversity, to become calculating when surprised by unanticipated events, to become cunning when attacked, and to be mindful at all times.
This is possible. We enroll our children in all kinds of after-school activities, from religious schooling to arts and crafts, from sports camps to computer programing sessions. But where do they go to get the type of mental training that allows them to respond skillfully? Apparently not from team sports, which are often filled with violence and exhortations to hit harder and get “psyched up.” Coaching in individual sports (including tennis) certainly addresses the mental game, but it often comes too late.
The mature athlete brings to the game his or her life story of success and failure, which often needs to be accommodated for rather than built upon. What is needed is the recognition early on that developing mindfulness — often expressed as the ability to put a pause between the brain and the tongue — may determine our overall success in life. Mindfulness deserves formal early training, which should continue throughout one’s life.
When to start such training? It may actually be too late by the time a child gets to pre-school. It could be that early childhood training for mental response skills needs to begin at birth, starting with the parents’ response to infant discomfort.
If you knew your child was going to be on the world stage, performing before millions of people, and that their success depended on their response to adversity, how would you start training them? Let’s ask this question of our coaches and teachers, apply the best of their lessons to our newborns, and try practicing the same skills ourselves. Maybe then we won’t give away the trophy that has our name on it.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.