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Building your character through tennis

Dr. Jorge A. Valverde*

Everybody has a purpose, a destiny.
And each of us has to go through a process
where we grow and mature.

Your character is who you are and what you do when nobody is watching you. And the key to develop your character is learning to be self-disciplined. Self-discipline is the ability to focus on what needs to be done at the right time and place with total commitment to excellence, whether or not it is convenient and regardless of the circumstances or obstacles you face. Self-discipline is possible because one has transcended beyond the moment, inspired by the clear vision of his purpose and those who support him unconditionally.

To grow and mature you must change and shape your character. You must study your nature and you must challenge it with total determination in order to achieve excellence in every aspect of your life. If you don't change beyond your nature, you are actually going backwards.

Your nature is composed of your genetics, family, social environment, and cultural conditioning. Your genetic makeup carries with it the generational baggage, with many great aspects and many that are detrimental to your physical and psychological growth.  The same is true about your family; it can provide you with physical and psychological shelter but also can condition you with habits that will hold you back in your development. Your social environment - your immediate surroundings like friends, school, recreational activities and city where you live - has a powerful impact on your path to achieve excellence. In general, you become the average of those who live in your immediate environment. Your culture plays a significant role in the way you act, feel and think.

Most of this conditioning takes place subconsciously. It was not until I came to The United States from Costa Rica that I realized how profound was my habit of arriving late to my business and social gatherings.  Anthropologists explain that Latins perceive time as a circular phenomenon while Americans (and Europeans in general) perceive time as a linear phenomenon. So, the value of time for these two cultures is very different. For a Latin, if he misses something that took place in time, there is no problem, it will come back in the future. Consequently, arriving late to a meeting, especially to a social event, is not a big deal! For an American, what happens in time takes places only once; so, he must be there on time or it is lost forever.

The key point is this: those things that you don’t know but are critical for your development will hold you back. Unfortunately, the genetic, family, social and cultural conditioning takes place at a subconscious level. This is the reason why, if you want to develop the character of a champion, you must break away from the negative conditioning that has been imposed on you. Here is where mentors and experts in different fields are so important in the development of a champion mentality. They can see through the fog that all the subconscious conditioning created in the mind and heart of a player, and guide him to take the necessary steps to reach his purpose. I met Novak Djokovic when he was 16 years old and I was so impressed with his development. He was already very self-disciplined with the information he received by his support team - coach, trainer, nutritionist and his sports psychologist. Back then he was trying to qualify for a pro tournament and did not make it. But he continued on his journey with great discipline. When he was in the top 5 in the world and could not beat the top players, he exercised his self-control one more time by changing his diet completely, avoiding all the foods that contain gluten. Eating the right kind of food is a difficult thing to do for a person with poor self-control, but for someone like Novak it poses no problem at all. Then, he became number one in the world. His previous diet did not allow him to perform at his best in the long rallies. Champions are always searching for ways to maximize their potential and they do not hesitate to implement any necessary changes into their life, preparation or game with great self-discipline. In general, champions master the details that lead them to great performances and success, while the rest choose the ‘easy way’ of doing things their way.

Taking the necessary steps to reach your purpose implies a continuous process of checks and balances where you as a pupil submit to the authority of those who have the knowledge. Submission means voluntarily giving up your will and following the direction of others with discipline and commitment even when you don’t feel like doing what they ask you to do, when it is uncomfortable, when it appears unreasonable, when it appears impossible and when it appears that nobody else is doing it.

Following are the typical behaviors of a player who is lacking in self-discipline:

  1. Saying one thing and doing another.
  2. Forgetting basic necessities for accomplishing a task, such as going to practice without water.
  3. Delayed obedience -- doing what is required but late.
  4. Arguing when confronted with issues related to lack of self-discipline.
  5. Blaming others when failing to do what needs to be done or  when performing poorly, and making excuses for failing  to carry out their responsibilities.
  6. Getting angry or withdrawing as a defense mechanism to avoid being confronted with one's lack of self-discipline.
  7. Oversimplifying when analyzing one's poor performance.  For instance: "My serve broke down".
  8. Arriving late to events.
  9. Eating and hydrating with the wrong kinds of food and drinks.
  10. Avoiding participation in activities and/or actions to grow spiritually.

Others can easily observe these typical behaviors of someone who lacks self-discipline. However, it is not as easy to observe or determine the source or engine of these behaviors. Here are some examples:

1.    When a person says one thing and does another, that means their mind is set on finding a way to manipulate those in position of authority. They do this by compromising their integrity with the use of half-truths and lies, by not doing something to the best of their ability or completely. These tendencies are compound with their inability to focus on the instructions given to them due to their lack of listening skills. One visual sign is a very poor body language and eye contact with the person giving the instructions or trying to make him accountable.

2.    When the mind is not focused, it can’t remember or recall information. One of the byproducts of this condition is an indecisive person, always second-guessing himself, full of doubt and prompt to quit when facing challenges. On the other hand, a focused mind is a powerful mind, allowing for sound and timed decisions. One of the byproducts of self-discipline is the ability to be single-minded instead of double- or triple-minded, to be able to focus on one thing while blocking out everything else. This helps keeping a person on track with great focus until a task is accomplished successfully, and to remember what needs to be done in the process.

3.    Delayed obedience is disobedience. When a person does not surrender his will to an authority, he wants to do first whatever he wants to do and then what is requested of him. In addition, when a person has a hard time being single minded, his mind is full of noise. This noise is very distracting and prevents him from acting immediately on what is requested of him. Since he usually resents authority figures, one way for him to fight back is with procrastination and disorganization in his personal affairs (bedroom, desk, etc.).

4.    Arguments are basically a way to justify disobedience.  A person lacking self-control usually likes to do what is pleasing to him instead of what needs to be done.

5.    Blaming others is an easy way out to avoid confronting one’s lack of self-discipline. The more a person blames, the more difficult it is to change bad habits. Excuses are rationalizations to cover up one’s faults. At the beginning of the learning process, a person creates an excuse after he has failed to perform, but later, the excuse is created even before the failure occurs. For instance, a player would say prior to playing a match: “I did not like my breakfast this morning so I did not eat that much.” And later, after losing a match, he will say: “I got tired in the middle of the match; I wish I had a good breakfast.”  Obviously, he is blaming the bad breakfast for his poor performance while the real problem is that his lack of self-discipline prevented him from getting in great physical shape, he watched TV until very late the nights leading up to the tournament or he was doing homework until late at night throughout the week prior to the tournament due to his lack of time management skills. And the day of the match, he woke up late and rushed to eat breakfast at the last minute.

6.    If a person can’t manage his mind because there are too many contradicting thoughts bouncing around, it will be even more difficult to control his emotions, which are fueled by his thoughts. When challenges, difficult circumstances and troubles take place, a mind full of noise can’t sort out a successful strategy to deal with them regardless of how smart a person may be. This leads to frustration, followed by anger usually accompanied by inappropriate behaviors. When this happens, a person with lack of self-discipline does not want to be confronted with the facts. Here, anger becomes a barrier to avoid being confronted by authority (parents, coaches, etc.), and withdrawing is a way to escape being confronted, at least temporarily. Withdrawing also allows a person the time to prepare the best excuse or to find another person to blame for the poor performance.

7.    Oversimplification is a very typical way out of trouble due to lack of self-discipline. It is a smoke screen like a magician trick to distract those who want to confront them. I have known so many players who work on the wrong things because they oversimplified when analyzing their matches. On the other hand, self-disciplined players look for every single factor that is influencing their performance.

8.    If a person’s mind is full of noise, if he can’t finish on time what he needs to do, if his stress is high because he is dealing with those who confront him daily, chances are that he always feels in need of more time to meet his obligations and needs. Then, arriving late becomes a necessity. At a deep level, arriving late is a passive aggressive behavior toward those in position of authority and/or a self-centered mentality.

9.    Food has a very powerful psychological meaning in everyone’s life. And from the time we are toddlers, we exercise the “right” to eat what we want. When it comes to self-discipline, eating and hydrating with the right food and drinks is one of the most difficult challenges. In the history of modern tennis, many players who couldn’t achieve their potential at first became great champions after becoming self-disciplined and changing their diets, including Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova, Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic, and my students Meghann Shaugnessy andAnna-Lena Groenefeld, among others. They also use the best nutritional supplement -- I recommend those found in

10.   Lack of self-discipline is an attitude that reflects what is in a person’s heart and soul. Obedience to God implies the ultimate sacrifice, to deny oneself and follow His will. If a child can’t recognize the authority of his parents and honor them, it will be even more difficult to recognize God’s authority over him. Furthermore, our first idea of who God is as a Father comes from our relationship with our natural father. Unfortunately, our society has appointed mainly mothers to be responsible for the spiritual growth of children and many children grow with a very limited relationship with their fathers.

North American pioneers prepared the ground for the creation of one of the most powerful nations in modern history. They worked hard and smart under very difficult circumstances. And they passed to their children and grandchildren a value system rich in wisdom and unshakable character. Unfortunately, some of the new generations are growing up with a rebellious mentality and they trust more in what they find on the Internet or on their favorite TV shows than what their parents, mentors and teachers want them to do.

Only when a pupil submits with great self-discipline to an authority, he can have leadership of his own destiny.  Unfortunately, without the children first having submitted to their primary authority figures, many parents allow them to make important decisions in regard to their development, such as choosing their coach, what tournaments to play regardless of whether they are prepared properly or not, what food to eat, tennis equipment, etc. Parents think that they are helping their children mature and grow up but without the child truly submitting to their authority first. This leads to a place where everybody feels lost. I often hear coaches and parents expressing cliché statements to feel better about the situation:

“ It is their hormones”
“They need time to mature”
“All kids go through this”
 Etc., Etc.

The problem is magnified when parents justify their children’s lack of self-discipline - even in front of them – because the justification validates their children’s inappropriate behaviors and attitude. The reason why parents do that is very simple; it is a coping mechanism to justify themselves. Our children are a reflection of who we are, not only as parents but also as people; they reveal our own character and personality.

“By their fruit you will recognize them.
Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes,
or figs from thistles?” Matthew 7:16

Children not only learn from what they hear from their parents, but also by observing their behaviors and attitudes. And most importantly, they learn by the quality of the interaction that they experience with them. These interactions create a powerful impression in their minds and hearts. Their natural tendency is to imitate those who are around them and the most powerful impressions that they receive are those delivered by their loved ones, parents in particular. When there is a discrepancy between what their parents say and what they do, children will act based on what they see and experience with them. Furthermore, they will imitate those traits that are easier to imitate – usually the bad ones. Consequently, when they are not taught to be self-disciplined, they end up imitating the bad habits and attitudes of those around them.  Here is when I hear this kind of remarks by parents:

“I don’t know where all this is coming from [their child’s bad attitude]. It is probably from those kids in his tennis academy or in his school”

Most parents have a great difficulty admitting that their children lack self-discipline because they know, consciously or not, that their children are a reflection of their nature. So, as a defense mechanism, they focus on their children only, not on themselves and their relationship with their spouses. Children usually realize this, especially when they become teenagers (at this time their analytical capacity increases), and they use it to manipulate their parents.  Obviously, this creates a very stressful family environment.

Self-discipline is the foundation where character is built. And this foundation must be built as early as possible in a person’s life. It definitely begins in the family where parents are the first authority figures in a child’s life. Here is where a child learns to submit, to follow orders and commands, and without realizing it, he also learns to focus on the task at hand, to do things based on priorities and a core value system.

Children learn self-discipline first by observing their parents’ attitudes and behaviors. To be able to do so, they need to spend time with their parents doing chores together, talking about what is going on in their minds and hearts, playing, dealing with daily challenges, etc. When children receive quality attention to their needs with a combination of love and discipline, they are very eager to do what their parents want them to do because they want to reciprocate their parents’ love and care for them. Here, the foundation for self-discipline is established. On the other hand, when parents do not teach self-discipline to their children, they view their parents as equals and lose their respect.

The last few generations in America are characterized by fathers whose primary responsibility has been that of a provider, delegating most of the responsibilities related to raising children to their wives, schoolteachers and babysitters. This set of circumstances overwhelms the majority of housewives because they need their husbands’ help and involvement to raise the children. Fathers are away from home most of the time, traveling too much or working too many hours. By the time they have the chance to be at home, all they want is to relax watching TV or with their hobbies. Their demands at work do not leave any energy to deal with household problems. Consequently, a stressed mother is in charge of children’s discipline, encouragement, guidance, transportation, and in figuring out their extra curriculum activities, etc. This creates a perfect set of circumstances to produce great friction among spouses and in the household. Wives feel lonely and abandoned by their husbands and emotionally become cool toward them.  Husbands feel rejected by their wives and feel angry. They do not feel honored by their wives and their children do not follow their directions. Children resent absent fathers and retaliate with passive aggressive behaviors. Romance and intimacy between spouses is jeopardized in this kind of environment and is substituted by material gifts and empty vacations that do not do the job of keeping the marriage functioning well.

Everybody involved in this kind of environment pays a heavy price, but children are the ones who pay the highest price. We, as adults (parents and mentors), must break all the conditioning that is forcing us to depart from basic fundamental principles needed for the creation of a healthy family environment. We must embrace the virtues of those who precede us in our family. We must find the way to meet our children’s needs so they can grow with excellent self-discipline so they can fulfill their purpose in life. Due to its nature, tennis is a great vehicle to measure our degree of success as parents and mentors, because it is an individual sport that demands a great deal of self-discipline from those who want to master it. Let us use tennis not as an end in itself but as means toward a higher purpose: to facilitate the formation of our children!
be opened to you." - Matthew 7:7