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Meditation on Mastery, Part Two–Tale of Two Masters (Agassi and Sampras)
Kim Shanley, Publisher TennisOne
For those who didn't read last week's meditation, let me re-introduce the subject and the approach. I'm calling this a meditation because mastery is a deep and mysterious subject, best approached as a journey.
With any trip, we need some type of map or guide. I've chosen what the Spanish philosopher Ortega calls the Jericho Method. "Method" derives from the Latin "methodus," "a way of teaching or going." So our way of going is in ever-tightening circles. Just as Joshua's army circled the walls of Jericho, blowing their trumpets until the walls fell down, we hope to keep circling our subject until we penetrate a few walls and see what's inside.
A cool, self-assured Sampras and a lost, tortured Agassi tell two very different tales of mastery
We concluded Part One of this meditation claiming that motivation was the essential factor of human mastery. Without sufficient motivation, no one will spend the ten long years in deliberative practice required for mastery of any skill.
In this second part of the meditation, then, I want to examine motivation in terms of the lives of the two great tennis masters of our generation, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Both men have recently published their autobiographies: OPEN: An Autobiography (Agassi) and A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis. (Sampras). I submit both men's life stories come down to motivation, when they found out, when they lost it, and when they regained it.
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
When They Found It: Ignition
Ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity;
the moments that lead us to say "that is who I want to be."
– Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
The Tennis Kid
Sampras begins Chapter One ("The Tennis Kid") with an over-simplification. He says that he "absolutely" knew he was born to play tennis from day one. In the next several pages, however, Sampras undermines this assertion by telling us how he grew up in a Greek-American family and culture that had no involvement or interest in tennis. But let's not quibble over some abbreviated story-telling. Sampras' "from-day-one" declaration does capture a significant truth about Sampras' life that is his blessing and curse: he has only one identity, one motivation, to become a great tennis player.
Sampras knows from "day one," he only wants to be a tennis player.
So if Sampras didn't get his motivation directly from his parents and culture, where did he get it? Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code) says that the fire, the inner passion, can come from the slightest of influences–what scientists call the Butterfly Effect (very small changes can have a big impact).
The only specific moment Sampras can point to for his motivation (beyond growing up in the 70's tennis boom) is a story his father later tells him of a stranger coming up to his father (Sam Sampras) in a Washington DC public park and telling Sam his six year old "could really play tennis." That may have been Pete Sampras' Butterfly Effect moment–the moment when it dawned on a young boy that he was special and that he wanted more of that feeling.
If Sampras' fire was ignited by something so slight we can call it a Butterfly Effect, Agassi's fire was triggered by the hammer that was his father. Andre's deliberative practice regimen began in his crib where his father, Mike Agassi, a two-time Olympic boxer from Iran who had become a self-taught tennis instructor, suspends a tennis ball over his infant son so Andre can practice his hand-eye coordination.
Agassi's father builds "the dragon," a monstrous ball machine that fires balls at 110 mph at Andre.
It's hard to grasp the roaring cauldron of ambition, anger and resentment that Mike Agassi poured into Andre. Similar to the opening scene of the 2007 movie "There Will Be Blood," which showed a demonic prospector (Daniel Day-Lewis wins Best Actor for this role) ripping the mineral riches from the earth with his bare hands, Mike Agassi clears the hard-scrabble, sun-scorched earth in his Las Vegas backyard with his bare hands.
There he creates what Andre calls a prison, a cement tennis court surrounded by high fences. Again, with his own hands and out of the feverish drive to make Andre not just a great tennis player but number one in the world, Mike Agassi (whom Andre calls "demonic) constructs a monstrously powerful ball machine that Andre calls "the dragon."
Mike Agassi sets the dragon close to the net, its tubular "neck" towering over the boy, and with a fire-breathing whoosh and recoil, shoots tennis balls at 110 mph at Andre. From the time Andre can remember, his father forces him to battle the dragon, to hit balls, millions of balls, and to hit them harder and harder–but never hard enough to slay the dragon.
Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others--sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on--can sometimes have dangerous side-effects.
– Daniel Pink, Drive
If Sampras' story is in many ways the smooth path of how intrinsic motivation leads to mastery (he resents the story is boring but tacitly admits it is), then Agassi's story is the rocky road of how extrinsic motivation reeks havoc in the heart of a boy and a man. I say "man" because throughout his tennis career, Agassi emphatically proclaims he hates tennis, and hates it with a dark and secret passion. From his first breath, Mike Agassi forces Andre to think, breathe, and live tennis–cruelly banning any outside interest or activity that might interfere with his dream of making his son the number one player in the world.
And from his first breathe, not surprisingly, Andre Agassi wants to quit tennis. His older brother and sister who managed to survive Mike Agassi's raging ambition for them, have already quit by the time Andre comes of age. Why doesn't he quit like his brother and sister finally did? (In fact, he does quit many times throughout his early and later years.) As a child, he believes his father would kill him (literally). Later, he won't quit because he's internalized his father's outlandish dream as his own. Then he says he no longer needs his father to torture him about tennis, now he can do that all by himself.
Although he can never fully accept his father's dream–and hence his vehement "I hate tennis" statements throughout his life–along the way, he finds an exhilarating thrill in being viewed as special.
Agassi remembers one junior tournament in particular. As he walks around the grounds, he hears people whispering, "That's the kid–the prodigy." Agassi says with deep satisfaction that this was the "prettiest" word anyone had ever applied to him. He's intoxicated by the praise (again, showing his susceptibility to extrinsic motivating forces), and he obviously wants more. While Sampras is the model of pure intrinsic motivation, Agassi embarks on the path to becoming a champion at war with himself.
Our meditation is on mastery. We see the different ways Agassi and Sampras come to their mastery, but they both arrive together, both join the professional tennis tour (the realm of masters) at the age of 16. But motivation to become a master is one thing. Motivation to become a master among masters, is quite another. So our meditation takes another, deeper turn.
When They Lost It–And Their Way
Being a professional is doing things you love to do, on the days you don't feel
like doing them.
– Julius Irving, NBA great
Sampras' motivation ascends smoothly with his early success, culminating in first Grand Slam title, a win over none other than Andre Agassi in the 1990 US Open at the age of 19. Sampras' motivation then goes into a long slide after his spectacular first success. By his own admission, he plays without purpose or toughness. Like any young pro, he suffers a number of losses, but he is increasingly losing heart and focus.
Sampras' loss to Edberg in the 1992 US Open Final is Pete's "wake-up" call.
After this 1991 loss to Courier in the US Open quarterfinals, Jimmy Connors says Sampras is soft and lacks heart and in retrospect, Sampras agrees. Sampras finally hit bottom when he put in a lackluster effort in his loss against Stefan Edberg in the 1992 US Open final. Sampras bitterly realizes that he has neither prepared nor competed well.
Agassi also enjoys early success, reaching the finals at three Grand Slam events in 1990 and 1991, but loses all three. With his "I hate tennis" war raging within him, it's wrong to ask "when" he lost his motivation, as he seems to lose it every other match, and thinks constantly of quitting the game altogether. In the bitter early and middle years of his career, we see all the negative consequences of the extrinsic motivational forces installed by his tyrannical father.
Like all extrinsic motivators, goals narrow our focus.
– Daniel Pink, Drive
One of our common sense beliefs about motivation is that setting goals, even very high goals, will be a great motivating tool. Looked at superficially, you could say this worked with Andre Agassi. His father set the goal for Andre to become the number one in the world and he did become number one! So what's wrong?
Andre may not have gone Hollywood when he marries actress Brooke Shields but he admits he was lost.
What's wrong is that Andre's bursts of motivation, driven by his fear of losing (he says every loss is a crisis, a potential disaster for his family) and short-term boosts of praise and attention, quickly evaporate. He didn't really show up for many major events, forfeiting his chance to win Grand Slam titles (skipping Wimbledon for several years).
By his own admission, during this phase of his career he didn't live up to his potential or give the game his best shot. But the negative effects of his extrinsic motivational profile (driven by external pressures) didn't stop there. Since he never had, until later in his career, intrinsic goals for himself, Agassi frequently goes into couch-potato mode, stopping training altogether, binging on fast food, zoning out.
Daniel Pink (Drive) talks about the seven deadly sins that derive from extrinsic motivation (including short-term thinking and diminished performance), and sadly, Agassi is guilty of all seven. The last deadly sin is addiction. External motivators, says Pink, "can limit the breadth of our thinking….Addicts want the quick fix regardless of the eventual harm." In 1997 Agassi begins taking chrystal meth, risking his reputation and career.(1) (2)
When They Regained It: The Path with Heart
A warrior chooses to follow the path with heart….The spirit of the warrior is not geared to indulging and complaining....The spirit of the warrior is geared only to struggle...a warriortests lets his spirit flow free and clear... knowing that his will is impeccable
– don Juan to Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality
We take the final turn in our second meditation on mastery to look at the ascending arc of the careers of Sampras and Agassi in which they establish their rightful claim to be considered among the game's greatest masters and champions. Here is where the automaticity of the 10 year rule of skills mastery begins to break down. While putting in 10 years of deliberative or deep practice (as some call it) almost guarantees you will become a master, simply putting in the time doesn't guarantee you will become number one in the world. To become a champion, the first among grand masters if you will, you must choose the path with heart.
The path with heart is a journey through defeat, loss, fear, a stripping away of the ego that perhaps initially led you to glory. This is the story of so many great champions, and it's also the story of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Sampras overcomes fatigue, illness and his own inner demons when he beats Corretga in the 1996 US Open semi-final.
Sampras hits bottom when he suffers an embarrassing and crushing defeat at the hands of Stefan Edberg in the 1992 US Open Final. Knowing the he hasn't prepared himself physically or mentally to compete at the highest level of his potential, he recommits himself to his identity as a great tennis player and to fulfilling his destiny.
But he doesn't seem to fully shed his immaturity as a man and player until he loses his best friend and coach Tim Gullikson in 1996 to cancer. Sampras finally achieves the impeccability of a great champion in his epic 1996 semi-final win against Alex Corretja. Sampras becomes sick to his stomach in the fifth set tie-breaker, even vomiting on the court at 1-1 in the tiebreak. He has every excuse in the world to fold, but his will remains impeccable. Staggering about court, his stomach heaving, Sampras manages to beat Corretja and goes on to win the final against Michael Chang. Sampras has learned–really learned–to compete, and he displays courage and tenacity throughout the rest of his career.
Yet even a great champion's impeccability wavers at times. Before his last match against (guess who) Andre Agassi in the 2002 US Open final, he questions whether he still has what it takes. His wife tells him to remember who he is. He does remember, marshalling the warrior spirit of the "the tennis kid" who grew up to be Pete Sampras, the 13-time Grand Slam champion, and he beats Agassi for his 14th Grand Slam title.
Looking like a knight-errant, Agassi completes his pilgrimage, with the French Open win, the final leg of a career Slam.
Agassi hits bottom, in a slow-motion train wreck that begins with his crushing defeat at the hands of Sampras in the 1995 US Open final. The bottom drops out of his motivation and Agassi eventually slumps from being number one in the world in 1995 to number 141 in 1997. Disgusted by his lack of effort, his coach Brad Gilbert tells Agassi he either commits himself to the game or Gilbert will quit. Only at this point is Agassi able to quiet (but never extinguish) his "I-hate-tennis" interior voice and assume full responsibility for his life and tennis career.
His friend and physical trainer Gil Reyes constantly tells Agassi he has a destiny to be a knight. Agassi embraces this destiny, telling Reyes he's (finally) ready to slay the dragon. Playing in his last US Open with crippling back pain, Agassi's sole concern is to not to quit, to give it his best. He's embraced the path with heart, his spirit flows free and clear, his will, impeccable.
(1) My purpose here is to explore the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, not to "pile on" or use Agassi's openness and honesty against him. What Agassi accomplished–given the challenges of his upbringing–is remarkable and deserving of respect and admiration. However, by his own admission, a significant portion of his career was dominated by reactive, short-term thinking, the crystal meth episode being the most egregious example.
Unlike Sampras' book, which is written with a retrospective view of a great champion now retired, Agassi's OPEN is written in a stream of consciousness style, revealing how the world showed up for him, moment by moment. He's certainly brutally honest about himself, but unfortunately, this version of his life–right now the final record of his life–is strewn with shockingly (at least to me) sarcastic and ungenerous portraits of his coaches and rivals. I doubt that's where he wants to leave it. Perhaps he'll publish an addendum to OPEN or a new book, telling us what he's learned rather than just what he's experienced.
(2) Another prodigy, Tiger Woods, also raised by father from birth to be the greatest in his sport, has recently confessed to some short-term, apparently addictive-type behavior, which risked his career and reputation. We don't know the details of Woods' private story, but I wonder if the same sort of deleterious effects of extrinsic motivation are in play.
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
What We Can Learn From the Pros: Ivan Ljubicic Backhand
Perhaps the most effective tool in the last twenty-five years is the use of high-speed video to both study the stroke elements of top players as well as observe one's own swing characteristics. As far as one-handed backhands go, there are a few players who come to epitomize not only a solid backhand stroke but a real weapon off that wing. For me, Federer, Haas, and Henin come to mind. But in looking at high-speed video of players, you would be hard pressed to find a cleaner one-handed backhand than Ivan Ljubicic’s. Dave Smith
The Fosbury Flop and the Serve
Doug King examines the role of the wrist, the arm, and the snapping down action on the serve. At the same time, however, many people talk about a pushing up feel at the same time. So what does any of this have to do with Dick Fosbury, the revolutionary Olympic High Jump great? Leave it to Doug to come up with a unique analogy to tie the whole thing together. And, it may just improve your serve along the way.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Ivan Ljubicic's Forehand
This 31 year old veteran, who held a career high ranking of #7 in 2000, has had a rekindling of fortunes. His ranking has climbed back up to number 15 following a breakout performance at Indian Wells with wins over Djokovic, Nadal, and Roddick on his way to capturing the title. He holds wins over nearly all the players currently within the top ten, an amazing record against the best players in the world, and much of his success can be attributed to his serve and the ability to back up his serve with punishing ground strokes and one of the prettiest one-handed backhands in the game. New this issue, Ivan Ljubicic's Forehand.
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