Being Good Matters Most

The match was getting ready to start and the greatest success story I've ever seen was over in the corner stretching. 

Of course, at that moment, he wasn't the greatest success story I've ever seen.

At that moment, he was a young college tennis player who liked to stretch for twenty minutes, even if it meant he'd miss the start of his match.

Michael (not his real name) had come to me as a senior in high school. When I met him, he didn't have a ranking of any sort and had not even made Varsity on his school team. 

But, as football coaches are wont to say, he looked good in a suit. (Meaning: he had the look of a world-class player). 

Michael was tall, fast, and impeccably conditioned. His dad was a brilliant pharmacist who'd made his son into a perfect nutritional paragon. The ball exploded off his racquet and his serve, when it went in, was TV quality.

And he was the type of athlete who ran sub five-minute miles as a warm up. (He was so fast and fluid that one time we were watching him run laps in practice and I swear he looked like a thoroughbred racehorse. His teammates nicknaming him "horse" was probably the most inevitable nickname in sports history).

On paper, Michael was the highest form of can't-miss prodigy. Except, he was 17 years old and had no ranking or Varsity letter jacket. 

Still, it took me about one second to say I'd take him on.

Michael improved during his senior year but still didn't make the team, although he did sub in some matches against mediocre schools. But that wasn't the plan.

The plan was that he would come and play for me in college. I was also a college coach at a small school in Columbus at the time and that was what we were looking forward to. Once I could coach him all the time, there would be no one who could beat him.

The first year, people beat him.

He lost matches to inferior players even though he was faster than ever, fitter than ever, and had a game as beautiful as ever. He always ate right and prepared his equipment meticulously. And, of course, he was always a fantastic stretcher.

Before every match, Michael would go off on his own and stretch for those twenty minutes. Not a minute more, not a minute less.

The problem on the day in question was that we were late getting to the club. We were traveling in Wisconsin during spring break (good coaching!) and it took longer to find the club than I anticipated. 

In short, when we finally arrived, the match needed to start in fifteen minutes. 

Being that fifteen is less than twenty, when the lineups were set to be called, Michael was still over there working on his hamstrings. 

Not so nicely, I yelled at Michael to get his butt over here so we could start. Not so nicely, Michael gave me an angry look. I still have five more minutes of muscles to work on!

Needless to say, his match didn't go well. If only he'd had those extra five minutes...

After his loss, I pulled him aside. I told him he was the best athlete I've ever seen. I told him I'm totally impressed at how hard he prepares. And I told him that as long as he worries about twenty minute stretching routines more than winning actual matches, he'll never go anywhere.

I said he needed to be able to step on the court and win a match whether he had two hours to prepare or had just woken up and walked out of a van. As long as he was a slave to his routines and ignored the real reason he was here--to win--his amazing potential would go unfulfilled. 

I wasn't sure if he understood or if he believed me, but before the next match, there was no stretching routine. With no words from me, he just got out of the van and stood with the team until we called the lineups. 

And he beat the holy crap out of that poor guy.

From that day forward, Michael never did his stretches again at the matches. He still prepared like no one else, but match time became match time. 

Conference titles followed, a national ranking followed, and an All-America award followed. A couple of years later I got the call. 

Michael was in France and had just gotten his first ATP point. He now had a world ranking.

It's easy to get lost in all of the window-dressing of success. We can do morning journals and meditate and do juice fasts till the cows come home, and it won't matter.

What matters most is to be good at the thing we want to be good at. 

If we do that, going from junior varsity to a world ranking can be a real thing.

I have the memory of a phone call from Paris to prove it.