As a fourteen-year-old tournament tennis player, I came to two realizations as I competed on the summer junior circuit way back in 1981.
First, my groundstrokes were all wrong. Not metaphorically, but literally: wrong grip, wrong swing, wrong footwork, wrong everything for the new game of graphite racquets, topspin swings, and power shots.
Second, fourteen was about four to six years late in a tennis career to start assembling real groundstrokes. Conventional wisdom held that if you hadn’t ingrained the right muscle memory by the time your age hit double digits, you never would or could.
For reasons that defy me to this day, I chose to ignore this wisdom. Perhaps it was just sheer stubbornness. But in any case, I went to work, retooling my shots, drilling hour after hour, day after day. I had no idea of whether I could succeed, or what my endpoint was, or even should be. I just decided I would teach myself to hit a forehand the right way for the modern game, or bury myself trying.
I soon found that more I worked at it, the more I plain enjoyed the work. I came to relish the “grind,” the chance to let sheer determination trump innate ability. And I don’t know exactly when or how it “turned the corner,” but somewhere in those countless hours of drilling over a two year period, I managed to transform my forehand from a liability into an asset that could stand up at a high level of the game. It wasn’t Andre Agassi’s, and never would be, but it was fundamentally correct, and good enough to carry me through a highly rewarding high school and collegiate tennis career, one that included national tournaments and multi-year NCAA Division III national rankings.
Far more importantly, I had learned that proficiency, even at a reasonably high level of an endeavor, was often more a function of a willingness to persevere than anything else. And that sweat and repetition, determination and willingness to work at one’s craft not only paid dividends, but the effort could become a reward in and of itself.
Sports are certainly not the only way to learn such lessons, but they are certainly one such one way, and a mighty good one. And for that, I’ll always be grateful to the game.