I always train a lot: so why don’t I win?

“Work hard and the rest will come by itself!”

“You just have to believe in yourself! Everything is possible!”

“Stay positive, set goals and try to improve a little every day. This way your dreams will come true. “

You will have heard these phrases said many times in the course of your life. But if in certain situations they can be inspiring and comforting, are they really valid for everyone or just for someone?

When I was 12, my mom managed to take us to the Wimbledon courts the day before the tournament started. We saw Stefan Edberg (my hero from when I was little) training with Michael Chang. For half an hour I studied every single movement, but the thing that impressed me the most about that pair of athletes was the size of their calves! I don’t know why, but as I was walking through the fields that day, observing the players preparing for the most important tournament of the year, I started to observe their legs: I assure you that all tennis players had incredible calves!

After this experience, I became convinced that having powerful and muscular legs was a fundamental element to become a professional tennis player. I felt that with the right training, proper nutrition and a lot of effort, I too would one day have similar calves. But for me that day never came. In fact, I have a more middle-distance runner body: my body is not made to be powerful, but to be resistant. No matter how many exercises I do, I will never have the mighty legs of the tennis players I had seen on the Wimbledon courts.

Because?

When I was a teenager, I remember that some of my tennis buddies had dropped out of school to fully devote themselves to the sport. They played 3 or 4 hours a day and were followed by a coach almost daily. I kept playing for an hour a day, maybe a little more on the weekend… and I kept studying.

I couldn’t explain how I still managed to beat those players so easily. I noticed improvements in those guys, but they never got to my level and, in the end, they left competitive tennis long before I did. They trained, got coached and played more tournaments than me and yet they couldn’t beat me. Because?

As I became a college-level tennis teacher myself, I began to understand the limitations of certain players. The first few years of work I wanted to believe that talent wasn’t that important. I thought that with the right mindset and hard work, my players’ achievements would have no limits. On the other hand, it was very frustrating to see how some of the players who tried harder did not achieve the desired results: they won little and could not even make it to the team. I would have liked their commitment to be rewarded in some way, but in the important moments the most “talented” players prevailed. I began to understand that the tennis players who won most often had both “talent” and a great work ethic. I understand that talent and genetics are REALLY important.

In my coaching job, I knew that a player’s ability to compete didn’t just come from the number of hours of training. After training both boys and girls (senior college students) for a few years, I realized that certain factors affect their performance.

Now science has confirmed my assessments too.

Parents often ask the coach why their son is not improving or why he keeps losing. It is not wrong to ask these questions, but you must also understand that your child has limitations dictated by his genetic heritage, which cannot be changed and which could be the basis of his poor results.

Bronson and Merrymen’s book “Top Dog” addresses this topic. He reveals to us that hours and hours of training are not enough to compete at the highest level in any profession. One of the most interesting studies in this book is about how people handle stressful situations. When we are in a moment of difficulty, the synapses of the prefrontal cortex are supplied with dopamine through a special enzyme (COMT). Most people have both high and low reaction rate enzymes; some have only high reaction rate enzymes and unfortunately 25% of the population has only low reaction rate enzymes. It means these people will struggle to calm down after a stressful event. The dopamine will stay around longer than necessary.

Try to imagine that you are a very good tennis player and that you belong to this latter group of people. Feel the pressure of having to win the match from both inside and outside. You’re winning, but then things start to go wrong and you feel the pressure build up even more.

At this moment dopamine starts to grow and you struggle to bring it back to acceptable levels due to this genetic trait of yours. Every muscle in your body is extremely tense, you commit one double fault after another and your technique melts like snow in the sun.

Should a coach or parent really get mad about it? I did … at least until I read this study and realized that one of my players most likely had this genetic problem linked to enzymes and would always be destined to “hit the ball” during “difficult” games.

Another book I recently read, Pullman’s “SUPERHUMAN,” talks about some studies that have shown that “about a quarter of the amount of time spent exercising could be genetic.” It means that a quarter of the energy and willingness you have to train is influenced by genes. Training also amplifies the effects of an innate talent. In summary, your genes influence how much you want to train and how much you want to win.

This book also explains the Gene-Environment Multifactorial Interaction Model (MGIM): in summary this model explains that training does not determine the result and establishes that performance derives from both genetic and non-genetic factors. The scholars who created this interaction model also established that the amount of training completed by each athlete participates for 30% in the possible variation in performance. In other words, 70% of our performance is influenced by factors that have nothing to do with training ”.

In general, genetics affect every aspect of an athlete’s life. I could cite many other examples in addition to those already described in this blog, but I am sure that a few will be enough to remind you of others you already know. All of this goes beyond what is seen on the surface: height, weight, speed, ability to jump, etc.

Genetics greatly influence how an athlete handles stress and also their commitment to training! We might think that genes do not concern these less “obvious” aspects of an athlete’s growth, because they are not concrete things that you can see with your eyes. We almost hope that all this does not exist and we simply repeat to ourselves: “Work hard and never give up!”.

I hope coaches and parents understand more and more that raising a tennis player is an extremely complicated process. None of us know what the career limit that genetics will set for any young athlete will be. We all wish things were clear and simple; some self-styled “expert” will certainly try to offer you easy solutions, but the growth of a tennis player (like personal growth) can be a path full of obstacles and missteps.

If your child loves tennis and dreams of becoming a top player, do what you can to help them, but try to have realistic expectations along the way. Be clear that many factors participate in the realization of this dream. The tennis level of the best in the world is attainable by few athletes; but if we really love this sport and want to improve, then we will have to do our best to make the most of what our genetics and the environment we live in provide us.

Each of us has limitations and there is no point in getting angry about it.

by a USA coach

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