Compete-Learn-Honor: Strengthening athletes' mental and emotional skills
By Dr. Peter C. Scales
As a psychologist, high school tennis coach and college tennis mental strength consultant, my coaching philosophy is built off a slogan I developed for our JV tennis teams years ago, which is Compete-Learn-Honor: Give our all 100% of the time; be open, curious, and humble learners; and by how we act, bring credit to ourselves, teammates, coaches, opponents, school, family, community and the game of tennis. My philosophy is if we’ve done that, we’ve had a successful season, regardless of our Ws and Ls. Because our goal is simply getting better, as tennis players and as people of character. That’s it.
Some seasons we win more and some less. But every season is first and foremost about continuous improvement as players and people, through applying the principles and habits of the Compete-Learn-Honor approach. Although it was created for tennis, the Compete-Learn-Honor principles and habits cross over to all sports. Here they are.
- Respect All: Teammates, Opponents, Coaches, Officials
- Love the Game More than How You Perform
- Do Not Strive for Victory—Strive for Gracefulness, Balance, Patience, and Clarity
- Use Positive Self-Talk and Show Positive Body Language
- Never Give Up
- Make No Excuses
- Give Your All—It Makes You Tougher for Your Next Match/Game
- Lose Your “Self”—Humility Allows You to Learn
- Mental Toughness Isn’t Given—It’s Developed
- Learn One New Thing Every Time on the (Court, Field, Mat, Ice, etc.)
- Take Notes and Then Study the Notes
- Improving is a Better Goal Than Winning
- Mistakes Are Necessary to Improve
- Play the Ball, Not the opponent
- Always Change a Losing Game—Never Change a Winning Game
- Think During Practice—Feel During the Match/Game/Meet
- Physical Fitness Leads to Mental Toughness
- Proper Breathing Leads to a Relaxed Body and a Clear Mind
- Love the Battle and Solve the Puzzle
- Have a Game Plan and Routines
- Have a Purpose and a Target for Every Stroke/Move
- Expect the Ball/Puck etc. to Come Back and Expect It to be a Tough Shot/Play
- What Matters is Right Now, This Shot/Move, This Play
- All Points/Plays Are Big Points/Plays
- Use Time Effectively (Give to You, Take Away from Your Opponent)
- Combat Stress (by Being Humble, Smiling, Moving, Drinking Water, and Having a Plan)
As I say in my book, Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor, these three pillars of mental and emotional strength are written in the order of Compete-Learn-Honor because competing is what we’re training our student-athletes to do, in the game and in life. But in coaching, I reverse the emphasis: Honor comes first, because it is the foundation for all learning and competitive development.
All these principles are important for athletes to develop into habits, but two are especially non-negotiable: Love the game more than how you perform and lose your “self”—humility allows you to learn. And they’re very much connected to each other.
LOVE THE GAME MORE THAN HOW YOU PERFORM
The soccer great Mia Hamm once said that one of the hardest things to do as you get better and better, and more dedicated to a sport, is to remember why you connected emotionally with that sport in the first place. Or as she put it, to remember the little girl who fell in love with it, which in her case was soccer. Athletes rarely put in the thousands of hours of grueling conditioning, training, practice, study, competition, rehab, travel, and financial and social sacrifice required to succeed at high levels unless they love what they’re doing. Basketball legend Michael Jordan nailed it when titling his book, For the Love of the Game. Rafael Nadal said, after winning his 19th tennis Grand Slam title at the 2019 U.S. Open, that he wasn’t playing to see if he could end up with more Slams than Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic. He said, “I play tennis because I love playing tennis.”
In our culture, which places such a huge emphasis on winning as the priority, it is a challenge for players and many coaches to remember to put playing and loving the game itself first. Coaches and parents can help our student-athletes in two ways: Ask your kids to tell you what it is they love about their sport, and validate that, and also remind them that the game is bigger than they are, and should not be the first priority in their lives (God first for religious families; family, school, then maybe your sport!). Our student-athletes need to appreciate that the game doesn’t need them or owe them anything—the game was here long before they got into it and will be here long after they stop playing. Also have them think about the game as a person you have a relationship with. The people with the most satisfying and lasting social relationships will tell you those relationships work because they put themselves second—the other person and the relationship are more important.
In any athletic contest, only one person or team will win, by the points on the scoreboard. If you only love playing when you’re the one winning, then you are guaranteed a lot of miserable days on the court, the field, the course, the pool, the gym!
The irony, as in so many of the Compete-Learn-Honor principles, is that once players put loving the game first, ahead of whether they win or lose, they start setting themselves up to play their best more often, which increases their chances of winning!
LOSE YOUR “SELF”—HUMILITY ALLOWS YOU TO LEARN
The writer C.S. Lewis once said that humility doesn’t mean having poor self-esteem or thinking less of yourself—it means thinking less about yourself and your magnificent specialness.
A big reason athletes “choke” under pressure is that, at that moment, they are doing a poor job of loving the game more than how they perform, a poor job of losing their “self.” They are, instead, really focused on ME, MYSELF, and I, and the past or future, but not the present, the “right now” where they should be focused. If they weren’t worried about what people will think of them and all the imagined good or awful things that will happen to them depending on how they do (outcomes), they might be able to think more clinically and more dispassionately about the process, what is going on in the contest, objectively, what’s working and not, and therefore what needs to change and what needs to keep being repeated because it’s working. In short, all that focus on “self” as the center of the sport universe keeps an athlete from learning, right there in the contest, all the real-time and on the fly things they need to know to compete better. The great Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra captured it in his usual head-scratching but profound way, when he said, “you can observe a lot by watching!” But not if the focus is on yourself.
Always feeling like you can learn more, because you love the sport so much, means you likely will learn more, whether it’s about the technical aspects of your sport, tactics, strategy, nutrition and conditioning, the mental and emotional game, etc. True experts are not arrogant about how much they know—instead, they are humbled by how much more there is to know, in awe of how endless their sport’s intricacies are. In that sense, no one ever “masters” anything. The best in the world in any endeavor are always stretching themselves to get better. They do that both because they love “the game” so much, whether it’s sports, or art or music, business, scientific research, building things, writing, etc., and because they’re humble. They accurately know and are honest with themselves and others about what their strengths are and what their areas for development are. So, they know there is always more to know and try. And in competitive situations, the best are still learning because they know even a tiny bit of improvement can make a huge difference in results.
The cliché the “margins are so small” at high levels of competition also means that very small improvements in mental and emotional skills, 1%, could mean one or two points in a tennis match, one more made shot in basketball, one more productive block in football, one more dig in volleyball, one more check in hockey, one more made putt in golf, and that little change in process could make all the difference in the outcome.
All the principles in the Compete-Learn-Honor approach matter and building them up will strengthen athletes’ mental and emotional skills in any sport, which will help them more often play at their best level. But the two most important keys for this to happen in a powerful and enduring way are for coaches and parents to reinforce student-athletes loving the game more than how they perform, and help players practice humility so they can be enthusiastic and effective life-long learners.
Dr. Peter C. Scales is a U.S. Professional Tennis Association-certified tennis teaching pro, and internationally known scholar in positive youth development. He is the JV tennis coach for boys and girls at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri, and the Mental Strength Consultant for the Washington University in St. Louis Women’s Tennis team. He is the author of Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor. The National High School Tennis Coaches Association has called it one of the best books ever on the mental game.
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