Friday, May 31, 2013

How to maintain the course

The third phase in the process of change involves preparation. You have to prepare for change. Impose change without preparation and it can be a shock to the system. It’s kind of like transplanting a seedling from the safety of its plastic pot into unfamiliar garden soil. The pot may have become confining but it is nonetheless familiar. Transplant the seedling under the wrong conditions and it can go into shock and die.

This is why change is something for which you first prepare. Part of that preparation, in tennis, involves finding the right coach. Who would you best click with? Who is the person who can best manage the murky dynamics of being both teacher and employee at the same time? The preparation stage involves doing the right research.

Make the wrong preparation and you can end up with a coach with whom it’s like trying to mix oil and water. Remember the difficulties Roddick experienced adjusting to the verbose Brad Gilbert? Their partnership initially seemed propitious – after Gilbert apparently revealed secrets on how to beat Agassi – but quickly deteriorated, and eventually collapsed.

With the right preparation you can end up stunning the world with the realization that a grumpy old bear like Ivan Lendl has what it takes to get the most out of the potential of an Andy Murray. No coach before him has been able to truly make us believe that Murray can push past his self-limiting negative tendencies.

Part of Mattek-Sands’ preparation did not only include removing the gimmicks. She also traveled to France and started working at the Mouratoglou academy. There she apparently hit balls with Serena Williams. (And I couldn’t resist the thought that if Sloane wasn’t such an ungrateful idiot, that opportunity might have been hers).

Having made the right preparations, the next phase in change involves taking action. This is when change is actually implemented. While preparation can entail a great deal of repetitive practice, the action phase can be one of trial and error. In the action phase, you try doing that new thing that you learned. You risk actually changing. And you repeat that action, over and over, to achieve mastery.

What we saw in Li Na’s loss to Mattek-Sands is that she has begun to change but she is nowhere near mastery. It is too soon. Good change takes time. Sure some folks can change cold turkey. But lasting change tends to require effort that is patient and persistent.

Having taken action, it then becomes import to maintain change. This is one of the most psychologically difficult stages of change. Tested too soon and you can relapse into old ways of coping, as Li Na did in that final set against Mattek-Sands. Indeed, it was in her performance in the match against Medina Garriges that I truly realized that Li Na has changed. But in the follow-up against the brazen American, it became clear that she still has ways to go.

The last phase, relapse prevention, can be psychologically demanding. It tests your resilience. It pokes and prods at sites of prior weakness. It tests your mettle. It challenges you to ask yourself if you are just a Jelena Jankovic, gamely declaring an Olympian fitness regime one minute, only to abandon it when it doesn’t yield results right away. Or are you a Serena Williams, willing to continue changing and improving even while already being considered the very best.

(Part 2 of 2)

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