I’ve recently re-read Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is one of the most successful personal development books of all time with over 25 million copies sold. While the book, on the surface, has nothing to do with tennis, every concept in it can be applied to the game.
Before Covey even gets to Habit 1, he discusses a few concepts that I think are key for tennis players. One of these is the idea of balancing production with production capability.
Production / Production Capability Balance
Covey uses the Aesop fable of the goose and the golden egg to illustrate this concept.
In the story, a farmer has a goose that lays golden eggs. The farmer gets impatient waiting for the golden eggs and decides he wants all the eggs at once. But when he kills the goose and cuts it open he of course finds no eggs and now has no goose to produce them.
According to Covey:
Effectiveness lies in the balance – what I call the P/PC Balance. P stands for production of desired results, the golden eggs. PC stands for production capability, the ability or asset that produces the golden eggs.
Most people see effectiveness from the golden egg paradigm: the more you produce, the more you do, the more effective you are. But, as the story shows, true effectiveness is a function of two things: what is produced (the golden eggs) and the producing asset or capacity to produce (the goose).”
P/PC Balance in Tennis
To apply this concept to tennis, we basically need to identify what our golden eggs are (this could be different for each player) and how these golden eggs are produced. We then need to make sure that we’re optimizing the balance between these golden eggs and our ability to produce them.
Touring and recreational players might have different golden eggs, but there’s one that, most likely, every tennis player shares: winning matches.
What production capabilities go into winning matches? I’ve identified what I think are the major ones:
- physical health
Improving any or all of these elements is going to help us win more tennis matches. That’s obvious.
But what I think is less obvious is that, because we can win matches now, at our current level, we tend to neglect our production capability. This prevents us from moving to the next level where we’d need to have increased production capability to win. By wanting the golden eggs now, we can make the mistake of killing (or at least not feeding) the goose.
We will all have different P/PC balances. In order to determine where your balance lies, ask yourself, “Do I want to win now (at my current level), or do I want to win later, at a higher level?” Most likely you want some of both – to experience success now but also to develop the capability to win against higher level opponents.
The Less we Chase P, the More P we’ll get
At every level of tennis, winning is going to be more important in some matches than others. A grand slam title match might not be the time to implement a new technique or strategy with the understanding that it might not work today but will get more wins tomorrow. For a recreational player, a club or regional championship tournament might have the same feel.
However, this type of thinking can have negative consequences. Having a purely production mentality (“I have to win this”) during any match can lead to poor performance by causing fear, anxiety, and the fight or flight mechanism to kick in (read about how this destroys your game here).
A production capability mentality will allow you to go into matches with the mindset that, regardless of the outcome, this match is an opportunity for improvement. This can help relax you as it places the importance on things you can control, like following your game plan, choosing targets, and even relaxation techniques you’ve been practicing. You can’t control winning, and having it be the most important thing can cause a lot of stress.
So I think that, as much as possible, we should place the importance of winning below the importance of improvement. It’s not that I don’t want to win, but more that I know from my experience and all of the reading I’ve done on this that placing the value of winning over everything else does not lead to winning. Often not at our current level and definitely not at higher levels where we need to play our best tennis to win.
Sure, you can win matches that you play fearfully, with tight muscles, and poor judgment against weaker players, but will this work against stronger players? And is this the type of tennis you want to play anyway? To play relaxed, calm, focused tennis, to use your full strokes, choose your targets and go for them, and to not panic in pressure situations like big matches and break points, you can’t be afraid. Needing to win causes fear. Wanting to improve doesn’t.
While winning is a golden egg in tennis, I actually think that the less we chase the golden eggs the more of them we’ll get. A PC mindset will lead to more P both now and in the future. This is another reason we should, in my opinion, focus as much as possible on PC and not on P.
Shift your focus from winning matches to your Tennis Production Capabilities
Here are some things to think about for each of the production capabilities that go into winning tennis matches. Do any of these apply to you, and might you be able to reframe your thinking to help you get to the next level?
Do you have any weaknesses that you try to hide during matches in order to win?
For me, I win a lot of matches at my current level by slicing the ball on my backhand side. I’m not willing to risk hitting my new one-handed topspin backhand in matches. I fear that my topspinner would result in more errors and lost matches. This is particularly true against opponents my ego thinks I should beat.
By continuing to hide my weakness, rather than learning to use it in match situations, I’m limiting myself to winning matches only against opponents who can’t capitalize on my weakness. Instead of using the opportunity that matches provide to improve my one-handed backhand so that it can develop into a weapon, I’m placing more value on winning than I am on improving my technique. I’m choosing to win now at the expense of winning at higher levels.
One of the most difficult thing to do in tennis is to have the P/PC balance mindset.
While I think most of us would agree that building capability to produce at higher levels in the future is wise, actually being ok with losing now is not easy! Our brains are hardwired to protect us from uncomfortable situations, and losing is uncomfortable. Our egos really want us to win (mostly out of fear of losing) and will really try to prevent us from risking a loss.
Risking a loss can include playing matches you’re likely to lose (i.e. against better players) or using techniques and strategies that you’re less comfortable with (but want to get more comfortable with) against weaker players.
Developing the P/PC balance mindset takes practice so is itself a production capability element. I believe that developing this short-term-pain-long-term-gain mindset is critical for being able to develop our production capability in every other aspect of the game.
Many of us neglect this capability. We all lead busy lives, and we want to spend our tennis time on the tennis court, not in the gym or the yoga studio improving our strength, speed and power and preventing injuries.
Or perhaps we have an existing injury and can only play tennis a few times a week. Some time off and rehab activities would allow us to play daily, but we’re not willing to sacrifice our desire to play now for our desire to play more later. I personally have played in tournaments with injuries only to have to take extended time off afterwards, missing weeks of practice and match play.
I’m not saying that sometimes this wouldn’t be worth the expense, we just need to keep the balance in mind and actively choose when we want to put the eggs before the geese.
The big one that comes to mind for me here is that I typically resort to “pushing” in matches. Even if I go into a match telling myself that I’m going to work on hitting penetrating shots and constructing points (no matter the outcome), my ego will win out and I’ll instead play fearfully. I’ll try to keep the ball in play and wait for my opponent to make mistakes. If my opponent is a weaker player, this will often work and I’ll win the match. But I won’t have used the opportunity to work on strategies that I need to move to the next level.
I’m not saying that pushing isn’t a reasonable strategy for beating some opponents. Even at the highest levels some form of pushing can work (i.e. playing safer tennis in certain situations). But this should be just one of your available strategies. To move to the next level you need to develop the ability to hit your shots, place pressure on your opponents and dictate points in matches, against both weaker and stronger players.
My fear of losing matches results in my playing ultra-safe tennis at all times, which allows me to win some matches now at the expense of winning later against better players.
Fear of losing matches now can prevent us from trying new equipment. New equipment can often take an adjustment period during which we make more errors and lose more matches. For instance, switching from multi to poly strings, from a closed to an open pattern racquet or dropping your tension significantly can all require changes to your swing, but could potentially make you more successful in the long run.
Whatever level we’re at, we can win matches using our current capabilities. We can find players less experienced than us to beat. We can find players who choke in game situations we can beat. We can find players who struggle against pushers, push, and win.
We might produce (win matches) at or below our current level without improving our production capability, but at some point will be prevented from moving to the next level.
By placing more value on improving our production capability than on winning, we can win matches at higher levels, but sometimes this will be at the expense of winning now. We each need to decide for ourselves where our P/PC balance lies.
And because focusing on P can cause fear and anxiety on the court since we can’t control it, I also think that the less we chase P the more we’ll get of it. The less we focus on winning, and the more we focus on improvement, the better we’ll play and the more we’ll win.
For me, I want my P/PC balance to be pretty far to the PC side since I believe that this will lead to more P both now and in the future.
Shifting the balance from P to PC might be easier said than done but, like everything in tennis, something being difficult is not a reason not to do it.