Craig Valency, CSCS
Until Roger Federer came along, Pete Sampras held the record for winning the most Grand Slam titles of any player in history. He is one of the greatest players of all time. His book offers the insight into what separates the very good ones from the great ones. I have distilled what I feel are the seven most impactful lessons from his transformational book.
Like Pete Sampras, I grew up in Southern California playing tennis from a very young age. Both of us were skinny guys, with dark curly hair and a one-handed backhand. Unlike Pete Sampras, however, I was not a champion. Actually, I was not even in the same zip code as the word “champion.” How could two guys, growing up in the same city, at roughly the same time, and playing the same sport have such different outcomes?
Tennis was my life. All I did was play, watch, or think about it. If I could have married tennis, I would have. If I didn’t have a partner, I knew plenty of walls that would faithfully get the ball back to me for hours at a time.
Sampras and I shared a love of the game, but he was able to take his passion to a level of mastery and accomplishment beyond what I even thought was possible. When I first saw the title of Pete Sampras’ book, A Champion’s Mind – Lessons From a Life in Tennis, I knew I would have to read this book. I needed to know how two similar beginnings could have such drastically different outcomes. It wasn’t raw talent or passion for the game. I had plenty of that. It came down to the way we looked at challenges, adversity, frustration, loss, and fear of success. I always thought a tennis match felt like a microcosm of the struggles and challenges of life. This book proves the case.
1. Learning to Lose
Sampras speaks of the great challenge of handling the enormous pressure in junior tennis, especially at the national level. For him, it was about shifting his focus from the pressure to win to the pressure to develop a great game. At that stage in his career, it wasn’t about winning; it was about playing well— playing “the right way.” This helped him enjoy the game and maximize his potential. Throughout his years of playing at the junior level, he saw how debilitating the pressure to win was for so many of his peers. He had never felt that pressure, not from his parents or coaches. At one point as a junior, Pete changed to a one-handed backhand and then played at the age level above his own, so he had to learn to lose. He wasn’t supposed to win, so he learned how to handle losing without having his spirit or confidence broken. This lesson would later help him out of many jams in his career. He eliminated the fear of losing. This lead to his ability to avoid “choking,” which he defined as, “being in a position to win and then experiencing some critical failure of nerve or spirit.” He had no trouble letting go of a loss. He just trusted the team around him and took the losses in stride. He took the long view and knew the time to focus on winning was to come.
2. Mental Toughness
Pete’s lessons on how to lose as a junior would pay off on the big stage. He was nineteen years old and in his first big match of his career, playing the iconic and intimidating tennis legend Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals of the US Open. Sampras was up two sets to love against Lendl, and he was on his way to a straight sets victory; but with the will of a true champion, Lendl climbed back to win the next two sets. As Sampras recalls it, “ . . . even as he was making a furious comeback, I felt no panic. No fear.” He reflects, “When you let a guy off the hook like that you start to hear voices in your head saying things like, ‘You had him, you’re in trouble now,’ or ‘Don’t panic.’ ” Pete knew that that voice is the downfall of a competitor. If he had paid attention to it, he would have lost the match. Winning is a habit, and if you open the door of doubt, “all kinds of nasty things come flying out.” Sampras’ advice is to “seek clarity in moments of doubt, stay calm, and have complete faith in your abilities.” In essence, to be a champion, “it takes a strong mind.” Pete went on to win the entire tournament, which was his first Grand Slam victory! At nineteen years old, he was the youngest man in history to win the U.S. Open.
When Pete hired coach Tim Gullikson to help guide him as a pro, Tim’s biggest concern was Pete’s attitude on the court. He tended to let his shoulders slump, especially when things weren’t going his way. Tim wanted him to intimidate opponents with his presence as well as his game. Tim knew that Pete wasn’t fully evolved as a competitor; he thought he was a little “soft.” He was instilling the lesson that anyone can play great tennis when they’re firing on all cylinders, but the challenge is to play well when you are not at your best. It is important to tune out that inner judge that’s telling you to give up. Instead, he says, “That’s when you need to suck it up and act like a man – hang on, fight on, show the pride of a champion.” Sampras learned a painful lesson during a match against the great Swedish champion Stefan Edberg. He had cramps and dehydration from food poisoning the day before. He was struggling. When Edberg pulled ahead, he just went through the motions and packed it in. He told the press, “As the match wore on, I was running out of gas. I was very, very tired, maybe more mentally than physically. Mentally, I was telling myself that my body just couldn’t do it, and as a result, it didn’t.” Later, he reflects that his mind should have been telling his sore body that he could. He was explaining away his inability and unwillingness to dig deep. He says, “It just wasn’t that I had played lousy; I also played without heart, which is a greater sin.”
4. Excellence is a Decision
After the Edberg loss, Sampras had an epiphany. He had quit, despite still having had some fuel left in the tank. It was no longer a question of how good he was. He was already in a position to win big events. He was a fully developed player, technically and physically. The question was this: Did he want to win majors? The Edberg match forced him to confront that decision. Everyone has a comfort zone. Many people find it lonely, stressful, and demanding to be Number One; so they settle for an easier route. Sampras points out that when you’re anywhere but the top of your game, you can avoid a good deal of pressure by flying just below the radar. Pete had a “conversation with commitment” and recognized that he had a great talent, but he wasn’t nurturing it. He was turning away from his gift. It wasn’t good enough to just be in the mix. It wasn’t only about getting to the top, but also about staying there. He developed the attitude that when he got to the top, the Number One title was his. He was not about to let anyone take that away from him. That notion, as Sampras explains, is what “ultimately makes you a warrior – a fully formed, mature competitor.”
5. Learning to Win
In the 1993 Wimbledon final against Jim Courier, Pete learned what it took to win like a true champion. He was putting together the lessons he had been learning over the years. It was the third set, and he was really starting to feel fatigued. But he remembered Tim’s counsel and knew better than to show his exhaustion. He kept his shoulders up and head held high. Despite his efforts, he ended up losing that set. In the fourth set, still on serve after five games, he sensed he was in trouble; that’s when his new-found determination kicked in. He comments that just a year earlier he would have “wilted in the sun” and let the fourth set slip away. Even though, deep down, he felt that the possibility of losing existed, he did not let himself think about it. He forced himself to fight harder than he had ever fought before. He pulled his game together and broke Courier’s serve. Sampras won the match and knew that this was the true beginning of his career as a dominant champion.
6. Have the Spirit of a Warrior– Dig Deep
Sampras’ warrior moment happened in the US Open quarterfinals of 1996 against Alex Corretja, a match I remember watching in awe. Midway through the fourth set, his legs were starting to get heavy. Nonetheless, he managed to win it. Although he was exhausted, he was still able to put one foot in front of the other and keep on fighting. Late in the fifth set, he ran out of steam and felt like he was going to die. But he knew in the back of his mind that he had a chance to win. After all, the US Open has a fifth set tie-break, so he just had to hang on. He got to the tie-break; but by then, his head was spinning, and his vision got blurry. Soon after, his back started cramping, and his legs were stiffening up. He told himself to dig in and get through it. Then, it became almost too much; he lost control and vomited all over the court. But as bad as it was, he was not going to quit the match. He knew his body was hitting the absolute limit, “the point of no return.” But he needed to push on and just get through a few more points. He was in pain, and it was tough to stay on his feet. It went all the way to 6-6 in the tiebreak. In the end, miraculously, he pulled it off and won. He was immediately walked into the doctor’s office in the stadium and collapsed. He was given IV fluids and recovered enough to go on and win the entire tournament. Pete Sampras had his eighth Grand Slam victory and became the 1996 U.S. Open Champion.
7. Be in the Moment
In summing up his career and the keys to his success as a champion of champions, Sampras sites his ability to trust himself and his “gift.” He learned early on how to be present– how to be in the moment, let go of the past, and not worry about the future. When he made a critical mistake he just “wiped it off the hard drive.” He believes this ability was a result of a deliberate mental decision, rather than an emotional reaction. Sampras knows that it’s all about how a person reacts to a given situation; if you don’t let things get to you, they won’t get to you! His self-control is legendary. In almost any situation that would have rattled any other competitor, he remained calm. It was his choice to avoid railing against umpires, the crowd, or his opponents. He was not going to give his opponents a competitive advantage and see him in a vulnerable state. He let go of the past, shrugged off missed opportunities, and focused on the job at hand. Because of this, Sampras developed a prolific habit of winning.
Lessons for Junior Level Athletes and Parents
These lessons to young athletes and parents of young athletes are profound. Youth is, by definition, comprised of several stages of development. This also means that the goal as a young athlete should not only be to win the game. The goal is to develop character, a good game, and the attitudes and mindsets that are needed to win when the time is right.
Providing good structure and guidance for a child is essential to success in a sport. But pushing relentlessly in one direction, with constant pressure to win rather than develop defeats the purpose. Refusing to let a child play other sports, or to simply just play, defeats the purpose; this often results in premature burnout as well as overuse injuries. It may sound counterintuitive, but Pete Sampras first had to learn to lose in order to win. And because his parents and coaches didn’t pressure him to win, he nurtured an innate desire and ability to win.
Today, I still love tennis, but my dreams of glory on the court are gone. The lessons in this book, however, give me new hope to be a champion off the court. I now have an opportunity to focus on making success a conscious decision. Like Pete, I needed to have a “conversation with commitment.” The fear of taking the final step or getting over that last hurdle has always been where I’ve backed down. It’s uncomfortable up there, but it’s also not too crowded at the top. Its easier for most of us to merely exist right below the radar, where the spotlight doesn’t shine as brightly, and expectations are low enough so we can fail comfortably.
The comfort zone is the status quo. Pete Sampras chose to move into the spotlight and made the decision to struggle for the top spot. That meant choosing to fight on when he wanted to give up. That also meant being able to be in the moment, let go of losses, and refuse being defined by them.
Are you ready to take the leap? If so, how are you going to do it? It’s never too late!