At the French Open, I had seats to watch Novak Djokovic play Potito Starace in the first round. Though I think of myself as an intelligent tennis fan, I had never heard of Starace. Despite his relative anonymity, he played Djokovic, the world’s #1 player, virtually even for the first two sets.
During the second set, a father sitting next to me said to his, “Just shows how small the difference between #1 and #100 really is.” For the rest of the afternoon, that comment stuck in my head. While Djokovic is an amazing player with brilliant skills and amazing athletic ability, to the untrained eye (I was never a tennis player, and I am far from an expert, just a fan), the physical differences between the two were small.
At this level, where margins are small, the differences appeared to be mental: Having reached the top, Djokovic was slightly more assured of himself, slightly more confident, reacted to mistakes with a slightly better mindset, etc. More than anything, he knew that he was going to win, while Starace hoped that he could win.
These mental skills start early and are evident away from the court as well. At the high school where I coach, there is a surefire division 1 recruit. When the players walk into the gym, you would never pick out this player as the best player: There are taller players, more muscled players, etc. However, it only takes a minute to see who is the best player.
While he is probably the best athlete on the team and the most skilled player in most gyms, he draws my attention because of his approach. He practices like a great player. He walks differently. He acts differently. He does drills differently. He handles himself differently.
These are not qualities that are learned through instruction. These are qualities picked up by watching others, through experiences, and through confidence. These qualities carryover to the game, and when #1 plays #100, these qualities add up to the difference.
In many ways, this is the real value of training: Allowing younger players to train next to an elite performer to see how he handles himself, how he approaches practice, how his mindset differs. A coach or trainer can talk about the mindset and developing confidence, but it is not the same as seeing it and mimicking it until the confidence is real.
True confidence stems from demonstrated ability. Djokovic’s confidence stems from his epic brilliance last year. However, before he broke through and reached the top, he possessed confidence in his abilities. He believed that he could reach the top. It showed in his mannerisms. However, there is that small difference between belief and knowing through demonstrated ability because one has reached the top. Once one has reached the top, that small difference between belief and knowing is often the difference between the #1 and the #100: The #100 needs that breakthrough win, and once he gets that one win, the next one is easier because he has the demonstrated ability.