The Beast of High Expectations 11

The Beast of High Expectations

My first competition of the year is two weeks away and I have been in the toughest period of my tennis life.

Why now?

Last year I had my greatest year in terms of results. I should be flying high. Building on last year’s successes with massive confidence. My belief in myself and the feelings of certainty that come with belief should be off the charts.

But no. I have been tripped up by the beast of expectations based on the past. Like Shaun White, Bode Miller, Roger Federer. Apple. Like the hedge funders I coach who put up amazing numbers in one year only to struggle the next.

Last year my record was 38-1. I lost only two sets all year. I was in that amazing zone. Returning to a full playing schedule after being out of the game with hip surgeries, my mental setup was perfect. Happy to feel healthy. Grateful to be playing the game I love. Enjoying practicing and seeing my game coming together. Patient with the little stumbles. Smiling internally and externally with effortless effort. Accepting.

Even though I set a high bar for myself, I was free of expectations. My confidence in myself was high. My belief was strong that I would compete well against those players who were in and above my level. I was free of the demand that expectations of winning needed to be fulfilled. I could accept whatever might happen and be able to move on to the next point, game, set, match or tournament.

And I just kept playing to the very highest levels of my skills and talent. The year ended with my returning to the podium, winning the singles and doubles at the National Championships.

When I started to train for the new year I had a couple of bad outings. Missing routine shots. Not making service returns. Lack of courage on my first serves. Giving away leads. Going for winners when the opportunities were not there. Not going for them when the opportunity presented itself.

I started telling stories about why. I am tired of competing. I wasn’t challenged enough last year so I’ve lost my edge. The work is not engaging. Playing isn’t fun. Been there done that. I have lots of great stuff in my life that is using my focus. I’m getting old and my speed, strength, endurance and reflexes are not there anymore.

But I kept playing. And I was unhappy. From the first error in the warmup I was impatient. Frustrated. Annoyed. Intolerant. Shaking my head. Talking to myself.

Who was I? Where was the Bob with whom I have become so familiar?

I kept searching. I tightened my strings. I loosened them. I tried different rackets. I changed tennis shoes. I fussed with my footwork. I focused on the ball. I did rope ladder agility drills. Monster walks. Nothing.
And the bad stories kept coming. I’m just not ready to compete. I bailed on the first big tournament of the year.

Maybe my run is over. No shame. I don’t have anything to prove.

But I am not one to quit on myself. My story is “I dig deeply. I look inside myself. I am honest. I am transparent.”

OK, so competing is not fun right now. I will just spend time on the court doing what is fun for me. Just hitting. The workout. Being with a friend. It helped. I started to enjoy just going out for a hit.

Eventually, though, my partner and I would play points or a set and, my game would disappear.

What was going on? Why am I struggling so much when competing?

I entered the tournament anyhow. I know myself. I needed a better story:
When I have a target, I find a way to hit it. I try. I adjust. Try. Adjust. I find the way to get a bullseye.

When I tell a new story of who I am, I don’t worry about how I will get there. I know that, out of the certainty of me becoming my new story, the way I will get there begins to flow. The answers find me.

The answer found me. I sent a random email to my friend Jeff Greenwald, a three time World Champion and sports psychologist from San Francisco. I was giving him some advice. And I realized that I needed to process with someone else. Someone who might relate. Someone who has been there.

We spoke for a while. We talked of the enormous pressure of having to live up to an amazing year of play. How the results become addictive. Even though I had evolved as a competitor, loving the competition as much or more than the results, the result beast had never entirely gone away. Like a weed that is pulled out, there is just a small root left.

My whole being was affected by the pressure to outperform last year. Old stories were feeding the weeds of results and expectation. If I don’t succeed to the level of last year, then last year doesn’t even count. People will know that last year was an illusion and the real me will resurface. Any loss, any error reveals the true Bob. This is the power of old stories that are not jettisoned. When we touch our highest bars, do we need to always go beyond that bar? If not, are we a failure? In whose eyes? The weed triggered my very old story of other people’s opinions affecting my own view of myself.

So Jeff and I talked it out. I pulled out the weed. Saw if for what it was. Expectations. He encouraged me to continue being who I am with my game. Transparent. Unafraid to face my little demons. Honest. To continue processing. Facing the truth.

Last year can never be taken away from me. This is a new year. Each match that I play stands alone. An opportunity for me to bring the very best Bob that I am. A chance to be in the process that I love so much. The process that has taken me from a player who could rarely win to a player that loves the challenges that are thrown into my path.

That is my story and I am sticking with it.

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11 thoughts on “The Beast of High Expectations

  • Jim Falvo


    Glad you accept yourself as human “being” — not a human “done.” As someone in process, you know the journey would be boring if every shot went in and you never lost.

    I well-remember a Twilight Zone episode in saw back in the 60’s called “A Nice Place to Visit.” A crook gets shot and killed and wakes up in a world where he gets whatever he wants. At first it seems too good to be true but he soon gets bored with always winning, always getting the girl, always having everything go his way. I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t seen it but the lesson I learned is that our human minds are wired perfectly for this imperfect world.

    Just as I am bummed at my hip problem, I am accepting it as part of the process of being alive. It’s times like these that I think of the Serenity Prayer where you control what you can, accept what you cannot, and evoke the wisdom to know the difference.

    All the best,


  • ed wolfarth

    The folly of expectations……….know it well. Not only our own expectations but what we perceive as our peers’ perception, and expectations, of us. Other people see us as one thing and we see ourselves, often, as the same. Are we worried about living up to their standards, their perception of me? The mind is a terrible thing to have! Its so hard to not think. Results, excuses if I lose, my conditioning, shot selection, game plan. When you’re in the ‘zone’ these things are never conscious thoughts. they just happen…………..great article Bob. Love your writing….

  • Mark Heller

    Good luck! This year I took your inspiration to start entering some longer distance running events, so I will do a 15K in March and the week after a 10K. Feel good,

  • mel di giacomo

    two things.stan wawrinka ha tattooed a quote from one of my favorite irish poets samuel beckett
    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” before stan was born this was my mantra.
    i suggest a small paper back “Art and Fear.”1. “To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do – away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.” BAYLES AND ORLAND

  • Mark Fidelman

    Bob, you’re an inspiration to guys like me who are past their prime and still believe that we can make a difference. Just following in your footsteps!

    BTW: Congrats on the eBook – going in Forbes shortly.

  • joe mcaleer

    Bob. It’s the striving toward goals that keep us eager, motivated and moving forward. You accomplished those
    goals last year. What you are now facing is like the challenges the Miami Heat face this year after winning
    2 NBA championships in a row. How do you motivate yourself to do all the work that is required to accomplish
    the same thing you did last year? One thing for sure is that it’s harder to stay there than to get there. I’m sure
    you’ll find out soon enough. You have to find some new motivation. Good luck.

  • Paul Yonkers

    If we worry about what happened last year or yesterday, or for that matter what will happen in the future, we never get to enjoy today. The thrill and excitement of the battle within the match. As for me when I step on the court I say God I love this game!!!! As for you Bob, you are an inspiration for all of us and the luckiest man alive to live your dream. Good luck and enjoy.

  • Laura Jacobs

    What a great reminder of how growth is a constant possibility and weeding our garden of old stories that do not work can make our lives so much richer. As always Thanks for letting me into your world. It is a great place to live.

  • Rita

    Loved the strength and energy of this piece. So many people see the failures and stop there, but the challenges are what counts and
    enjoying the process. Very inspiring and very truthful as so much of your writing is.

    Love, Rita