Book Review: Pete Sampras, A Champion’s Mind (The Autobiography)

If you’ve read my review of Jimmy Connors’ autobiography, you’ll know I’m a big tennis fan. I play tennis at Aldersbrook Tennis Club in Wanstead, London E11, where the tennis coaching team of Phil Vivian and his son Jamie Vivian are based (Jamie is a qualified personal trainer as well as tennis coach).

When I’m not personal training my own clients in London, I’m either watching tennis on TV (the David Cup final match today between Andy Murray v David Goffin was amazing, congratulations Andy for winning the Davis Cup for Great Britain), or playing tennis, or reading about tennis. One such book is the autobiography of one of the greatest male tennis players ever to walk the earth: Pete Sampras.

Sampras was world number 1 for six consecutive years between 1993 – 1998. That’s an incredible achievement in itself. He won Wimbledon seven times, but he never managed to win the only Grand Slam on clay: the French Open.

Great expectations

The first top coach to recognize the child Pete Sampras as a future tennis star was the legendary coach Robert Lansdorp. This instilled in Sampras the self-belief that all champions need. “By the time I reached my teens,” Sampras says, “I assumed that I was going to win Wimbledon and the US Open.

Self-belief is a powerful thing. As a personal trainer in London for over a decade, I’ve trained hundreds of clients, and the ones who make the most progress are the ones who acquire the self-belief that they can lose weight, gain muscle, or whatever their goal may be. It is part of a personal trainer’s job to instill that self-belief, but the client must have an element of that magic self-belief inside themselves, however small at first, and develop it until it becomes a driving force.

Single-minded

Another trait that champions need is single-mindedness. What helped Sampras was (ironically) his natural shyness which in his words “made it easier to stay above the fray and avoid getting sucked into distractions.” Many talented tennis players have fallen victim to their own outgoing and charismatic personalities, and failed to realize their full potential, such as Vilas, Nastaze, and Marat Safin, Pete Sampras was never a party-animal, never craved the limelight, and this enabled him to focus 100% on his tennis.

A measure of your chances of success in any walk of life is the extent you are prepared to block out distractions and make sacrifices. This is very much the case for my personal training clients who want to lose weight. A new client may come to me with morbid obesity and tell me he is determined to lose the weight once and for all, but if he’s not prepared to give up the lavish meals at top London restaurants every night, it’s not going to happen.

Technical skills

One of Sampras’s great strengths was his forehand groundstroke, particularly the running forehand, thanks to his coach Robert Lansdorp. Sampras says: “Almost all Lansdorp proteges developed huge forehands. He teaches a fairly flat, clean, economical stroke.”

Pete’s other trademark shot was the serve. His weight transfer was very effective, and his famous lift of the left toes off the ground as his weight shifted back at the start of the service motion showed this.

The same applies to the technical side of fitness training. Take weight training with dumbbells and barbells to develop muscle mass. If you don’t lift the weights with correct form, with the optimum weight and number of reps and sets, and optimum rest periods between exercises, your results will suffer. That’s why it’s worth hiring a personal trainer who knows all these technical variables.

Take setbacks in your stride

“I learned to deal with losing without having my spirit or confidence broken,” explains Sampras, adding “Fear of losing is a terrible thing.” Not focusing on the downside, but staying confident and positive, is vital to a tennis champion’s success. All the great players lose matches, but if a player beats himself up after every loss, he won’t last long because he will develop a complex and burn himself out. Sampras says he never choked in a tight situation “because I was never afraid to lose.”

I’ve seen this fear of failure with some of my personal training clients. There is a minority of clients who will do 10 sessions and expect total transformation in ten weeks, despite my advice to think long term. When they don’t get dramatic results fast, they threaten to give up.

A good personal trainer is able to manage expectations, and explain that different people progress at different rates. If it took more than 10 weeks to become obese, it’s likely to take more than 10 weeks to get slim. Most of my clients understand this, but it’s the personal trainer’s job to nurture the client through disappointments and get them fired up to tackle the next 10 sessions with enthusiasm and determination.

Work ethic

To succeed at anything, you’ve got to be prepared to work at it. Talent, good technique, self-belief are all ingredients, but work ethic is vital too. Sampras says of Andre Agassi, his main rival during his time at the top of the game, “he was blessed with a huge appetite for work.”

It’s one thing to say you’re single-minded, but the true test is action. Agassi (like Sampras) practised like crazy, they didn’t use their talent as a hammock but rather as a springboard to ever greater achievements.

The same applies to personal training clients. You won’t get fit by doing 1 hour’s exercise a week. That’s why I encourage my PT clients to do some exercise homework between our weekly sessions, ideally another two sessions a week on their own or with a friend. Many of my London clients have demanding jobs and busy lives, and find it hard to set aside three hours a week for exercise, but its vital they do so if they’re going to achieve their fitness goals.

Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and founder of the Fitness Buddy social network for Londoners.