What I Learned on the Court Had Nothing to do With Tennis

We never know where or when a valuable lesson can be learned

This weekend I got to meet one of the newest pros at Omni Golf and Tennis Club here in Tucson where Russ and I have been members. Although we are both busy with our professional lives, we make sure to get on the court no matter what may be happening to hit tennis balls once or twice a week. We heard there was a new pro–a true pro–one that was rated 300th in the world during his active participation on the circuit. While this might not sound like a great accomplishment to those non-tennis enthusiasts, to people who have actively played and/or followed the sport, I can tell you that it is an amazing feat considering the sheer number of great tennis players on the planet.

Jonathan Igbinovia is a remarkable 38-year-old who spent a bit of time with Russ and I after we finished a round of cross-court drills this weekend. He was on the court next to us coaching an up-and-coming local 20-year-old on backhands and serves. Watching Jonathan’s form and mechanics was akin to watching a Bolshoi Ballet, mesmerizing for both Russ and me. We were awestruck and could hardly keep our eyes on our own court. We hit for about an hour with occasional stops to grab a quick sip of water. At the end of our drills, we walked off as Jonathan and his student did.

The resident pro. Tom, who has been a friend of ours for years introduced us all. In Russ’ usual teasing fashion, he asked Jonathan if he thought it was too late to get me prepared to play competitively at his level. Of course, Jonathan was a gentleman and with a bit of a smile said, “it’s never too late.” With this a conversation ensued between us and I had the opportunity to hear his story. And what a story it is!

Born in a small village in Nigeria, he had the opportunity to view professional tennis on TV at a young age. He was fascinated by the “beauty” of the game as he put it, felt certain he could learn strictly by watching and emulating every motion, every position and every step they made. Apparently, he is someone that has an uncanny ability to perfectly emulate what he observed.

Before he knew it, he was playing on the very rustic tennis courts in his small village, shoeless yet playing for hours. Without even one formal lesson of any kind, he was asked to “play up” as we call it. Which means playing stronger, older, more experienced opponents. He practiced, practiced, and practiced some more, always watching the players he so wanted to replicate.

Before too long, he was approached by people who recognized and appreciated the natural talent he possessed. These enthusiasts supplied him with the proper shoes, rackets and a pipeline to connect with those that could promote and enhance the gift that he was given and to support his journey. By age 13, and without one lesson or one minute of formal training, he advanced to the number one ranked junior in South Africa, where he had moved to be mentored by his sponsors.

He’s played against the Nadals and Federers of the world and traveled everywhere, places he had only dreamed of. I could have listened to Jonathan all day, as it wasn’t just his captivating accent, but his gracious, appreciative and humble style that was so appealing. He now coaches the young adults here in Tucson that have aspired to make it further than local tournaments.

Jonathan began to share his thoughts on how he teaches and what he teaches, and from what we heard, neither are taught in the traditional way. He said, “Don’t try to do too much at once, rather focus on no more than three things at a time.” I can relate to this, for even after playing for the past 40 + years I still talk myself through every stroke and yet when I play a match or when I don’t try to focus on everything, I tend to get better results.

Jonathan asked me what I did for a living, and as I started to share it with him, something hit me. The methods he applied and the mindset he shared gave me some food for thought. His success came from watching closely, and concentration on trying to make it less complicated. He took his time, although clearly investing hours and hours in learning and perfecting things, he didn’t “muddy the waters” by trying to assimilate too much at once. It suddenly hit me that this is very much the same way I have coached and encouraged my clients to improve their skills. Listen to those who have been successful and work hard to mirror and duplicate the things that have worked well for them.

“Copy genius”, but don’t try to take on too much too fast. His words were words of wisdom that would apply to anything we are desperate to master.

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