It was early 1994 and Andre Agassi’s tennis career was veering dangerously off track.
All his life, Agassi had been assured he would go down in history as one of the greats of his sport. When he turned pro at age sixteen in 1986, pundits lauded him for his natural talent, impressed by his uncanny ability to take control of points and his gift for hitting seemingly impossible shots on defense. But by 1994 it wasn’t a stellar record on the court that had won Agassi fame—it was his style. In a sport known for decorum, Agassi wore ripped jeans and tie-dyed shirts to tournaments. He grew his hair long and sported an earring. He cursed like a sailor on the court. He even starred in a splashy ad campaign for Canon with the provocative slogan “Image Is Everything.” When it came to tennis, though, Agassi was falling laughably short of expectations. He too often lost early in tournaments to players with far less skill—a first-round flameout at a small tune-up in Germany, a third-round defeat at a Grand Slam. His ranking kept slipping, from seventh in the world to twenty-second, then to thirty-first. Agassi’s coach of ten years had recently and unceremoniously dropped him; Agassi learned the news while reading USA Today. He’d taken to telling people he hated tennis.
Agassi needed a change.
Which is why he found himself eating dinner one evening at Porto Cervo, a favorite restaurant of his near Miami, across from Brad Gilbert, a fellow pro tennis player. Gilbert’s approach to tennis was the polar opposite of Agassi’s: fastidious, methodical, and inelegant. He lacked Agassi’s obvious gift for the game. And yet Gilbert, then thirty-two years old, had been ranked among the world’s top twenty players for years, even reaching number four in 1990, much to the surprise of tennis aficionados. Just a few months before the dinner with Agassi, Gilbert had detailed his unusual approach to tennis in an instant bestseller called Winning Ugly. It was Winning Ugly that had prompted the dinner. After reading the book, Agassi’s manager had encouraged his struggling client to talk with Gilbert. Agassi needed a new coach, and his manager had a hunch that Gilbert, who was old enough to consider retiring from the pro tour, might be the person who could turn Agassi’s career around. Agassi had agreed to the meeting, but as he would later recount in his brilliant 2009 autobiography, Open, he was skeptical. Gilbert was known for his peculiarities, both on and off the court, and as the dinner unfolded, he only added to Agassi’s uncertainty. First, Gilbert refused an outdoor seat with an ocean view (citing a mosquito phobia). Then, upon discovering his favorite beer wasn’t on the menu, he dashed to a nearby market to pick up a six-pack and insisted it be stored on ice in the restaurant’s freezer. It took a while for the group to get settled but when they finally did, Agassi’s manager opened with a question for Gilbert.
What, he asked, did Gilbert think of his client’s game? Gilbert took a long swig of his drink and swallowed slowly. He didn’t mince words. If he had Agassi’s skills and talent, he replied, he’d be dominating the pro tour. As he saw it, Agassi was misusing his gifts: “You try to hit a winner on every ball,” he said. It was a serious shortcoming. No one can hit an outright winner on every shot, Gilbert pointed out, and trying to do so was eroding Agassi’s confidence bit by bit each time he fell short. Having played against (and beaten) Agassi many times, Gilbert had witnessed this pattern firsthand.
Agassi could see the wisdom in this assessment. He’d always been a perfectionist, but until Gilbert’s remarks, he’d viewed that trait as a strength rather than a weakness. Growing up, he’d learned to go for the kill from his father, an Olympic boxer who was perpetually hunting for the knockout blow—the one punch that would vanquish his opponent. During training sessions on the homemade court in their backyard, the Olympian had echoed the advice of his former boxing coach. “Hit harder!” he’d yell at his five-year-old son. “Hit earlier!” Agassi had long considered his exceptional ability to hit knockout shots an advantage. Gilbert was saying it was his Achilles’ heel.To win, Gilbert continued, Agassi needed to shift his focus. “Stop thinking about yourself,” he admonished, “and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses.” It was Gilbert’s uncanny ability to size up his opponents that allowed him to beat far better players. He didn’t try for a knockout to claim each point; he found a strategy that eased that burden. “Instead of you succeeding,” Gilbert said, “make him fail. Better yet, let him fail.”Because Agassi was looking to hit a perfect shot every time, Gilbert explained, he was “stacking the odds against” himself and “assuming too much risk.”
Gilbert’s message was simple: the self-focused approach to tennis on which Agassi had built his career was not the best approach—not if he wanted to win. There was a better way—one that required sizing up the competition and tailoring his game to capitalize on his opponents’ weaknesses. It might be a less dazzling style of tennis than Agassi was used to playing, but it would be more effective. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, Gilbert got up to use the restroom. Agassi immediately turned to his manager. “That’s our guy,” he said. A few months later, Agassi entered the U.S. Open unseeded—he wasn’t even expected to crack the top sixteen. But with Gilbert’s coaching, his style had changed. He faced an old rival early on—the tournament’s sixth seed, Michael Chang—and remained unshaken in a nail-biter, holding on to the win by the thinnest of margins. He took out the ninth seed with ease, recognizing his opponent’s “tell”—a tendency to look at the spot where he planned to hit his serves—and exploiting that weakness.And, suddenly, Agassi had reached the finals. There was 550,000 dollars in prize money on the line, but far more in pride. It was Agassi’s chance to prove himself—to show everyone that he could live up to the hype after all.His opponent was Michael Stich, a German champion and the tournament’s number four seed. Agassi came out strong, hitting crisp, clean balls on point after point. He won the first set handily, then eked out the second set in a tiebreaker. But Stich wasn’t ready to fold. In the third set he hung with Agassi on long rallies and made him work for every point; eventually, the set was tied at five games apiece. The most direct path to victory would require Agassi to break serve, which meant besting Stich when he had the advantage of beginning each point. Agassi’s confidence began to waver. Stich wasn’t giving up—he kept blasting powerful serves, one after another. But then Agassi noticed Stich gripping his side, the telltale sign of a cramp, and saw his opening. He broke Stich’s serve. He was four points away from winning his first U.S. Open Championship—the sweetest of possible victories for a struggling onetime phenom whom the oddsmakers had counted out.
Before hiring Gilbert, Agassi was notorious for falling apart in high-pressure matches. He went for too many knockouts, took too many risks, and blew it when he should have held steady. But now Agassi stayed focused. Instead of going for winners, he concentrated on keeping the ball in play. He could hear Gilbert’s voice in his head: “Go for his forehand. When in doubt, forehand, forehand, forehand.” And he stayed on task. He hit the ball over and over again to Stich’s forehand, his feeblest shot. And on match point, Stich missed. The tournament was over. Agassi fell to his knees with tears in his eyes. He was the first unseeded player to take home a U.S. Open trophy in twenty-eight years. He’d made history.
In tennis, there’s a generic playbook that works reasonably well: hit hard serves; run your opponent side to side; get to the net whenever you can. It’s not a bad strategy. But if you’re a really good tactician, like Gilbert, you’ll take advantage of the fact that specific opponents have specific weaknesses. Maybe the player you’re facing can’t handle a low slice to the backhand side. You can torture them with that shot again and again and winning will be far easier. Behavior change is similar. You can use an all-purpose strategy that works well on average. Set tough goals and break them down into component steps. Visualize success. Work to create habits—tiny ones, atomic ones, keystone ones—following the advice laid out in self-help bestsellers. But you’ll get further faster if you customize your strategy: isolate the weakness preventing progress, and then pounce.
I couldn’t help but see the parallels to the way I’d been taught to think in engineering school. An engineer can’t design a successful structure without first carefully accounting for the forces of opposition (say, wind resistance or gravity). So engineers always attempt to solve problems by first identifying the obstacles to success. Now, studying behavior change, I began to understand the power and promise of applying this same strategy. It’s the very strategy that turned Andre Agassi’s tennis career around by helping him refocus on his opponents’ weaknesses. Of course, when it comes to changing your behavior, your opponent isn’t facing you across the net. Your opponent is inside your head. Maybe it’s forgetfulness, or a lack of confidence, or laziness, or the tendency to succumb to temptation. Whatever the challenge, the best tacticians size up their opponent and play accordingly.
Andre Agassi applied Brad Gilbert’s philosophy one match at a time, using specifically tailored strategies to defeat each opponent in his path. And the wins added up. Soon after Agassi’s surprise victory at the 1994 U.S. Open, he captured the number one world ranking, a title he would go on to hold for 101 weeks over the course of his now legendary career. Brad Gilbert’s advice made Agassi’s transformation possible.
stem: katy milkman
perspectief: understanding inner barriers – e.g. understanding human nature: getting started, forgetfulness, procrastination, impulsivity, laziness, confidence, conformity. Outsmart these obstacles and make them work for you helps you (to help others) to change for the better
bron: how to change (2021)
mopw: meerstemmige encyclopedie