Last week Sloane Stephens won the US Open. Six weeks ago she was ranked 957th in the world after being sidelined for 11 months with a serious injury.
I have not followed Stephens’ career particularly closely but I do remember watching her play on television a few years ago. I am not sure of the tournament and I am not sure of her opponent. But I do remember that she was young and well beaten.
I remember the game only because the players were allowed to be coached between changes of end. This is not common practice but what made it even more memorable was that the court side microphones were picking up all that was said between Stephens and her coach.
By the time I started watching, the game was all but over – to the point that talking to her coach seemed a bit of a waste of time to me. I was not familiar with the term ‘growth mindset’ at that point. I am now fascinated with it and that minute long chat between a beaten player and her coach exemplified it.
At no point did Stephens or her coach talk about the state of the scoreboard or what her opponent was doing. Everything focused on what Stephens could do to get the most out of the situation. I remember her coach saying something along the lines of playing like the player she wanted to be in 2 or 3 years time – basically using this opportunity to learn to play her game under pressure.
I did not actually watch the final last week but when I read about it I also read about the expectations, form slumps and injuries that Stephens had overcome to win it. I tend to filter success and failure through a mindset lens and I immediately went back to that chat between Stephens and her coach and wondered how many other chats they had like that – embracing and learning from adversity, focusing on what can be controlled and looking forward. Stephens would not have won the US Open had she not been able to do those three things.
I am sure that coach helped Stephens develop her swing, footwork, tactics and all the other things that a tennis player needs to compete. But it was her mindset that overcame her injury and won her a US Open.
As educators, it is our responsibility to develop the academic potential of our students. It is also our responsibility to develop their character. It is a very difficult task to allocate enough time, energy and resources to both and we must not ignore either. But in tennis terms, I would rather put my money on an ugly backhand and a fighter than a textbook forehand and a quitter.