By P.J. Simmons

“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” 
–Zig Ziglar

I love spending time over holidays with my Dad and stepmother, two remarkable people who exude life-affirming, positive energy every moment of the day. Reflecting this week on how much they’ve brought to my life, it dawned on me that one of my Dad’s most important gifts growing up was simple but profoundly important:

He has always made me believe I could achieve anything.

My Dad wasn’t just trying to make me feel good or encourage false hopes; he made it clear that achieving big dreams would require hard work. But he said he believed in me because I had special qualities—tenacity, creativity, a fire in my belly—that would help me excel in any pursuit, even if I weren’t as naturally gifted as others.

That intangible sense of “faith in myself” my Dad inspired has helped me overcome countless moments of intense fear and self-doubt throughout my life, from childhood through college and to this day professionally.

And in tennis, it’s been essential.

It didn’t take long for me to learn that this is a sport where one will only get so far without a good measure of inner confidence. But finding and maintaining self-confidence hasn’t always been easy. As a late starter at age 41 with goals of becoming an outstanding player who might someday compete with former college players, I knew I had my work cut out for me. And I encountered a lot of folks who, in one way or another, suggested maybe I ought to get real and recalibrate expectations. Part of me strongly believed I could defeat the odds if I approached training like any other professional endeavor—with passion, intensity and commitment. But a battle nonetheless ensued pitting my inner voices saying “Of course you can!” against those yelling “Stop fooling yourself!”

Thankfully, the “Of course you can!” voices have been winning out lately. That’s partly due to my own hard work on my mental game over the past couple years. But a huge share of the credit goes to several incredible coaches who have somehow let me know they had faith in my potential–and by doing so have helped bring out the best in me.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 4.48.28 PMIt’s amazing what a difference a coach can make with only a few words at the right moment. I’ll never forget the day 6 years ago Bruce Barney told me the first day I stepped onto court that he “loved my spirit” and saw great potential. Or the time Tumeka Harris told me I should call this blog “Road to 5.0” because that’s what she thought I was capable of achieving. Or when Saif Syed at Total Tennis told me how much progress he saw me making and how excited he was to keep working with me for years to come. Or when Howard Moore made me believe my backhand someday soon will be a weapon. Or when Mark Kovacs told me someday soon I’d be capable of serving over 100 mph. Or when Tim Mayotte made me believe my progress was just as important to him as that of any future junior champion. Or when Craig Cignarelli told me “TOTALLY you can get to 5.0. TOTALLY!” There have been so many other moments like that, which these and other pros may never remember–but I’ll never forget.

Thanks to the Tennis Congress, I’ve had the privilege of watching some of the world’s best coaches help other serious adults like me embrace goals with newfound resolve and confidence. Time and again, I’ve heard other adult tennis soul mates tell me how much it has meant to them to be taken seriously by top coaches. Kim Salzman, who chronicles her own journey to improve at Tennis Fixation, wrote this after working with Emilio Sanchez for the first time at the 2013 United States Tennis Congress.

“What I loved was that Emilio and Lucas BELIEVED that we recreational players were capable of doing these drills and expected us to do them well (or at least as well as we could).  In the most encouraging way possible, these elite coaches made us perform difficult and draining footwork drills over and over and over… I loved it.  And the reason I loved it was because I came out of that session believing in myself.  When Emilio Sanchez tells you that you just hit a “beautiful shot” (with a very heavy Spanish accent), you believe it was beautiful.  If Emilio Sanchez thinks I can do these drills, who am I to think I can’t?”

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 5.08.35 PMCounting my blessings heading into 2015, I’m so grateful I now have a “home base” for training at the world-class facility Courtsense in New Jersey, where there’s literally an entire team of talented individuals who treat me like an elite, high-potential athlete every time I step into the club. It’s a remarkable place–technologically on the cutting edge with the amazing “PlaySight” system on every court, smart ball machines, state-of-the-art fitness assessment and training equipment, even neurofeedback tools. But at the end of the day, what is perhaps most remarkable is that fact that every single person at Courtsense I’ve worked with–whether the founder or the tennis director, my fitness trainers or on-court coach, the resident sports psychologist or massage therapist, or anyone else on staff–makes me feel like they are truly invested in my journey and believe in me completely.

In tennis, as in life, we certainly can’t depend on others to prop us up when the going gets tough. We need to have the capacity to dig deep and find that inner belief in ourselves.

But there is nothing like having others you respect get inspired by your passion, take your dreams seriously, and help you keep believing in yourself through the ups and downs.

These are the people who are playing a decisive role in helping us unlock our full potential.

And they’re certainly making the process more fun.

For all those individuals in my life, and everyone else out there helping adult players like me reach for the moon, I am profoundly grateful.