Compete-Learn-Honor Mental and Emotional Training with Dr. Peter Scales

Dr. Peter Scales, a developmental psychologist, researcher, author, and speaker, internationally recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the positive development of children and youth, joins the podcast. In part 1 of 2, Dr. L, Coach Johnny and Dr. Scales discuss how a psychologist fell in love with tennis and how he was able to use his training to aid his tennis. Dr. Scales details his Compete - Learn - Honor Philosophy as an approach to teaching mental and emotional strength for tennis and how he integrates this into his work with tennis athletes. Any coach looking to create or refine a philosophy of mental and emotional training will especially enjoy this podcast.


Hi, I'm David A. Ramos, Senior Manager of Coaching Education and Performance Analytics, and you're listening to Compete Like a Champion.

Johnny: Welcome to Compete Like a Champion. You're here with Dr. Larry Lauer, Mental Skills Specialist, and coach Johnny Parkes with USTA Player Development. Today, we've got a special guest on, Dr. Peter Scales. Dr. Peter Scales, welcome to the podcast.

Peter: Well, thanks, Johnny. Great to be here.

J: I'm really excited. I mean, Larry sent this thought through about getting you on the podcast and I started looking up you know a little bit about what you do and the book that we'll be talking about here shortly. But I got really excited when I started reading about you as a person and what you do and what you've done. And I just wanted to give a little bit of premise and then I'll hand it over to you to maybe give us some insights into your background. But one of the big things that stuck out to me was, you know, for more than 45 years you've been, I see a leader in developmental psychology, researcher, an author, a speaker, internationally recognized as one of the world's foremost authorities on positive development for youth and children. And you know that's a huge area in what I do as a coach, and obviously, Larry and his team, with the mental skills side, and so just really excited to get you on, but thank you again for joining. And maybe I'll hand it over to you for to give us a little background about yourself.

P: Yeah, well, sure. I've survived all these years. That's 45 years of positive youth development, been a researcher and an author and I've run a family counseling center in Alaska and advised, you know, policymakers and so forth. So I've had a lot of different perspectives on positive youth development. And I became, you know, a coach. Kind of a long way around. I mean, most tennis pros really got into tennis early. I got in at age 42, and my wife Martha was my first teacher. And I was already obviously a grown man, a psychologist, PhD psychologist, and I was kind of shocked at how as much as I loved the game of tennis right away. Tennis didn't bring out the best person in me. Right? It brought out kind of the jerk in me. And so it was fascinating to me as a psychologist and really impactful her interesting as a grown man of 42. 

I was doing my best John McEnroe at the time. And it got to the point where one of my pros at that time who thankfully is still a good friend said, you know, Peter, you're just not good enough to be that angry. And it kind of got me onto the right track. (break in connectivity)

Beginning of the right to win(?) so much, I just, I wanted to win. So much that every last point, every lost game, match, was just this tragedy for me. And so I became really fascinated, not just with all levels of you know, the tennis game, the technical and the physical and everything else, but the mental, between my background and what tennis was seemingly doing to me. And I realized I had to get control over the things that I could control in order to really enjoy it and in order to, you know, continue to play with people, like my wife who weren't going to play with me anymore. So it began a long kind of track to becoming a calmer player. And then, when I had the chance to start coaching, I really wanted to emphasize the mental and emotional side of things - that was in my wheelhouse. And I'd also come through the personal, you know, experience of it. I didn't have the personal experience of being a junior champ, or a collegiate champ to give to my tennis kids, but I did have the experience of being very emotionally distraught on the court, and how I tried to overcome that and tried to deal with that. So I really emphasize that right from the get-go, and eventually it led to the book (break in connectivity)

Which was just after 12 but that's kind of a long way of how the book got to happen. Yeah.

J: Awesome. So Larry, talk me a little bit about what drew you to getting Dr. Peter on?

L: Well, I think you know, Dr. Peter has a great sort of perspective on you know, the developmental psychology and understanding how beings are growing and how the sport might impact them in that growth, and then also being a coach and sort of seeing it from that lens and I'm just really curious Peter, you know, why tennis? Was it because your wife was playing tennis or teaching tennis? Like what brought you to tennis, why wasn't it another sport? What was it about about tennis?

P: Well, I'd like to say that I always had an affinity for tennis, but I was a basketball guy. And I was still trying in my late 30s and 40s to play full court ball with guys in their 20s. And my doctors told me I can't do that anymore. So I was, I was open to something. I was open to something different. And when my wife and I got together, she was playing tennis and amassing trophies, and just, it looked like a lot of fun. I had played a lot of table tennis. When I was a kid, my father was a table tennis champ in New Jersey. So I had some of the, you know, the background of that kind of movement and the racquet skills and that kind of thing. I just fell in love with it, immediately. Everything about it to the point where, you know, I was grinning a lot. When I was grinning, at first, my wife thought I was being arrogant about 'I'm just so good, you know, this is, you can't touch me,' then she thought it was maybe just kind of squinting into the sun, but it was actually, I was just loving being out there, you know, and it was great. I lost that eventually as I started competing, and that's when I got to being, you know, kind of out of control on the court. But my initial, which I think is a really important piece of what I try and do, and I know, it's some of the things that you do is to try and get players to remember and reimagine, re-experience why they fell in love with the sport in the first place. Because they get to a point where it becomes so important to execute and so important to perform, that they've lost the idea that they had initially which is, 'I fell in love with this thing because it was fun on so many levels, and challenging, and I liked the challenge. And now I'm turning the challenges into a threat. And that's causing problems.' So I'm trying to, in a lot of ways, I think depersonalize the win-loss meaning of it and recapture, for a lot of players, the meaning that they had when they initially fell in love with it, you know? And that's a lot of what I'm trying to do.

L: So from there Peter you start coaching, and I imagine your training and developmental psychology must have helped you quite a bit. How have you applied your training in education and psychology to the athletes, the tennis players that you've worked with?

P: Yeah, it's been a real positive, you know, and my specialty has been adolescents and young adults: high school, middle school, college age. So professionally I've specialized in that developmental range, and those are the young people I work with. So it's been a nice fit. I think that, you know, one of the things I try and teach our players is where fear comes from. And so we talk a little bit about self determination theory in psychology, the theory of human motivation. And it's real simple and they get it. But it's also something that I've focused on in trying to organize and the way I relate to young people, and that is the ABCs right, we're driven - our motivation is driven by our needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence. So you know, autonomy, we all want to feel like we have control over things. Belonging you know, are we loved? Are we lovable? Do we have connections, you know, good relationships? And competence - are we good at at least one thing and hopefully several things that we value and that society values. So pretty much everything comes down to the ABCs. And when we feel threatened, it's something wrong with those, one or more of those ABCs. And if we as coaches, as pros, can be reinforcing those ABCs as much as possible with our players through tennis and through hopefully helping them understand how to take some of what we're teaching them on the court and apply it in their off-court lives too, then we're producing well-rounded people. And it's not just improving players, it's improving them as human beings. So it all gets wrapped up in you know, what can I do to give them choice and voice and make them feel connected and loved and belonging and obviously enhance their skills so they feel growing competence.

L: Is it safe to say then Peter, that you're creating a safe environment, psychologically, so they can then explore how good they can be, how they can excel in the sport, but you're creating that safety with the belonging, with having choices, with feeling like you're getting better or that you can play this game?

P: Yeah, I mean, that's another way of putting it. I mean, I really focus on the way we do it with those ABCs. It's physically and emotionally and psychologically got to be a safe place where respect is the bottom line - respect for ourselves, for teammates, coaches, officials, opponents, everybody, and it builds from there. So yeah, a safe place and I have to say within that safe space, as we build a relationship with our players, then it becomes important, as you well know and have written about, to introduce levels of stress to them, that is controlled stress, but that's part of their learning to deal with adversity on the court and off the court. But you can't do that if you haven't built a safe relationship. Right? So you don't start day one with a new player or a new team and start doing adversity training with them before you've built up trust and safety. So yeah, that's the bottom line that's that comes first.

J: And I really like how you put that together there, Peter, and obviously honor. The word that came to mind as you were saying that was 'honor'. And honor seems to be really at the essence of your philosophy - it's obviously part of your philosophy. When you talk about compete, learn, and honor, which we'll dive a little bit deeper into here shortly, but maybe just touch on honor a little bit deeper and how we can demonstrate honor in the sport of tennis.

P: Yeah you're right, I mean I phrase it as "compete, learn, and honor," I came up with that motto years ago, because we're training you know our players to compete after all, but I teach them, try and teach them in reverse order importance: honor, learn, and compete. The way Jose Higeruas has talked about, you know, it's the eyes first, then the feet, then the hands, right? We see the hands as the last thing that connects the racquet to the ball, but it starts with the eyes. And so for me, honor is the eyes. It's what grounds everything; it's the GPS. And it's at two levels. It's at a level of loving the game more than how you perform. Okay, the game is more important than you are. And when you're throwing your racquet, or you're cursing, or you're being angry at your doubles partner for blowing an easy shot as if you never do, you know, those things are not - those things are not honorable. They're not putting the game first. They're not caring about other people ahead of you. It's all ego centered. So it really is about trying to teach players: it's beyond what the code is. It's beyond what's said in trend to the court. You have to put your opponent and the game before your needs and when you do that, I talk about you know, players like Tim Smycek years ago gave Rafa a first serve at six-five in a fifth set in the French Open, on the verge of possibly upsetting the greatest clay courter of all time and one of the best of all time. He gave him a first serve, you know, honorably instead of allowing him to hit a second serve, which he could have done. And Rafa acknowledged, you know, a lot of people do stuff like that early in the match, but at six-five in the fifth? That takes character. That's honorable. And of course Smycek lost and Rafa went on to win one of his 90,000 Roland Garros's. But, you know, the point is made and we obviously can contrast that with with players today who are not, who don't behave in an honorable way. So it just starts, everything starts with that, if you don't have that, and a big piece of the honor is being humble, you know. That it's not about you, your ego, you're not the center of the tennis universe. Tennis is the center of the tennis universe, right? And if you're non-ego-involved about it, and humble, then you're in a position where you can learn. Then you know, then you can learn. And if you can learn, then you can compete at the highest level at which you're capable of competing.

J: That's awesome Peter, and it reminds me very similarly of what we always say. I mean, we try to be a person-first-based philosophy, person-first approach, which is always putting the interests of the athlete, the person in mind. And it really seems like taking this approach with the honor is not only teaching them about how to, I guess, honor our sport, and its history and its culture on deeper levels, but then using that to educate how we use that to honor ourselves. I mean, we know this is driven by years, and it's a sport that require, that in the past required class and grace. And as you mentioned a little bit about honor and striving for gracefulness and balance and patience and clarity. But it seems like you've got a really good blend there of 'yes, honor is the key theme here, but we're going to teach about honoring the sport, honoring yourself'. And that seems like a really huge piece in driving your philosophy.

P: Yeah, and it's the entree to learning more. That honor that is exhibited by being a humble, curious, open learner. You know, there's always something more to learn, you can never get bored. If you're really interested in the sport, in awe of it, you know, you're just kind of in wonder at how complex and infinite the things are to learn. It keeps you kind of connected with that childlike curiosity, which is what enables you to become better as you learn. You have no ego in 'oh, I have to pretend that I know everything about the kick serve'. Well, you know, you don't, nobody does. That's why the very best in the world continue to tinker all the time. And so, you know, the attitude that I try and teach our players is no one ever - a true master never says that they masters, that they master something, a real expert doesn't call themselves a master, a real expert is always learning more because they know, no matter how much they learn, there's something more to learn, you know? So that's the kind of curiosity and humility that drives the learning, which then allows you to become a better competitor. So the irony, the Zen of it of course, is that the less you're focused on your performance, and the more you're focused on your learning and the love of the game, the more likely you are to get better and perform better.

L: Oh that's great Peter. And we often talk about in Player Development, the process leads to the outcome and never the other way. And you're talking about it from an honor and learning. You know, coming from a psychology originally and a lot of my training was in psych as well, many times, people feel that being competitive is at odds with being honorable. For some of the things that you're talking about in this podcast, how have you sort of married the two concepts, so they can coexist? We can be honorable, and we can be very competitive.

P: Yeah, yeah, that's a great question. And I think it gets back to what are you trying to do on the tennis court, okay? Yes, you're trying to win, but what are you trying to do? You're trying to play good tennis, right. What is good tennis? Good tennis - a good tennis point is one where each player is playing to the best of his or her abilities at that moment. And it's not easy for either of you. It's exciting. It's engaging, it's enthralling, right? Why do we like the longer points where the crowd goes, "ooh, oh, wow," you know? And they can't believe the gets that these people are making, and it's just exhilarating. Well, when we play those kinds of points ourselves in a very reduced, shorter, not as elegant version of what the pros are doing, that's the same rush that we get as when we're watching it in the crowd. So when you're competing, and your opponent is, you need each other. You need each other to produce that kind of a point. You need each other to play your best in order to play good tennis, exciting tennis, memorable tennis, you know. I often ask my players, 'look, I mean, getting an ace is fun. Okay, everyody likes doing that, but what's more fun? You know, winning a match 6-0, 6-0 that the guy couldn't even compete with you? Or winning a close match or even losing a close match where you felt, you know, I played my hardest. I never gave up. I was in it. I gave my best, and she was just a little bit better than me today. You know, Wow, great match. I mean, what would you rather be playing?' So, you know, 0 and 0, yeah, we'd all like to have one or two of those in our history. But, you know, that gets boring really quickly if you don't have a contest. That's why we call it a contest, right? So you can compete and be honorable at the same time.

L: That's why JP doesn't play me. He's never stepped on the court to hit balls with me because he doesn't want to be dishonorable and show me up, so. But, you know, I love this, Peter, and you can really feel that you own this philosophy, it's part of who you are and that you exude it - the excitement for the game, the love of the game. And I think, you know, as we think about our listeners, and a lot of those listeners are young coaches, who are exploring their philosophy and thinking about how they want to communicate the game to the players that they work with. But I think you're providing such a great sort of role model for thinking about hey, there's more to this than the technique. There's more than this to the tactics, that there's a way of going about it which we can all be proud of. And no matter what happens, win or lose, play bad, play poorly, you can walk off the court having respected the game and respected yourself.

P: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And you know, there's a difference obviously between coaching a team of players and being a pro doing an individual lesson, you know, and having that kind of relationship. But I keep coming back to it, you're building a relationship with this person, these people that, you know, in the best circumstances lasts beyond your coaching relationship and you know, you're continuing to touch bases in later life. They feel like you've made an impact on them, with them, for off the court life and not just on the court life. So if you're thinking broadly about how's the relationship going, you know, and what am I, what am I doing to help this individual feel better about herself, feel more in control of some things in her life, feel like he's competent, and feel like you know, he's loved no matter what. I mean, that's one of the most important things. I had a doubles team on the girl's season a couple of seasons ago, and my number one team was getting beat up pretty badly. And we play, mostly we played pro sets to eight, no ad. So it goes pretty quickly. The match is just that set. And they were down a couple of breaks and on the break. And I had called them over to the fence earlier in the match and we talked, and they promptly went out and lost the next three games. So I had a little hesitancy about where their coach Pete was going to be much help. But you know, they're on the brink of losing, I thought, okay, well, let's all you know, I'm modeling never give up, so let's have a conversation. Only this time I brought them over to the fence and we didn't talk about strategy or anything I just said, "you know, you guys know this, but I just want to remind you that what I think of you has nothing to do with the outcome of this match. I love you whether you win or lose this match. That's it." One of them just kind of turned to her partner and said, "Aw, Coach Pete said he loves us." And you could see the tension and the worry and the pressure just kind of drain right out of them. You know, they laughed, they jogged back onto the court. They were animated and energized in a way that they hadn't been; they played some great tennis, almost pulled it out, I mean, there's no fairytale ending. They lost six-eight, but they won like five or six of the last six or seven games in that match. And I was just so proud of them and at our season-ending banquet, I highlighted that as one of the best matches we had all season, because they turned it around. They turned it around from something so simple. Just, you know, he loves us no matter what. The winning and losing is not what matters, the trying is what matters, you know. That's it.

L: That's tremendous Peter because that just really shows them where truly your heart is, and what matters most, and that helps them remove a lot of worries about the outcome and just compete, like you say. So that's tremendous. But I think JP we're probably going to run up against it here and 

J: Yeah let's pause there because I think what I'd love to start with next time, Peter, and this is absolutely brilliant information. I love the philosophy and the way you go about it. I'd love to start off with then diving into your two non-negotiables, with the 'love the game more than obviously how you perform and love yourself and humility,' and because the example you just gave there kind of reflects that. All right, well, that wraps us up for this week's episode of Compete Like a Champion. We were very fortunate and grateful to get on Dr. Peter Scales. If you have not read his book we would strongly recommend purchasing it. It is called Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete, Learn, Honor. Be sure to check that out. We put a link in the show notes that will take you to a synopsis of the book and then where you can go and purchase that. So thank you for tuning in for this week's episode and Dr. Larry and I, we look forward to speaking with you next week.