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8 Life Lessons I Learned When Playing Under Arthur Ashe

8 Life Lessons I Learned When Playing Under Arthur Ashe

By General Robert Van Antwerp

11 years ago




When I was in The Military Academy at West Point for college, the Vietnam war was in full swing and many of America’s finest were being drafted.  One of those draftees was a man named Arthur Ashe, a legend in the tennis world and active player on the pro circuit.  Seems like he could have tried to avoid the draft or pulled strings to get out of it, but instead he served his enlistment.  He was assigned to West Point to serve the Athletic Director for two years to influence the next generation of leaders.

Although we had a good tennis coach at the time (I was playing 3rd doubles), he enthusiastically and graciously embraced Arthur as our “assistant coach.”  So for two years, we got to learn from and play with one of the greatest tennis players of all time!  He had such a regal air about him, and I can still picture Arthur with his wire-rimmed glasses as he’d tell me, “Move your feet,” “With your serve, you have to go slow before you can go fast,” and “Scratch your back with your racket as you wind up to serve.”

We knew he was a great player.  What we learned was that he was a great leader and a wonderful servant.  He served those he led.  He was still actively playing and was personally preparing for the U.S. Open Championship in Flushing Meadow, NY (played on grass in those days).  You would have thought that he would be totally focused on getting himself ready but he seemed totally focused on our little tennis team.  I’ll never forget the hours he spent with me on improving my serve!  He would give me a pointer or two to get me unstuck and then have me hit hundreds (seemed like thousands) of serves to change the old habit to the new.  At the same time, he was working on his already amazing serve and hitting hundreds of serves right along with me.

Here are a few things I learned from this great player and leader:

  1. Improve your serve so you can start points right and not simply react to your opponent.  In my role at The Flippen Group, I see this as a great parallel for the importance of a strong first impression.
  2. Great leaders are always others focused!
  3. Great leaders help others get “unstuck.”
  4. Behaviors can be changed with practice.  One time Arthur gave me a tip about my backhand that was difficult to master and I questioned him.  He humbly responded, “Do you know how many backhands I’ve hit?”  I couldn’t argue with that!
  5. Leaders continue to grow and improve themselves in order to grow those they lead and to improve their teams.
  6. Tennis players learn best from other tennis players, thus leaders learn best from other leaders.
  7. You have to have relationships to grow.
  8. Connections to teams enable leaders to grow.

Want to improve your game?  Take some tips from Arthur Ashe.

General Robert Van Antwerp

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