Recently I finished Andre Agassi’s autobiography, “Open,” the most interesting and entertaining non-fiction book I’ve read since the Steve Jobs biography.
From the first chapter on, Agassi states that he “hates tennis.” As soon as he could hold a racket, his domineering father began grooming Andre with the goal of him becoming the number 1 player in the world. Every day from grade school until he left home for Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Andre was forced to hit for hours with a ball machine his dad had souped up, which he named “The Dragon.” His dad would stand behind him constantly yelling, “Hit Harder!”
Agassi played as a child because his father gave him no choice. His father was determined to spawn a tennis champion, and he had fallen short with all of Agassi’s older siblings.
Agassi lost a match for the first time at age 10 to the future pro, Jeff Tarango, when Tarango blatantly cheated on a line call in the final point of a tiebreaker. Agassi cried afterward. He was devastated. He hated the feeling of losing so much that from that day on, he devoted himself to perfectionism in his tennis despite his stated hatred of the sport.
He still hated the solitude of playing singles. He hated being forced to practice every day when normal kids got to play with friends. He resented tennis because it represented not having a choice for his life’s path.
As he got older, Agassi came to believe that playing tennis was his only option for an occupation. He had manipulated Nick Bollettieri to let him drop out of school in eighth grade, which further limited his career options. As a teenager he had no money, so with his older brother Philly coaching him, he traveled the U.S. playing the on the Satellite Tour in an old beater, trying to win enough to pay for gas and food.
Many times in the book, Agassi justifies playing the sport he hates by comparing himself to the countless other people in the world who strive for excellence in their jobs despite hating what they do. How many people in this world choose a job because they have been ordered to do it since birth? How many people have a certain occupation because they just happen to be great at it and they believe it’s the only job they can succeed in? How many people stay in a job they hate because they equate quitting with losing and failure?
I often watch professional athletes and think to myself, what they do would be my dream job. Wouldn’t it be nice to play a game as your job, get paid millions, and have unconditional love from fans? I have always taken it for granted that people who make a living playing a sport, devoting their lives to a sport, playing with the passion to be the best in the world must love playing it.
But think about all of the Olympic champions the last few weeks from countries like China and Russia, who are forced to devote their lives to winning a contest they never chose to participate in on their own. I’m sure some of the champions do love their sport, but I wonder … how many of them just hate losing?
Question: Do you have to love what you do to be great at it?