Four Lessons from Tom Brady

Without question, the biggest story of the NFL offseason has been, “who will Tom Brady sign with?” If you’ve switched on ESPN since the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, then you’ve heard the talking heads yapping incessantly about all his possible destinations.

Thankfully, the wait—and the endless prognosticating—is almost over. On March 18th, Brady will officially become a free agent for the first time. As this final chapter of his storied career is etched into the annals of NFL history, let’s not forget his humble beginnings: 20 years ago, Brady was an unheralded 6th round draft pick by the New England Patriots. He would ultimately rise from draft obscurity to become the winningest quarterback of all time.

Brady’s story is one every athlete should be familiar with—especially tennis players. The world of junior tennis can be a confusing place, with many conflicting messages. These Four Lessons from Tom Brady should help you better navigate the crazy tennis world:

DON’T OVERVALUE PHYSICAL TALENT

Coming out of college, Tom Brady wasn’t hyped as the next great franchise quarterback. So much so, he even prepared a resume like a typical college graduate. His draft stock suffered in part due to a poor showing at the NFL combine: Brady still holds the record for the slowest quarterback time in the 40 yard dash with a languid 5.28 seconds.

Tom Brady NFL combine
Brady was by no means a physical specimen. But as Billy Beane says, “We’re not trying to sell jeans.”

Scouts and executives overlooked Brady because of their tendency to overvalue size, strength, and speed at the quarterback position. There are numerous draft busts who are the absolute antithesis of Brady: Tim Tebow, Jamarcus Russell, Jake Locker, and Vince Young to name a few. These four quarterback dominated in college, impressed in the combine, and had immense physical talents—but after being selected in the first round, they subsequently struggled to stay employed in the National Football League.

“We didn’t open up his chest and look at his heart. We didn’t look at that. I don’t know if anybody did. What kind of spine he had. And resiliency, and all the things that are making him really great right now.”

Steve Mariucci, former NFL head coach

The skills that make a quarterback successful in college, don’t directly translate to the pros. In the NFL, quarterbacks need to be more accurate, understand more complex offenses, and read intricate defensive schemes. The foremost metric they are evaluated on shouldn’t be their physical attributes. Ironically, it’s Brady’s lack of mobility that has helped him develop into a prolific pocket passer—which is a skillset better suited for the NFL anyway.

In tennis, the most oft-discussed physical trait is height. There is no arguing that players have gradually become taller, but don’t be misled by all the noise about giants dominating the game. Less than 10 percent of the top 100 are above 6-foot on the women’s side and 6-foot-5 on the men’s side. One only needs to point to the success of Ferrer, Halep, Cibulkova, or Schwartzman to disprove the theory that shorter players are irrelevant in today’s game.

In response to missing out on Tom Brady in the draft, former NFL head coach, Steve Mariucci, said this: “We didn’t open up his chest and look at his heart. We didn’t look at that. I don’t know if anybody did. What kind of spine he had. And resiliency, and all the things that are making him really great right now.”

And that’s the first lesson Brady teaches us—that success in sport is more about what you can’t see than what you can.

FOCUS ON LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT

When Tom Brady first enrolled at the University of Michigan, he was seventh on the depth chart. After being drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots in 2000, he was fourth string. In his second season, he was Drew Bledsoe’s backup, and was only granted his opportunity after Bledsoe got hurt. “The Comeback Kid” has had to prove himself every step of the way.

Tom Brady at University of Michigan
Brady had to fight for playing time his entire college career.

Another Tom—Tom Martinez, has been in Tom Brady’s corner since he was 14. Until his death in 2012, Martinez would help clean up Brady’s throwing motion every offseason. In Daniel Coyle’s, Little Book of Talent, he mentions Brady still keeps a handwritten note in his wallet that describes the same basic throwing techniques Martinez taught him all those years ago. Sustaining a high level of play into his early 40s—it’s safe to say Tom Brady understands the value of long-term development.

In tennis, many coaches, parents, and players forgo long-term development for results and rankings in the short-term. Certain tennis federations require their players to achieve professional rankings between the ages of 14 and 16—while statistically, most top 100 players reach this milestone much later in their career. Players under 18 are also encouraged to achieve high junior ITF rankings; however there is a mixed correlation between achievement in the juniors and success in the pros. Pressuring juniors to specialize early and achieve early can also lead to physical and mental burnout.

Donald Young is one example of a promising junior that never fulfilled his potential as a pro. At 16 years, 5 months, Young was one of the youngest juniors to ever hold the year-end World No. 1 ranking. While he’s had some highlights, most would consider Young’s career disappointing. His lack of a thumping lefty serve is most likely to blame. Young’s current year to date ace percentage of 3.4% is among the ten worst on tour. His ace rate has been below 4% every year since 2009. His weak serve hurts him the most on the grass courts of Wimbledon—where lefties usually have an advantage.

Young has a career ATP match record of 124-189—or a winning percentage of 39.6 percent—which is on par with the winning percentage of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at 39.9 percent. For comparison’s sake, Roger Federer sits at 82.1 percent and Tom Brady at 77.4 percent. Considering Brady was seventh on the depth chart when he first enrolled at Michigan, 77.4 percent is pretty damn good.

PUT TEAM BEFORE “ME”

Throughout his career, Brady has always put the team first. Brady has consistently taken pay cuts to insure the Patriots could afford to pay other players. In tennis, the player can fire the coach, whereas in most sports, it’s the other way around. The individual nature of tennis can facilitate selfishness–that if not regulated—can become toxic.

The list of current and former champions who have had a parent or family member play a substantial role in their development is a very long one indeed. Look no further than America’s two most promising young stars: Coco Gauff and Sofia Kenin. The biggest benefit of keeping it in the family is loyalty—loyalty allows the player to receive a consistent message over a longer period. While it’s certainly possible to “fire” a parent (see: Mary Pierce), it’s more difficult than firing a coach.

Coco Gauff and father Corey Gauff
Coco Gauff being coached by her father, Corey.

Over the last 20 years, as the tennis coaching carousel continued to spin, Brady remained with one team and one coach. Some critics label Brady a “system quarterback,” and claim Bill Belichick is the reason for all of his success. Now Brady is out to prove his doubters wrong one last time—I know who my money’s on.

CHARACTER COMES FIRST

Brady’s competitive spirit and work ethic are second to none—even after earning six rings and countless accolades, he still gets incredibly fired up to play football. And it’s not just football he gets competitive about: Brady’s teammates recall him breaking ping-pong paddles and throwing backgammon boards after losing to them.

Brady getting fired up.
(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

He’s also known for his diligent preparation and legendary confidence. Brady sums it up himself with this quote: “Life is about taking advantage of opportunities, and you never know when you’re going to get them. You have to be prepared to take advantage when you get them. You try to go out there and be confident in yourself so you can inspire confidence in others.”

“I’ve always thought he was a better human being than he is a football player.”

Josh McDaniels, Patriots Offensive Coordinator

Players recount stories of Brady introducing himself to undrafted rookies to make them feel more welcome. Former coach, Josh McDaniels attests, “I’ve always thought he was a better human being than he is a football player.” Numerous former teammates testify to Brady’s loyalty, humility, and selflessness.

Brady never fails to acknowledge those who have helped him—even recognizing his college assistant athletic director, Greg Harden: “He has helped me with my own personal struggles in both athletics and in life. Greg really pushed me in a direction that I wasn’t sure I could go.”

These anecdotes show the quality of Brady’s character. These traits can’t be measured by a clock, ruler, or scale—but they are far more important than the traits that can.

Best of luck to TB12 on this new chapter. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact me at brandon@fm-tennis.com. Thanks for reading!

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