Vulnerability, Success & Andre Agassi: 9 Life Lessons From A Champion
March 1, 2015
After hearing both Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins rave about Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open, I was eager to read being an avid tennis fan and because I find there is always so much to learn from those who have accomplished so much. Open is a national bestseller and is considered to be one of the top sports biographies ever written. Not surprising given Agassi’s vulnerability and all access approach. His inspiring journey is fraught with twists and turns, triumphs and defeats, and the wisdom, self-awareness, and ultimately self-acceptance that demonstrate the beauty of our individual unfolding. The Dalai Lama says, “Happiness is the highest form of health,” and so I share highlights from Agassi’s story in hopes of informing and supporting your own journey to health, happiness, and success.
Stay out of your head—it’s a dangerous neighborhood
Agassi writes in detail about his constant struggle with self-doubt and self-consciousness even while at the height of his game and the height of his popularity. He literally refers to the voices in his head that at times led him to dark places both on and off the court. We all struggle with those negative voices at times, and many times, they are imprints and programming from our parents, caregivers, or teachers. Well-meaning or not, they belong to someone else’s perception and experience, and more often than not, have nothing to do with us but that person's own wounds and projections. In Agassi’s case, he discusses his troubled relationships with his father and later, his tennis coach Nick Bollettieri. By creating the right support system, Agassi learned to override those voices in the end, become conscious enough to know better than to listen, and focus on being present, especially when those voices got loud.
Release perfectionism to focus on your commitment and preparation, and you will be good enough to surpass the obstacles
Agassi touches on the idea of perfectionism throughout and how it prevented him from performing his best. His perfectionist ideals created performance anxiety, had him freeze up in certain matches with panic, and only served to enforce his self-doubt. Luckily, his long time coach, Brad Gilbert knew what was happening and was able to help Agassi release the expectation and pressure born of the need to perform perfectly. Sometimes all we need is good enough to get the job done; perfectionism is another form of self-sabotage that delays or stops us from pursuing our biggest dreams and most important goals.
Be Present To Direct Your Energy
Agassi frequently battled with his own wandering, distracted mind throughout his career. He lost important matches because he had personal issues floating through his mind at critical moments in his matches, losing those matches most of the time. When he was able to maintain focus by feeling, using, and channeling the energy emanating from the situations in his life into his game, he overcame and won. We all face challenges throughout our lives, and our success, resilience, and health ultimately rely on how we choose to deal with those challenges most of the time—nobody is perfect. We reinforce negative situations by either ruminating or avoiding the issue when we engage in numbing behaviors, but when we channel the energy of the situation and use the energy to our advantage, we create more energy and have the power to do anything we choose. With the support of his coach and trainer, Agassi succeeded when he consciously directed his energy instead of letting situations overrun his mind — "Stop thinking, start feeling."
Keep An Open Mind
As the book title so aptly conveys, Agassi’s autobiography is “open” on a number of levels, and that includes the importance of having an open mind to reach new heights. Agassi always said yes to new ideas and change even when he wasn't 100% sure in his mind. He was always open to news way of training, new ways of being, news way of thinking, and more. He was open to exploring things in a new way, a better way. This ultimately allowed him to succeed when all the odds were against him. There were times, no matter how grueling, humbling, and embarrassing, Andre had to start over from the bottom of the ladder, and he did it despite the discomfort. He reaped the rewards of staying open, following through with his commitments, and trusting his team when he struggled to regain perspective.
Create Your Own Team
Upon winning the 1994 U.S. Open final as an unseeded player—a shocking, unexpected achievement—Agassi falls to his knees, looks at his box where Gil (his trainer), Brad (his coach), and his girlfriend sat and realized, “You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moment of your greatest triumph.” Develop your A-Team and know who has your back so you can relax and be free to focus on your dreams. While often accused in the press of needing an “entourage” as part of his image and arrogance, Agassi knew that his so called entourage was his support system. He knew the importance of being surrounded by those who mirror positive reinforcement, and who believe in you when you don't believe in yourself to get you through the lows we all face in life (not to mention the expertise required to be a front-runner in the game).
One of the highlights of Agassi’s life was meeting Nelson Mandela. Agassi shares Mandela’s words at a dinner and the deep impression they left on Agassi, further activating his philanthropic desires and his inner awareness:
"We must all care for one another—this is our task in life. But also we must care for ourselves, which means we must be careful in our decisions, careful in our relationship, careful in our statements. We must manage our lives carefully, in order to avoid becoming victims. I feel as if he’s speaking directly to me, as if he’s aware that I’ve been careless with my talent and my health.”
The way we eat, sleep, work, work out, think, take care of ourselves, the people we associate with—it’s all interconnected and tied to how well we perform in life. Agassi is honest about his love for fast food and surprisingly candid about how much alcohol he drank during tournaments, as well as chronicling a brief encounter with crystal meth. Self-sabotaging behaviors run deep, and the sooner we address them, then the sooner we can go about our business of doing what we are here to do. Finding a balance between comfort, structure, and support is key to moving through life’s challenges without slipping through the cracks.
Given the roller coaster of highs and lows throughout Agassi’s life, he understands the importance of not taking anyone or any opportunity for granted because another chance is never guaranteed. He made a comeback at the 1999 French Open with injuries that were threatening him into retirement. Yet Agassi defied the odds and made it all the way to the final to win:
“I’m overjoyed, grateful to Brad, to Gil, to Paris—even to Brooke [Shields] and Nick. Without Nick I wouldn't be here. Without all the ups and downs with Brooke, even the misery of our final days, this wouldn't be possible. I even reserve some gratitude for myself, for all the good and bad choices that led here. I walk off the court, blowing kisses in all directions, the most heartfelt gesture I can think of to express the gratitude pulsing through me, the emotion that feels like the source of all other emotions. I vow that I will do this from now on, win or lose, whenever I walk off a tennis court. I will blow kisses to the four corners of the earth, thanking everyone.”
Later in the book, Agassi describes a chalkboard his wife (Tennis Champion Steffi Graf) put up in their kitchen for “honey-do lists” which he turned into an “Appreciation Board” where he writes something about his love for her every evening. This is a great practice to incorporate when you consider the findings of author and researcher Brene Brown, "In 12 years of research, I have never interviewed a single person with the capacity to really experience joy who does not also actively practice gratitude."
Early in Agassi’s life, he had experiences that planted the seeds for the charity work with disadvantaged children he is now well-known for and dedicates much of his time to. He learned that focusing on others quelled and even released him from his own pain and self-focus; helping others gave him a greater perspective in overcoming his own demons. After helping the manager of his favorite restaurant with school tuition, Agassi was so overcome by the manager’s gratitude, he told himself, “Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we are here. To make each other feel safe.” Over the years, Agassi has supported various organizations, and he eventually created his own foundation for education.
Don’t buy into the need to retire when you are supposed to retire. Follow your passion. Do what feels right for you despite cultural standards. Agassi broke a lot of records towards the end of his career when he was the “oldest player” to win a specific tournament or hold the #1 ranking. He was constantly barraged with questions on retirement and responded, “I don’t plan endings any more than I plan beginnings. I’m the last of my generation [still playing], they say… Still, I feel eternal.” Don’t fall into what Dr. Mario Martinez calls “cultural portals” that tell you what you should be doing, what you should be wearing, what is appropriate, etc. based on your age. Defy convention. Be who you are regardless of your age. Agassi broke convention throughout his career to transcend all limits, proving there are NO LIMITS.
Inspiring Quotes From Open
“Always value others… There is so much peace in taking care of people.” ~ Agassi
“[Mandela] talks about the difficulty of all human journeys—and yet, he says, there is clarity and nobility in just being a journeyer. When he stops speaking and takes his chair I know that my journey, compared with his, is nothing, and yet that’s not his point. Mandela is saying that every journey is important, and that no journey is impossible.” ~ Agassi on dinner with Nelson Mandela
“Que lindo es sonar despierto. How lovely it is to dream while you are awake. Dream while you're awake, Andre. Anybody can dream while they’re asleep, but you need to dream all the time, and say your dreams out loud, and believe in them.” ~ Gil Reyes, Agassi’s long-term trainer and friend
“One cannot always tell what it is that keeps us shut in, confines us, seems to bury us, but still one feels certain barriers, certain gates, certain walls. Is all this imagination, fantasy? I do not think so. And then one asks: My God! Is it for the long, is to for ever, is it for eternity? Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is very deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Opening quote in Open