TITLE: From a Champion's Mind AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 23, 2008 6:47 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I'm a big tennis fan. I like to play and would love to play more, though I've never played well. But I also like to watch tennis -- it is a game of athleticism and strategy. The players are often colorful, yet many of the greatest have been quiet, classy, and respectful of the game. I confess a penchant for the colorful players; Jimmy Connors is my favorite player of all time, and in the 1990s my favorite was Andre Agassi. Agassi's chief rival throughout his career was one of the game's all-time greats, Pete Sampras. Sampras won a record fourteen Grand Slam titles (a record under assault by the remarkable Roger Federer) and finished six consecutive years as the top-ranked player in the world (a record that no one is likely to break any time soon). He was also one of the quiet, respectful players, much more like me than the loud Agassi, who early in his career seemed to thrive on challenging authority and crossing boundaries just for the attention. Sampras recently published a tennis memoir, A Champion's Mind, which I gladly read -- a rare treat these days, reading a book purely for pleasure. But even while reading for pleasure I could not help noticing parallels to my professional interest in software development and teaching. I saw in Sampras's experience some lessons that that we in CS have also learned. Here are a few. Teaching and Humility After Sampras had made his mark as a great player, one of his first coaches liked to be known as one of the coaches who helped make Sampras the player he was. Sampras gave that coach his due, and gave the two men who coached him for most of his pro career a huge amount of credit for honing specific elements of his game and strategy. But without sounding arrogant, he also was clear that no coach "made" him. He had a certain amount of native talent, and he was also born with the kind of personality that drove him to excel. Sampras would likely have been one of the all-time greats even if he had had different coaches in his youth, and even as a pro. Great performers have what it takes to succeed. It is rare for a teacher to help create greatness in a student. What made Sampras's pro coaches so great themselves is not that they built Sampras but that they were able to identify the one or two things that he needed at that point in his career and helped him work on those parts of his game -- or his mind. Otherwise, they let the drive within him push him forward. As a teacher, I try figure out what students need and help them find that. It's tough to do when teaching a class of twenty-five students, because so much of the teaching is done with the group and so cannot be tailored to the individual as much as I might like and as much as each might need. But when mentoring students, whether grad students or undergrads, a dose of humility is in order. As I think back to the very best of my past students, I realize that I was most successful when I helped them get past roadblocks or to remove some source of friction in their thinking or their doing. Their energy often energized me, and I fed off of the relationship as much as they did. Agile Moments The secret of greatness is working hard day in and day out. Sampras grew as a player because he had to in order to achieve his goal of finishing six straight years as #1. And the only way to do that was to add value to his game every day. This seems consistent with agile developers' emphasis on adding value to their programs every day, through small steps and daily builds. Being out there every day also makes it possible to get feedback more frequently and so make the next day's work potentially more valuable. For some reason, Sampras's comments on a commitment to being in the arena day in and day out reminded me of one of Kent Beck's early bits of writing on XP, in which he proclaimed that, and the end of the day, if you hadn't produced some code, you probably had not given your customer any value. I think Sampras felt similarly. Finally, this paragraph from a man who never changed the model of racket he used throughout his career, even as technology made it possible for lesser players to serve bigger and hit more powerful ground strokes. Here he speaks of the court on which his legend grew beyond ordinary proportion, Centre Court at the All England Club:
I enjoyed the relative "softness" of the court; it was terrific to feel the sod give gently beneath my feet with every step. I felt catlike out there, like I was on a soft play mat where I could do as I pleased without worry, fear, or excessive wear and tear. Centre Court always made me feel connected to my craft, and the sophisticated British crowd enhanced that feeling. It was a pleasure to play before them, and they inspired me to play my best. Wimbledon is a shrine, and it was always a joy to perform there.
Whatever else the agile crowd is about, feeling connected to the craft of making software is at its heart. I like to use tools that give gently beneath my feet, that let me make progress without worry and fear. Even ordinary craftsmen such as I appreciate these feelings. -----