Being Grateful is Acceptance in its Purest Form:
Jeff Greenwald is a well-known sport psychology consultant who, for twenty-two years, has been helping junior, professional, and amateur athletes overcome the anxieties that often arise during competitive sports. Jeff grew up in Westport, Connecticut. He attended the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, starting at age 12 and later from ages 16-18. By 1983, he earned the No. 2 ranking in New England and No. 59 in the U.S. for Boys’ 16. Later, after finishing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1988—where he was the number one player and also the team captain—Jeff joined the ATP tour, and eventually gained a ranking of 795 in the world. During his time as a professional tennis player, he became deeply curious about the connection between the mind and body and how they interact during high pressure moments of athletic competition.
Wishing to explore this topic further, he left the tour and enrolled at John F. Kennedy University in the Bay Area and received master’s degrees in clinical psychology and sports psychology. In 1998, Jeff opened Mental Edge International in order to help struggling athletes reach their potential. He also wanted to apply the skills he had learned through school and counseling, so Jeff started to play in Open tournaments in California. Eventually he became the No. 1 ITF senior player in the world in 2002 in the men’s 35 age division and has since won eleven National Titles and two ITF World Championships. In 2007 he published a book that has been widely read by tennis players around the world, The Best Tennis of Your Life: 50 Mental Strategies for Fearless Performance. Jeff was also recently inducted in the Northern California USTA Hall of Fame.
Jeff’s road to sports psychology, and his curiosity about how our cognitive processes effect our physiological reactions, has been a lifelong journey. What parts of his childhood growing up in Westport, Connecticut, his time at the famed Bollettieri Tennis Academy, his years on the ATP tour, and other life experiences have influenced his decision to pursue his career in sports psychology? Here with 10 questions, we find out more about Jeff’s evolution towards becoming an internationally recognized figure in the field of sports psychology.
10 Questions for Jeff Greenwald
You grew up in Westport, Connecticut. What is your earliest childhood memory, and why do you think it is important?
The memory of mine that comes up for me most often is from when I was seven. I was in the back of my mother’s car and my brother was in the front seat. We were driving in downtown Westport. There were no seat belts at the time, and I was crawling over the seats because I was a pretty active boy, and I thought to myself as I looked around, “Jeff, don’t ever forget this moment. You are seven years old, driving in the car with your mother and brother. When you’re older, you’ll have this to look back on.” And I proceeded to name the stores as we were passing by as a way to make the memory stick, so that when I was older, I would be able to remember the feeling. For me, it was a moment of total awareness of time, and—in hindsight—a good point of reference for how I was, even at a young age, always very conscientious of the greater meaning of life.
You went to the Bollettieri Tennis Academy at a young age. How did this experience shape your career in tennis, and perhaps contribute to the performance anxiety you experienced on the ATP tour?
I went down when I was twelve-years old, and I was there from September to December, but it felt like a year at least at the time. Then I went back home for two and half years, and I played like crazy, but I went back to Bollettieri again for my junior and most of my senior years of high school. At twelve, it was sort of overwhelmingly lonely. I made friends there, but it was definitely a “lord of the flies” situation and it was, as far as tennis goes, kill or be killed. The academy was emotionally very challenging, but it also gave me the experience of having pressure on court—every single day. It gave me insight into finding a way to win, because you knew your performance would be written down and it would determine which court you would be put on next. It was good for tennis in that respect because it made me more competitive, and to be put in situations where you had to figure out how to win was helpful, but we didn’t have anyone helping us grow as players. There is no question that my experience at the Academy, and its extreme emphasis on winning and losing, contributed to my tendency to get tight when I felt pressure. Later in the ATP tour, I still had not developed the tools to help me with the mental side of the game—I didn’t have any tactics—and because the pressure was so intense, I didn’t play my best. From Bollettieri, all I knew to do was run, fight, get the ball back, and never give up.
Do you wish you had stayed on the ATP tour longer, and found a way to conquer your performance anxiety while you were playing as a professional tennis player?
I was desperate to stop, because of the monotony, the intensity, and the lifestyle. I wish that I had found a coach, like the person I ultimately found, Tim Gullikson, earlier—which would have allowed me to play to my potential. Tim asked me to come off the tour for six months so he could get me into the shape, because he believed I could be very good. What’s done is done and, in the end, I am grateful that at my age I can still hit a tennis ball. I still love tennis, it’s a miracle. Perhaps if I had stayed on the pro tour longer this would not be true today
One of your focal points in sports psychology is the concept of playing without fear. Before you came to this realization, what do you think you were most afraid of when you were court, especially on the ATP tour?
I was afraid of the disappointment, after having to go back to my hotel room all alone, and then having to wait a whole week to play another tournament to redeem myself. Because of this fear, every time I played a match, I was thinking “Jeff, don’t lose this.” Living this way, you’re basically alive if you’re still in the tournament, and if you lose, you’re dead. There was a feeling of emptiness after a loss, and I was absolutely afraid of that emotion. I wanted the feeling of temporary elation that comes after winning. Back then every point felt like it was three points because it was so stressful, and every point felt so important. Now that I am able to play differently, and enjoy my time on court, every point feels like almost somehow less than a point. I have a completely different focus, and it is more about feeling good during the match.
When were you first able to play competitive tennis with this new mindset?
It would have been in Germany, where I lived from 1993-1995, playing league tennis. I started to experience tennis differently, as I developed the perspective that it is a game and it should be fun, as opposed to almost life and death, as it felt for me on the tour. Also, part of it was that I was coaching tennis there, so I was naturally immersed in trying to teach the game, and when we teach the game we learn too. So, I started to become more cognizant of the mental aspects of the game.
Another one of your cornerstones is the concept of gratitude. You say in your book that “Being grateful is acceptance in its purest form.” When did you come to this conclusion, and when did you yourself become so grateful?
In relation to my early moment of awareness in the car with my mother and brother, and me telling myself, “Jeff, remember this moment, life is fragile,” I would say I was feeling grateful quite early. As I got older, and I was 29 or 30, I became even more acutely aware of the importance of gratitude. It may be related to the accident of Christopher Reeves—I loved Superman growing up—and the juxtaposition of Superman, obviously an actor, being paralyzed really affected me. His accident happened around the time I was turning 30, and I don’t know it hit me, and I started to better appreciate that I could still hit a tennis ball.
One of your favorite books is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In this he wrote “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” How has this concept influenced your approach to tennis?
This book, more than any other, floored me. The quote on success is exactly what I believe. The importance of Man’s Search for Meaning I think emerged during my time in Germany when I became more acutely aware of the Holocaust. I am inspired by people who can transcend the normal human response and who demonstrate tremendous resiliency under pressure. I really took away from Frankl the idea that every person can chose their attitude in any given set of circumstances. I appreciate the strength of the human spirit and competitive tennis has always been an arena to “play” with all of this.
You received your undergraduate degree from the UC Santa Barbara. How did your college education contribute to your future career as a sports psychologist? Who were important theorists for you?
I majored in sociology and psychology and was fascinated by human behavior and how people’s behavior changed in group settings. These subjects were a perfect combination for me. As a scholarship player and team captain at UCSB, I was particularly fascinated by the team dynamic and how our performance as a team tended to fluctuate based on our individual and collective moods and sense of momentum. For example, my doubles partner and I would create certain “mantras” in matches to help us keep perspective in pressure moments. In graduate school, I was also interested in narrative and family therapy (Michael White, Salvador Minuchin and Murray Bowen), which is how human beings deal with experience by telling stories, listening to the stories of others and how this played out in families and within teams.
If you can pick one, what has been your favorite tennis match that you have played in your entire life?
That’s tough but I think the one that would stand out would be 1985 in Vermont playing in the finals of the Volvo Juniors Classic, outdoors at Stratton Mt. Vermont. McEnroe and Lendl are waiting to come on court to play in the Men’s Singles. I was 18 years old and I was up against the number one player in New England (I was No.2). My family was there. I was playing Gordie Ernst and was down 5-2 in the third set, but I dug deep and eventually won by 7-6. My brother, Jamie, in particular was so excited for me. That match was particularly gratifying and one that I recall fondly. Having family there for my matches has always been important to me. Winning without anybody—with no friends or family in the audience—sometimes had a bit of a hollow feel to it.
You were recently inducted into the Northern California USTA Hall of Fame. Did this award mean a great deal to you? How do you compare it to winning a national tournament, like at La Jolla or Santa Barbara?
It was a total surprise for me. I did not think I would be acknowledged, so it was incredibly gratifying to be recognized. In comparison, winning a national title like the over 40 at La Jolla or the over 50 at Santa Barbara, is certainly gratifying, but more short-term. The Hall of Fame award has more enduring quality to it that I really appreciate as it recognizes given how much of myself I have devoted to the game and the time I’ve spent with countless junior players over the years.
—Edited from an interview conducted on March 24, 2020