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The inner path that leads to success
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I'm reading
The inner path that leads to success
Pass it on
Pass it on
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The inner path that leads to success
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
18 March 2020

The inner path that leads to success

Tennis champion John Millman on discovering that success is an inside job

Written by John Millman

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

This story was written prior to the suspension of the current tennis season due to COVID-19. 

Late 2014, dressed in a suit and tie, I found myself walking along Brisbane’s iconic Kangaroo Point cliffs on my way home from a Christmas work party, the city’s skyline lit up the background. If I had wanted to I would have been able to see the office building I had been working in.

The past five months had not been easy for me physically, but even less so mentally. For me the physical pain was pretty straight forward. The diagnosis I had been given was a torn labrum of my right shoulder — bad news for a tennis player — with potentially a 12-month rehabilitation period and no guarantees of a full recovery. The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse; I was about to compete in my first main draw of the French Open. A tournament I had dreamed of playing since I was a kid was still that — a dream more distant than ever.

Where the physical pain was black and white, the mental hurt was completely grey. It’s easy to talk in facts and tell people the details of the injury. Most of the time that’s the only question you get asked. The tougher question to answer is, “How are you coping. Is everything alright?”

For me that question was so difficult to answer for two reasons. Firstly, I tend to keep my emotional and personal issues locked away. On the outside I find it easy to have a laugh and tell a story, but internally that other stuff concerning how much I was hurting was something I didn’t want to admit to anyone. Secondly, I don’t think too many people are comfortable asking themselves that question. “Are you okay?” in the first place.

I can’t put my finger on what exactly it was about that night. Whether it was the red wines, the alluring city lights or perhaps divine intervention, an invisible helping hand that forced me to ask myself that very question, “Are you okay, mate?” Whatever it was helped me realise just how unhappy I was feeling. By the time I got home the tears were coming in thick and fast but my mother was there to assist me in making a plan on how I could be happy again. For me that plan involved leaving no stone unturned, fully focusing on getting my shoulder right and chasing that tennis dream one last time.

Of equal importance in rehabilitating the shoulder was also the process I had to undertake in rehabilitating the mind, for I soon realised this would be just as important. I could have engaged in sessions with sports psychologists or life coaches but instead I took a different route. I already had such a supportive network of friends and family around me and quite simply it was time to open up to them — to be honest and allow them to help me. It’s funny because I believe that despite having these people care about me more than anything, they were the ones I found it most difficult to share my feelings with. Once I started engaging them more in my recovery process my mind started healing.

There are no guarantees in tennis. It’s a top-heavy sport where probably only 100 players earn a decent living and the others are scrapping it out trying to break through. Most play their whole career and never make a main draw of a grand slam — a point here and there can make all the difference. What you can do is control the controllables. You can surround yourself with good people. You can push yourself as hard possible and approach each day with the intention to get a little better. Maybe you’ll fall short of your goals, but you can look at yourself in the mirror and say to yourself that you did everything you could. For me that is extremely satisfying. That is what I realised would make me happy: to do everything possible and if I pulled up short then so be it, but at least I gave it a proper crack.

What transpired after that night was something that I could not have imagined. After seven more months of shoulder rehabilitation, I started my journey again at the lowest level of professional tennis and went all the way to playing against the world’s best on the biggest stages. It’s been a heck of a ride. Some highlights include representing my country in Davis Cup, going to an Olympic Games and competing in Grand Slams. It’s been extremely satisfying, more so knowing where I had come from and how close I came to giving it away.

I often think back to the walk home that night and can’t help but remember the kid who was at a crossroads, Brisbane city lights in the background. Looking back now and weighing up the obstacles he was about to face I realise that was my career-defining moment and I’m so thankful that the kid decided to give it one last go.

John Millman

John Millman is a professional tennis player who’s been playing tennis since age 4. The biggest win of his career came in 2018 when he won a grand slam match against Roger Federer in the US Open.

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