I was lucky to get some serious inspiration from sports. I played baseball, but tennis was the sport at which I excelled. There was an annual Labor Day Tournament where, heading into the event, I was the second seed, and my doubles partner—now a tennis pro and the former coach to Andre Agassi—was the top seed.

Before the tournament I had it all figured out: I would dominate the rounds leading up to the finals, and then my doubles partner would probably beat me in the finals.

However, when the tournament began, I played so poorly that I barely beat my first three opponents and ended up losing in the quarterfinals. That wasn’t the outcome I’d imagined!

I was upset, humiliated, and felt I had let myself down. Sitting in the clubhouse and acting perfectly miserable, I caught the attention of John, the new club pro. “Is something wrong?” he asked. I whined my way through the day’s events, and he sprang into action. I was about to get the lesson of my life!

John was a professional tennis player, recently off the pro tour after several knee surgeries. He said that I had great form, great talent, and great expectations but that I was mentally lazy. I protested, but he offered to prove it.

“You’ve seen me walk. I can’t bend my right leg,” he said, rolling up his pant leg to show scars like zipper marks that went in two different directions. “Here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll play against your two good legs with my one good leg and this racket,” he said after reaching for a ridiculously warped wooden racket. (This was 1973, when wooden rackets were the preferred choice over clunky metal ones.) “How much are you willing to wager that you can beat me?”

Well, I thought this was free money. Here I was, a very good player and with a good racket. He was crippled and holding a racket with which you couldn’t possibly hit a tennis ball. If I was mentally lazy, surely he was mentally crazy. I had $50 to play with, and he accepted my wager immediately.

He limped and I jogged onto the freshly groomed, green clay court on which I’d spent my youth playing. I served first, a hard serve inside the service court. Imagine my surprise when John set up like a human tripod, bracing himself with the warped wooden racket positioned so that the ball would just bounce back. He didn’t even swing that ridiculous racket, instead allowing the ball to bounce back to me. I approached the net and pounded the ball to the other corner of the court, but John anticipated the move and was already there in tripod position, ready to let the ball bounce back to me.

So the play went. I would pound the ball, and he’d be there already set up, as if he had some Star Trek “beam me up, Scotty” technology. Each time, the ball would bounce back to my side, until I’d get frustrated, make a mistake, and lose the point.

As the set progressed, about the only thing that changed was how long each point lasted. The volleys became fewer, my patience shorter, my frustration greater. By now, you can gather that this tour-hardened professional with one good leg and a warped racket beat me 6–0. I didn’t even win a single point.

We returned to the clubhouse lounge, and after my embarrassment and anger subsided, he replayed the entire set—point-for-point and almost ball-for-ball—to explain everything I did mentally to get in my own way, raise my level of frustration, and eventually beat myself.

He went on to share some of the best lessons on goal setting, motivation, inspiration, and controlling my emotions that I would ever hear, and I’ve been teaching them ever since. “Your tournament goal was to get into the finals—nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But you didn’t have a more specific goal or a plan that you could execute. You have the skills, desire, and good intentions, and you’re a better player than the other players you met today. Without setting specific goals and making a plan to achieve them you are unprepared for what is to come, haven’t rehearsed for the various possible outcomes, and won’t be able to control your reactions. You’re being mentally lazy.”

He said that before I could win a tournament I had to win a match. Before I could win a match I had to win a set. Before I could win a set I had to win a game. Before I could win a game I had to win a point. Before I could win a point I had to return the ball one more time than my opponent did. And, most importantly, before I could return the ball one more time than my opponent could I had to get to where the ball would be, set myself up, and be in a position to hit it before the ball arrived. He said, “And if you perfect that one thing—taking care of positioning, setting up, and executing, returning the ball where you want it to go—and do it consistently, you will beat everyone you ever play against!”

It was so simple—and it took time to get it right—but that lesson propelled my tennis game to the next level and formed the foundation of my future career in sales development consulting.

How does that lesson apply to you? Suppose your goal is to land a great new job. You can’t land that job until you interview with a decision maker. You can’t interview with a decision maker until you have a phone conversation with someone in Human Resources. You can’t have a conversation with HR until you call them. You can’t call them until you’ve responded to a newspaper ad or Internet posting by submitting your résumé. You can’t submit your résumé until you identify a position for which you are qualified.

If you perfect one thing—dialing the phone and having effective conversations with prospective employers—and do it consistently, you will get that great new job you are looking to land.

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by what we have to do. Other times, we aren’t properly prepared to accomplish our goals. The next time you find yourself in either of these situations, ask yourself the following questions.

What are the components or steps that would lead to a successful outcome?
In what order must these steps be accomplished?
What must be done in order to complete each step successfully?
When can you start?
How much time do you need?
What resources do you require?
Is your plan realistic?
When you’re feeling overwhelmed or you need to make sure that you are properly prepared, break the goal down into the smallest manageable parts by following the simple steps outlined above.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit http://www.selfgrowth.com/greatways2.html.

Author's Bio: 

Dave Kurlan is the founder of Objective Management Group, Inc. (http://www.objectivemanagement.com).

He is a top-rated speaker, internationally known for his ground-breaking work in evaluating salespeople, and the developer of the Dave Kurlan Sales Force Profile and other sales development tools. He is the author of Mindless Selling and Baseline Selling—How to Become a Sales Superstar by Using What You Already Know about the Game of Baseball (http://BaselineSelling.com). He writes Understanding the Sales Force (http://OMGEvaluation.Blogspot.com) and The World of Sales and Selling (http://www.squidoo.com/davekurlan). He is featured in Inc. magazine’s video, How to Increase Sales and Profits by 1000%.