A personal story about what I believe the “pathway” to becoming a successful athlete looks like
Ever wondered what leads someone to become a professional athlete? Is it all natural ability, or does it really all come down to hard work? While every athlete has a different story, former Olympian, NBA player, NBL Champion and MVP Chris Anstey, shares his story with us so what set him on the path to competing at the highest level of his sport.
noun: “a way of achieving a specified result; a course of action”
There is no “right” path to your personal best. Each step on every path comes with choices, scenery, companions, and stories! There are, however, right habits and behaviours required to stay on each path.
I grew up playing tennis.
I remember playing make believe tournaments in the concrete squares of our 2-car carport in Keilor. I had a chalk net drawn on the wall. The back groove was the baseline. Every rally was between two players, “McEnroe, Edberg, McEnroe, Edberg” until someone missed. Then it was 15-0. I would play tournaments of 5 set matches over days and weeks. My touch and my reflexes were improving each day without me really knowing.
Like most junior tennis players, I took tennis lessons and played club tennis. I found a home at Maribyrnong Park Tennis Club, and the team I went through my junior tennis years with remain some of my best friends.
When school holidays rolled around, and it was time to for tournament play, the only partner I ever had was Dustin Fletcher. Dustin and I were both decent singles players.
Consistency from the baseline was not either of our strengths, but as a doubles combination when length, reflexes and touch were more important, we were really good.
Most school holidays, the Fletchers and the Ansteys would load the car, attach a caravan, and hit the road. Our families would holiday while Dustin and I competed.
While I moved well, I was very pigeon-toed when I was young. One day after school, Dad took me to the local Keilor Football Club and introduced me to a running coach. I needed to move more efficiently, to straighten up.
My running practice came each day trying to beat the school bus home from North Keilor. I had a 10-minute start and needed to run 5km. I wasn’t just running faster and more efficiently; I was getting fitter and stronger.
Each year, Dustin and I improved. We had different coaches who pushed us in different ways. For me, it was consistency. What spots could I hit? Could I build a point instead of trying to hit early winners? My coach, Ken Jorgensen, put it to me simply – “the player who hits the ball in last wins every point”.
Every drill I had to hit the ball in the deepest quarter of the court, right by the sideline. I served hundreds of serves until I could knock down empty tennis ball cans placed in corners. My misses became closer, my consistency improved. I was beating some of the best players in the state.
Dustin and I were starting to play in bigger tournaments each school holiday. We learnt each other’s habits and how to read each other. We believed we could beat anyone in Australia.
And for 4 years we did. Even in Victoria’s biggest tournament, the Schoolboys Championships at the National Tennis Centre, we did not lose a match for 4 years.
Each year, we would enter tournaments we had won the previous year to find ourselves seeded below pairs of more recognised singles players. Each year we beat these pairs.
Still, neither of us was ever selected to represent Victoria. Clearly, we were missing something and thought we were better than what we actually were.
I remember the phone call from Dustin when we were 16. He told me that he had made the decision to pursue football.
Kevin Sheedy had watched a handful of the school games he had played for Essendon Grammar, and was fascinated by his length, speed, and ability to read the ball in the air.
After Dustin had been there for a year, Sheedy also invited me to Bombers training. I turned up and spoke to him about how open minded I was, and that I would love to spend some time training with the Bombers. The only catch turned out to be a massive one: there were no size 18 football boots in Australia. We gave up looking after a month and found a pair of basketball shoes.
I learned later that it was the same qualities in my skill set that Sheedy noticed in Dustin that fascinated a couple of basketball people that saw a skinny 17-year old kid playing his first ever game of basketball for his younger brother’s team one week night at Keilor stadium.
After phone calls from the Nunawading Spectres and the Melbourne Tigers junior basketball associations, I agreed to go down to train with each club.
I joined the Melbourne Tigers Under 18.1 team half-way through their season. I was introduced to the team by our coach Des Middleton as a kid who had never played the game and would need some teaching. My teammates were more patient than I knew at the time. They got to know me, and took the time to teach me, and each other, during practice.
While Des and the Tigers took the time to introduce me and make me feel comfortable, the Nunawading Spectres head coach at the time gave me a nod as I walked into their packed stadium and yelled across the court at me to join in.
I had never seen a basketball training session, let alone participate in one. I did not know the language. I walked out of Nunawading Stadium 10 minutes after I walked in, nervous and intimidated, without speaking a word to anyone.
Without Des Middleton, I would likely have never played another game of basketball. Because of Des, I grew to love the sport and the people in it.
Because we both started our sports later than most, Dustin and I were starting with a blank canvas. Neither of us had developed the bad habits over our junior years that most players tend to. It is much harder to unlearn a skill than it is to learn one. The first time he kicked a footy, and I shot a basketball, we were technically sound.
On a basketball court, all I knew was to sprint the middle of the floor every single time and try to get to every rebound.
What I did not realise was that while I was so far behind most players in most measurable performance areas of my game, I was so far ahead in many others.
NBL Assistant Coach Al Westover also coached the Melbourne Tigers Under 20 team. Every day I turned up to the old Albert Park Basketball Stadium and shot with him for hours. I ran sprints on the back courts when he had meetings. I lifted weights before I was told to. I worked harder and longer than I thought was possible at the time.
I only had 3 head coaches in my first 6 years of basketball. I will be forever grateful that Des Middleton, Al Westover, and Brian Goorjian all prioritised development over winning and rewarded effort over skill.
Across town, Dustin was a year into his AFL career. Kevin Sheedy had rewarded him with his first AFL game while he was still in Year 12 and thrown him into the ruck against Carlton legend Justin Madden.
Sheedy discovered very quickly that Dustin was better suited as a defender than a ruckman or a forward. Each week he matched him up on superstars of the AFL- Ablett, Lockett, Dunstall. Every week Fletch was getting beaten. Every week Sheedy persevered and taught Dustin.
In the 1993 AFL Grand Final, less than 2 years after playing his first game, I watched my doubles partner line up at Full Back on Stephen Kernahan and become a part of the “Baby Bombers” Premiership team.
Tennis taught Dustin and I important skills that allowed us to transition into successful careers in different sports. We had needed to be agile, to have good reflexes, good touch and be able to read a ball in flight.
We thought we were on the pathway to becoming great tennis players but learnt that there are other paths if you choose to step off one. To this day we think we reinforced the fact that pathways are nothing more than suggestions. There are usually many ways to get to where you aspire to be, and you get to choose which one, or ones, to travel down.
As a coach later in life, I love multi-sport athletes. Their capacity to learn various physical and mental skills combined with their versatility blend incredibly well with more seasoned single-sport athletes. Years of observation would also teach me that multi-sport athletes have a reduced likelihood of burnout in their teenage years.
As multi-sport athletes, Dustin and I also learnt that there is never only one destination, or goal. My goal of playing Wimbledon became my goal to play in the NBA, and the change in my life was as exciting as it was unexpected.
Sporting bodies do not recommend a pathway to their highest level via another sport. It does not suit their own narrative. Multi-sport athletes are sadly becoming a thing of the past as fewer coaches recognise transferrable skills. So many junior coaches measure success as wins and losses each weekend.
Dustin and I were both fortunate to have coaches who took the time to develop us, to allow us to fail while always keeping our bigger picture in mind.
They set us on new and exciting pathways, ones that I never dreamed of, that had a massive part in defining our lives.
Be brave enough to try new things, to find your own pathway, and create your own narrative. It is hard to be passionate about something you have never tried.
We are all creatures of habit. When was the last time you did something for the first time? Go ahead, you might discover a passion you never knew existed, and take your first steps down a brand new, exciting pathway.