Trying Too Hard/The 90% Rule

Posted on March 16th, 2017 by

One of my pet peeves is when I hear an announcer say, “Well, they may not have won, but they gave it 110%!”  Or a coach, “Unless you’re giving me 110%, go home right now!”  I want to say to them, “Were you not required to take math when you were growing up?”

Full effort, one of TLC’s Three Crowns, means just that.  Full effort.  The maximum percent that is possible is 100%.  Give it your all.  Whatever you have in you, give it.  And you don’t have 110%, that is humanly impossible, so take that weight off your shoulders right now.  As a matter of fact, trying to give 110% is just counterproductive.

So today I am going to propose something different, where an equal amount of people will be as irritated with me as I am with the “110 percenters”.

I propose, in certain situations, that Full Effort should be 90%.

Stay with me on this.  Let me give a couple examples from both tennis and life.

Steve playing for the University of Iowa. Look at his concentration!

I was playing against a friend recently who is better than I am.  In order to win against him, I have to dial in and play my best.  When I was closing to the net on one particular point and had an easy put-away in my sights, I put it away, alright.  Right outside the sideline by two feet.  I stopped and thought.  “Hmmmm, I do this against him more than against other opponents of equal or lesser ability.  Why?”  The answer that came to me was, I was not a victim of not trying hard enough, but a victim of trying too hard.  Trying to do too much when “enough” will do.  And that hindered my ability to compete most effectively.

Certainly, this is a testament to my opponent’s greater skills, that he forces me to go for more difficult shots and angles than I am accustomed to in order to win points.  But, ultimately, I realized that I was changing my game in a different, fundamentally negative way by trying too hard.  I was going for too much, instead of trusting my knowledge and ability on the court when I have set up a point well, thus digging an even deeper hole with unforced errors.  I stood there and decided, “I am going to hit everything at 90% from here on out.”

Immediately, everything changed.  I started playing “within” myself.  I was calmer, and, surprisingly, I was staying in more points and putting them away when I had the opportunity.  He was still better than I was, but my game elevated because of the “90% Rule”.

The brilliance of Steve Wilkinson as a player was he looked like he was hardly moving.  He floated across the tennis court.  Effortless.  He didn’t try to do too much on the court, he tried to do the appropriate amount for his skills and the situation.  There is a reason he won championship after championship.  Steve moved on court the way my spouse, Leandra, sings.  Effortless.  It flows naturally.  There is a reason City Pages named her Female Vocalist of the year and critics around the country were mesmerized by her voice when we were doing concert tours full time.

Steve, in tennis, had cat-like quickness and instincts and anticipated beautifully, but never put more into a shot than he needed.  He was the player that most reminded me of Federer in that regard.

The lovely and talented Leandra Peak

Leandra, in music, sings the same way.  She opens her mouth and these magical sounds emerge as if they are flowing through her, not as if she were producing them or trying to manipulate them herself.

I, on the other hand, as witnessed above, can stutter and stumble and dive and push myself around the tennis court unnecessarily at times.  I can, as a singer, try to emote to the point where the point is lost in the trying too hard to get the point across.  (Wow, three “points” in one sentence!  That’s exactly what I’m talking about).

So, where can we, who are mere mortals on the court or in song, or in life, learn a lesson from these masters?

It is in that secret I discovered that works for myself when I am pressing too hard on the tennis court, or trying too hard to get my point across in concert or a presentation or as a teacher, or trying too hard to impress someone else of my significance in the world.  (Next blog:  “Lessons in Reducing Narcissistic Tendencies”).

I stop myself and say, “Dial it back to 90%, buddy.  You’re gonna be okay.”

What is amazing is that everything starts to flow more naturally and effortlessly, and my dialed back 90% is actually the 100% I’m looking for.

All this is to say, what I really hope to hear just one time in my life, is a coach yelling from the sidelines, “I believe in you, team!  So go out there and give it 90%!”

But never again 110 ;).

P.S.  I’ll leave you with what “effortless full effort” sounds like to me.  Click here to hear Leandra singing When You Come To The End Of The Day.

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  1. Steph says:


  2. Mike Speer says:

    Interesting thought. I definitely play like the 100% Neal when I play someone better than me. I always press and go past my abilities in shot selections. I ask too much of myself. Love the post!. Definitely good advice! I was in this situation often as I was #1 on my high school tennis team, but would have been a lot better at 2 or 3 or 6 :-). Did I mention that I was in this situation often? Sometimes I might catch fire and get the lead, but I would rarely ever hang on to one. I got up 7-0 on the Iowa State Champion and lost 10-7. It’s hard to sustain it for an entire match. I do have a small tweak to offer based on a recent match I was lucky enough to attend earlier this week with Kaily. I was quite impressed with Nick Krygios tactics in his win over Djokovic. He picked a handful of points and went bigger on them. They were all situations where he was ahead and it really frustrated Djokovic. He really got in Novak’s head doing this. Nick aced him with several second serves. I would say that situationally, especially in shot selection, it’s ok to push your limits as a tactic, but to have the discipline to execute it within your abilities and not overhit it can be challenging. Nick did this well against Novak. His second serve aces were a good example of what I mean as they were all hit at about the speed halfway between his normal first and second serve. I guess I am arguing for 95% situationally. Ha!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I’ll meet you at 92 1/2% ;). Kyrgios’ tactics sound smart, too, because he took the risks when he was ahead. I usually get in trouble because I take the risks when I’m behind! And Kyrgios is such a role model of sportsmanship to take after, there’s always that :).

  3. Barb says:

    I said nothing about “moderation”

  4. Barb says:

    Leandra’s voice, your advice, and Steve’s picture are worth a million dollars. Thanks.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      And that is about the most wonderful thing I could ever hear from you, Barb. Thanks.

  5. Terri Yellowhammer says:

    Thanks for the reminder – it never goes well when I try too hard – I tighten up and overhit. Thank you too for the link to your wife’s beautiful voice. Peace to you. Terri

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You’re welcome, Terri. When ever I get uptight, I listen to Leandra’s singing. Maybe I should wear headphones on court :).

  6. Jordan Pease says:

    Very timely words for challenges I’ve been facing. Such a common problem I’ve faced on and off the court! I so often ask myself “what would Steve say” and your words embody his voice.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Jordan, I was just thinking about you the other day. It’s been a long time but you are always remembered here at TLC with nothing but fondness. Good luck with the challenges. We’re all in the same boat, remember that!

  7. Mark Jones says:

    I am very much going to take this message to heart. I try really really hard on the court, desperately chasing after every ball , and trying to hit way too hard. I need to slow it down give it a full 90% and I am sure it will help my game! Thank you Neal!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You’re welcome, Mark. I think you nailed it for most of us with the “desperately” comment. In all the years I played or watched Steve play, I don’t think I ever once saw him “desperate”, even if he was dramatically behind. Irritated, maybe, but not desperate :). Wish I would have learned this 90% thought when I was younger. But, heck, at 57, I still have a good fifty years left to apply it! 😉

  8. Scott Borene says:

    Neal, thanks for the wise advice.