Becoming a Pro

Lalo Portillo: Building a Brand

In December, we published what some might consider a controversial article featuring Markie Rojas. Within this article, we highlighted the financial struggle many players on racquetball tour experience: relying on prize money from tournament successes is not a sustainable financial model. Our article was not written to criticize tours, players, or tournament directors. Rather, a goal of RYDF is to actively help those in racquetball overcome challenges just like this. We see ourselves as part of the solution. However, sometimes to offer solutions, problems must be identified.

So how does a player not only financially survive as a professional but profit from it? Some do, such as Rocky Carson and Paola Longoria, and one young RYDF supported player is in the early stages of attempting to replicate their success. We caught up with Mexican Lalo Portillo to learn more about what he is doing to make his racquetball career a success on and off the court.

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Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Lalo Portillo and I am from Mexico. I am 18 years old and I am currently living in Seattle because I am in an Intensive Program to learn English. One day I would like to be a pilot and to do that I need to speak fluent English. I have been at the school for one semester and I will finish my second semester in March. I have one sister in Mexico who is in her last year in high school. My dad is a civil engineer and my mom stays at home and takes care of the family.

 

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What about racquetball? When did you start and how successful have you been?

I began playing racquetball when I was six years old. I used to live in Querétaro where I did gymnastics, but my family moved to San Luis Potosi and gymnastics was too expensive there. Instead, my dad would bring me to the racquetball courts because my parents were members of the club and it was free for me.

The first tournament I won was the Mexican junior nationals at age seven. It was a multibounce event, which qualified me for the junior world championships, which I also won. I have won many junior national titles in Mexico as well as world titles. In 2017, I won the 18s doubles title at the World Juniors but lost to Mauro Rojas in the final of the 18s singles.

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What are your racquetball goals?

I want to be the best racquetball player in the world one day. That is one of my goals. But another goal I have is to be the youngest player to ever win the US Open.

You have been much more visible on social media recently. Why are you doing that?

Well, there are two reasons. The first is to help grow racquetball and share the sport with other people who may not know too much about it. I want more people to know what it is and maybe it encourages them to want to play it also. If I can, I want to use social media to present racquetball to those who do not know what it is. The other purpose is to help build my image and brand to help me get more sponsors.

 

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Can you explain what you mean by building your brand?

Yes. I want to be a professional racquetball player, but I know that at the moment there is not a lot of money in the sport. If you win first place in a tournament you can make some money, but that is very hard to do. But many players in other sports make a lot of money from sponsors, and sometimes they make more money from sponsors than their prize money. They do not even have to be the best player, but if they are very popular, the sponsor wants to work with them. I think it is important to try to be like that.

Paola Longoria is a very good example of what you can do to make money from sponsors that are not normally part of racquetball. Her popularity in Mexico helps her to make money and makes racquetball more popular. Of course, it helps that she is successful on the court!

I am not just doing this to get sponsors so that I have more money. Well, I do want more sponsors to have more money, but I need more money in order to travel to more pro stops. If I can play more and better players, I can learn more quickly and gain more experience. Sponsors can help me go to tournaments, which helps me improve my racquetball skills, which helps me earn more prize money by getting better results in tournaments.

How did this start and what specific things are you doing to build your image?

I have been working with GOAT Sports Performance for the last few months. We are developing a plan to grow my image and develop a sponsorship plan. One of the videos that I watched that GOAT Sports made was an interview with Gearbox Sports owner Rafael Filippini. He talked about how to promote yourself as an athlete and gave examples of players who understood they were their own business. Since watching the video, I have been talking with Rafael and getting his advice so that I can learn from the best.

I have also started creating instructional videos about racquetball and have a playlist of videos I have made so far. I am slowly making short videos to help those who might be interested in learning more about racquetball skills and technique.

 The last thing I am doing is to create video logs about my racquetball and life experiences. I want to be able to share with people my experiences studying in America, traveling to tournaments, and what it is like to be a professional racquetball player. I am really excited about this and I want to show people my experiences and adventures playing racquetball. I am hoping to travel a lot this year, which will give me lots of great material!

What are your plans for the near future?

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I am still a junior player in Mexico, but I want to try and qualify for China if possible. The competition is very hard in Mexico but I want to get the experience. I will also compete in the junior national championships in Mexico, but I hope to be able to compete in many pro stops this year. I am grateful to RYDF for helping me over the past several months to travel to some of these tournaments. Without their help, I could not have gained so much experience.

Summary

Developing a social media presence that might attract sponsors is a long-term project, and cannot be accomplished through short-term efforts. It requires consistent work to develop a brand and image that is attractive to potential sponsors. As an 18 year old, Lalo is a young professional that understands the value of social media. Within this interview, he has shown how he has learned from others, such as Rafael Filippini, and has begun making specific efforts to grow his visibility.

While unfortunate, the current reality of professional racquetball is that athletes must find sources beyond prize money to support their careers. This is a difficult task, and requires substantial work. However, should Lalo succeed in securing sponsors and building a larger social media presence over the next several years, it is important to recognize the longevity of this effort, which began in 2018.

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Understanding Anxiety and Nerves

by

Dr. Tim Baghurst

www.goatsports.pro

Ice skating requires perfect timing in a very visible environment.

Ice skating requires perfect timing in a very visible environment.

If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, you’ve seen some of the finest athletes on the planet compete for the greatest prize in their sport. Some athletes have risen to the occasion, doing their very best when it mattered most. Yet some have not, and we have seen many, many catastrophic failures on ice and snow.

Why is this? An athlete trains for years for this very moment, and when it comes, they fall short. They train countless hours to become physically perfect but break down mentally in the big moment.

A great example of this came during the ice dancing. American duo of Hubbell and Donohue were in third place after the short program, and a good performance in the long program could put them in the history books.

But, as reporter Christine Brennan states, “… they started off a bit raggedly on their twizzles, one of the staples of any ice dance program, and doubt suddenly crept in. ‘I think we both had a little bit of a moment mentally,’ Hubbell said. ‘We knew everybody was skating very strong in the event, and we knew that it was going to be very close.’”

Another lapse in concentration and another mistake soon found the Americans completely out of the medal picture. Simple routines done thousands of times in practice became complicated.  Suddenly the pair could not keep it together, and found themselves going home without a medal.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety can be easily confused with fear and stress. Fear is the presence of a specific, observable danger. Something tangible, such as a tree falling toward you, is a danger and can cause fear. Stress is caused by the perception that you do not have the resources to cope with the situation.

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Anxiety is the perception of a threat to a person’s essential value. It may be a physical (injury), psychological (shame), or interpersonal (loss of respect) threat.   A sports example is a coach who tells an athlete to play a new position immediately before an event. If the athlete doesn’t think they can play that position, they are likely to become stressed.

In most sporting situations, there is no need to be fearful. Stress can and does occur, but it’s anxiety which is most common. More specifically, athletes experience anxiety or get nervous when they place expectations upon themselves that would otherwise not exist. Examples include:

·         “What if I lose?”

·         “What if I win?”

·         “I’ll let so many people down if I don’t play well.”

·         “This match is more important to me.”

·         “Coach said it’s on me to win this.”

Anxiety is a very complex topic; not something that can be explained or trained in a short article. However, recognize that some athletes are more likely to get nervous than others. It is part of their personality.

Also understand that nerves can be both mentally and physically harmful. An athlete who is nervous will most likely be thinking negatively, which impacts their performance through feelings of self-doubt and fear of failure, but they will also experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, nausea, and sweating. All these lead to negative outcomes and cause the athlete to experience mental and physical fatigue.

When Does Anxiety Occur?

Oftentimes, the assumption is that athletes are most nervous in the big moments. Yes, in many situations that is true, but not because the environment is suddenly different, but rather because the athlete perceives the environment or situation to be different. It is psychological.

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However, nerves may occur more in situations where the pressure is perceived to be greatest. In a big match, where I am a significant underdog, I may experience no nerves, because I do not feel pressured to win. It is not expected of me. Rather, I may experience more nervousness in a situation where I know it will be close.

Here is a good example: get a ball and a bucket and attempt to throw the ball into the bucket from three feet, nine feet, and fifteen feet (if you can create a pressure environment such as in front of an audience then even better). In which situation did you feel the most pressure? My guess is at nine feet. Why? Well, three feet was simple and at fifteen feet you knew it would be very difficult and there would be no judgement if you missed. But at nine feet, making the shot is possible. The same applies to sporting situations. You may have an easy match, and an impossible match, but that one in the middle might be the one which creates the anxiety.

Controlling Anxiety

Nerves are very individual specific, and there is no secret sauce that fixes nerves. Unfortunately, many coaches tell their athletes to “just relax” but are not relaxed themselves and have never taught their athletes how to relax. Meditation, breathing techniques, and physical techniques such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation are all valuable tools in controlling anxiety, but they take time and training to master.

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Athletes who recognize they are nervous are taking the first step in addressing it. One recommendation for the short term is to interpret nervousness with excitement. Excitement is not a bad thing and can help performance. Unfortunately, too many athletes see anxiety as a negative and therefore focus on negative thinking. Instead, athletes should try seeing nerves as a positive tool. Why the excitement? Usually because the opportunity exists for success.

Summary

Nerves are common within sports and racquetball is no exception. They typically stem from the athlete placing too much pressure on themselves in specific situations where they perceive a lot is at stake. Coaches may also contribute to this situation. Unfortunately, nerves can cause physical and mental side effects, and as a result, performances decline. Recognizing when an athlete gets nervous is the first step in providing treatment, which can come in both physical and mental forms. 

About RYDF

Please support the mission of RYDF in assisting young athletes from around the world with needed resources to achieve success both on and off the court, and to develop successful careers in sports and life. RYDF accomplishes this through three related programs:

Dream It – Fitness Forever Program

Empowers communities by providing opportunities for youth & families to experience fun, friendship, and lifetime health and fitness through participation in racquet sports. 

Reach It – The Dream Team

Provides emerging professional racquet sport athletes with financial support, mentoring, and career development opportunities to achieve success on the court and in their life.

Live It – Athlete to Professional

Uses experts across disciplines to provide knowledge, skills, tools, and practices to improve performance, build a successful career on and off the court, and give back to the community.

Best Practices For Working And Interacting With Referees

by Dr. Tim Baghurst

www.goatsports.pro


Referees: the word evokes a variety of images and feelings for many. To some, they can be a second opponent. But to others, they are a support, and an assurance that the best player will emerge the winner, and not the one who complained the most.

Years ago, I was a FIFA certified soccer referee. As one might imagine, I endured plenty of challenges in that role. However, in 2010 that I became involved in refereeing international racquetball. Since then, I have continued to serve as an international referee, and these experiences have allowed me to see and deal with all kinds of situations. The purpose of this article is not to share my stories, but to explain how these experiences can be used to develop best practices for athletes and coaches when interacting with officials.


Trained Versus Untrained Officials

Although a generalization, trained and qualified referees are much easier to work and communicate with. It is expected that those with some form of training (there are different kinds) have a basic understanding of the rules and care enough about officiating that they have taken the time to get training. That is a good start. Therefore, you can and should have greater trust in their knowledge of the rules.

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Often in local tournaments, racquetball players are expected to referee. Usually the referee will be the previous match’s loser, who find themselves doubly punished by being required to referee following the defeat. Unfortunately, most of them will be untrained, have a limited knowledge of the rules, and lack any motivation whatsoever to do a “professional” job. Many times, there is little to be done in this situation, but when players are refereeing, some negotiation with the Tournament Director is still possible. In situations where you believe a strong referee is necessary, politely ask the Tournament Director in advance of your match for a qualified official or one with a good reputation.

Qualified officials can be great referees, but great referees are not always qualified. What if an official has poor eyesight, or what if they do not know how to handle difficult situations? What if they have problems concentrating for a long period of time? These are not always tested in certification. Therefore, it is important to recognize that an official who is certified should have a fundamental knowledge of the rules, but it does not mean that they are a good referee.


Reputations Matter

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A good official is one who has an in-depth knowledge of the rules, handles themselves in a professional manner at all times, frequently makes the correct decision, is humble enough to accept they will not always make the correct call, is ambivalent to who wins, respects the players and the sport, and seeks to improve their own skills. It should be noted that referees that meet these criteria are rare.

In time, officials will develop a reputation, and it is valuable to learn what that reputation is. In international events, officials are assigned based on their ranking/reputation and the match being played. Better referees are assigned to matches that are more important or those that might be perceived as potentially being difficult. However, in other tournaments referees may be randomly assigned or end up being a player, as mentioned previously. A good suggestion is to learn who is refereeing in advance to allow you to (if necessary) request line judges (if available) or ask the Tournament Director for a different referee if desired. Not doing so may result in you being stuck with a referee who might not be interested in the match or want to be there, and therefore the calls cannot be trusted.

Poor officials can lead to serious problems on the court. An official who does not meet the standards of a good official, as outlined earlier, can create problems for players, coaches, and other officials. For example, an official who is inconsistent on avoidable (penalty) hinder calls, who wants to be the star of the show, or who does not know the rules, can create frustration and anger. Understand that even though they should not, poor officials can influence the outcome of a match.


Working with Officials

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Keep in mind that officials can influence the outcome of the match, but only if the athlete allows the official to influence them. For example, a poor call is made by the official and the athlete loses their self-control feeling cheated by the decision. Unable to let the bad decision go, they allow it to simmer and affect their mental focus. Consequently, they make mental errors over the next few minutes because their focus is not on their task.

How can this be overcome? First, recognize that officials will make mistakes. Errors will happen and decisions will not always go in your favor. However, also recognize that some other calls may go in your favor, and generally calls even out over time.

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Second, learn to let bad decisions go. This is an easy thing to say but a very difficult thing to put into practice. Being able to deflect poor decisions when they happen requires training. Practicing a behavior modification and transitioning it from practice into a match scenario takes time, especially if an athlete has been responding this way for a long time.

Third, respect the official. Being an official is not an easy task and mistakes happen to even the best. Little looks, comments, refusing to shake their hand, and other disrespectful behaviors are remembered by officials. Although referees may develop reputations for being “good” or “bad,” so do athletes in their behavior toward referees. An athlete should remember they represent more than just themselves when on (and off) the court. They represent what is on the front and back of the shirt, which may include their family, their sponsors, their country, and even RYDF. How athletes react to and interact with officials is seen and remembered, and can positively or negatively impact current and future outcomes.


About RYDF
Please support the mission of RYDF in assisting young athletes from around the world with needed resources to achieve success both on and off the court, and to develop successful careers in sports and life. RYDF accomplishes this through three related programs:
Dream It – Fitness Forever Program
Empowers communities by providing opportunities for youth & families to experience fun, friendship, and lifetime health and fitness through participation in racquet sports. 
 Reach It – The Dream Team
Provides emerging professional racquet sport athletes with financial support, mentoring, and career
development opportunities to achieve success on the court and in their life.
 Live It – Athlete to Professional
Uses experts across disciplines to provide knowledge, skills, tools, and practices to improve performance, build a successful career on and off the court, and give back to the community.
 To learn more about RYDF or to donate, please visit www.reachingyourdreamfoundation.org.

Becoming a Professional Player - Part 1

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There are two prominent ways to win in amateur racquetball, (1) overpowering your opponent by striking the ball with extreme power throughout the rallies; and (2) by retrieving everything, keeping the ball in play, until your opponent makes a mistake.  Many outstanding junior and collegiate players enter the pro tour with histories of winning with one or both of these qualities. 

To become a successful professional, however, a player has to realize that at the highest level these strategies are faulted.  At the highest level, you will not be able to overpower your opponents.  You will not be able to retrieve your opponent’s shots continuously. 

A prospective professional player has to realize that he/she will need to add major new elements to his/her game.  It will perhaps take some losses to convince our prospective pro that this is the case, but this realization must be made to have the correct mental attitude to move forward.

Becoming a Professional Player - Part 2

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Becoming a successful racquetball pro requires the proper mental attitude.  Above all, there needs to be a totalappreciation for the precision involved.  At the highest level, it is a game of inches. An inch or two on the front wall target will separate a successful drive serve from one that comes off the back wall for a set up.  Inches to the right or to the left can make the difference between a successful passing shot and one that is hit at an angle that will bring the ball to where the opponent is located.

A couple of inches can make the difference between a perfect ceiling ball and one that comes off the back wall. Those players that think they can win by just hitting the ball harder or by thinking they can get everything, do not see the importance of the necessary precision.  Sure, power at the proper moment and retrieving are important. To become a successful pro, the importance of shot precision must be must exist in the mind of the player to an extent that he/she is totally self-demanding.

This attitude must be taken to the practice court. I have an expression as coach, “Make it boring (for everyone except your coach).”  That is, “Do not fail to hit a rally ending shot when the opportunity is there.”  The greatest player ever, Kane Waselenchuk, understands this perfectly.  With him, it’s all business, get the match done, and get back to the hotel room. One of our players has said, “But the game is not fun if the rallies are so short.”  To be a successful professional, the attitude must be, “kill or be killed.”

Becoming a Professional Player - Part 3

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In racquetball we can isolate “angle” and “power.”   Both are critical, but our prospective professional must understand that angle is the more important.  A very simple but important exercise is to place an object on the floor, moving it to different places all over the court.  Our player should work hard to gain command of front wall targets by dropping and hitting from many different places on the court, attempting to direct the shot towards the object. 

 

The angles need to be instinctive, and can actually be constructed geometrically.  After the drop and hit practice, move on to direct feeds and feeds off the back wall.  The cross court angles must be mastered.  If a cross court shot is hit too sharply, it comes off the side wall to center court.  If the cross court shot is hit too directly, it will pass through center court.  Both errors offer your opponent a chance to end the rally with a straight in kill or pass shot. 

Poorly executed down the line shots hit the side wall and come to center court, again for set ups.  Another valuable exercise is to place an object on the floor that can represent the position of an opponent.  Our pro can practice hitting shots that are directed away from the opponent.  Of course, here again, “angle” is of critical importance.

Becoming a Professional Player - Part 4

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The prospective professional player should check out his/her mechanics from the outset. There are two big questions in racquetball:  How should you hit the ball, and where should you hit it?  This communication has to do with how you should hit the ball, especially when there is a set up during a rally. Let’s contrast two types of racquetball strokes: the pendulum and the flat:

During the pendulum stroke (BH and FH): The back shoulder starts high with the racquet raised and ends up low; The front shoulder starts low and ends high; The waist and hip movements parallel the shoulder rotation; There is a high follow through with the racquet; Body weight transfers nearly 100% to the front foot; The racquet is angled downward like a tear drop on contact; For a straight in shot, the point of contact is halfway between the two legs; The back leg finishes straight up and down; The pendulum stroke is pretty much a golf swing.

In contrast, during the flat stroke (BH and FH): The shoulders, waist, and hips rotate horizontally; The horizontal circles of shoulder, waist, and hip rotations gradually lower during the swing as the legs are bending throughout; Body weight starts with 2/3 on the back leg with 1/3 on front.  During the swing, 1/3 of the back body weight is transferred to the front leg, ending with 2/3 on the front, yet still 1/3 on the back. The racquet is parallel to the floor on contact; For a straight in shot, the FH point of contact is just slightly behind the front foot; For a straight in shot, the BH point of contact is just slightly in front of the front foot; At the end of the stroke, both legs are bent at the knees, the shoulders should be facing the front wall or slightly rotated past this point; and there should be a low flat racquet follow through; The flat stroke is pretty much like a baseball swing where the batter tries to hit a low pitch on the outside corner.

I strongly urge the prospective pro to have one of the well-known coaches, such as Winterton, Davis or John Ellis, check out his/her mechanics early in his/her career.   The problem with the pendulum stroke is that when contact is made even slightly too early, the ball skips.  When the point of contact is made, even slightly too late, that is, on the up-swing, the shot “skies.” Having a swing evaluation can help the player begin to change habits in order to flatten out the stroke.  A caution here: changing habits that have been developed over many years can be difficult and frustrating.  Work hard in practice using video often to evaluate what is happening with your strokes, and don’t give up.

Professional players hit the ball in many different ways, often including elements of both pendulum and flat swings. Consistency in executing rally ending shots off of set ups is an absolute must for success at the professional level.  To build maximum consistency, the professional player is advised to groove and use the flat swing.