Important Business Lessons from Tennis

The game of tennis offers a surprising amount of lessons that can be applied both on and off the court. It requires us to face our opponent and learn how to respond to unpredictable shots and rapid-fire challenges with precision and grace.

Similar to solo endeavors in life, success in a singles tennis match hinges on a player’s focus, resilience, and confidence; whereas doubles tennis (two-on-two) employs and develops the skills necessary to any healthy partnership, like mutual trust, selflessness and communication.

Even if you don’t play tennis or you’ve never watched the US or Australian Open, you can make use of the lessons that both amateur and professional tennis players learn on the court.

Read on to learn how you can adopt strategies that define a winning player in tennis to improve your performance in business.

Tennis is not only physically grueling, but also as mentally challenging as any other sport. You’re isolated on a court, and all of your strengths and weaknesses get exposed simultaneously. Your opponents have only one thing in mind, which is to use every one of your weaknesses against you.

Rafael Nadal’s forehand, Roger Federer’s Sneak Attack and Novak Djokovic’s backhand: they’re the moves that contribute to making them champions. In the business world, it’s no different.

“A lot of things learned through sport are transferable into other aspects of life. I certainly found that the skills I’ve acquired playing tennis have been beneficial to my business career,” – Richard Branson

Here are some business lessons to help you navigate the business world and succeed;

  1. The ability to keep calm under pressure and adversity

Federer is famously successful at winning tie-breakers, and one reason is that he’s been in so many of them, and he’s not overwhelmed or nervous in the way less experienced players tend to be. Experience counts for a lot in tennis and business, especially in pressure-packed situations. It’s critical to stay on an even keel. The ability to stay calm under pressure is a quality tennis players and business executives have alike.

Business involves many high pressure, high stakes situations and I think sports people take a calm confidence into the boardroom and are very comfortable under pressure. The gladiatorial feeling you get from regular matches teaches you to embrace the energy from pressure and adversity and channel it into laser focus that brings out your best performance.

  1. Get an Experienced Coach

It is true that one of the key reasons behind utilising a sports coach is to improve sporting performance. However, sports coaches bring so much more to the role than just achieving results on a scoreboard.

A sports coach needs to be – among other things – a mentor, teacher, psychologist, physiologist, and confidante. They also need to bring skills such as diplomacy, negotiation, facilitation, organisation, problem solving and motivation.

A Lawyer will provide vital assistance in almost every aspect of your business, from basic choosing the right business structure, protecting your intellectual property to ongoing legal advisory. A lawyer would help you prevent legal mishaps and protect you if one occurs.

  1. Focus on the Fundamentals

Tennis players practice the fundamentals every day. A typical training session will see tennis players hitting hundreds of forehands, backhands and of serves, over and over again, working on the basics and making small corrections towards perfection. Most people know how to succeed in business; you need great customer service, to focus on cash flow, to build a great team, to be in the right markets etc. But not everyone succeeds. So often the difference between success and failure is not just a matter of knowing what to do it also requires taking consistent action on the fundamentals.

This sounds simple, but it is easy to get distracted by the not so important aspects. The appeal of business conferences, business books etc. Many times the strategy for success is easy, the hard part is laser focus, day in day out, on the basics. Focusing on the fundamentals is not always exciting but it does get results.

  1. Respect your Coach

Sports coaches are the stars off court – without them there would be no tennis heroes. Good business partners, much like a coach, can be mentors, advisors, facilitators, demonstrators and role models. We need them. Your partner doesn’t need to be your best friend. You don’t need to socialise after working hours. However, respecting your partners and their experience, will improve how you work. Listen to their feedback, ask for opinions and absorb as much information from them as possible.

  1. Use the Right Equipment

Novak Djokovic (World Number 1), Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer—and every great champion—always uses the most advanced technology available. Advances in training and diet aside, not even the greatest tennis champions from the past could compete against the lowest-ranked professionals of today without using carbon-fiber and other modern racquets, with their lighter weights, wider hitting surfaces, and polyester strings that make it easier to add spin to the ball.

Elite athletes don’t win gold by wearing old sneakers or hitting balls with broken racquets. They train with the best. The same applies with thriving businesses. The right equipment, including the technology infrastructure to perform, can make a massive difference to how your team behaves and performs.

A slow internet connection can also prevent businesses from doing their thing. From video conferencing to data sharing, a day’s work could end up being a week’s work with the wrong connection. Ensuring you have a great online reputation, intellectual property protection and the right mobile solutions can make all the difference.

  1. Bounce Back

We can’t all be winners. Some of our most favourite tennis players have missed out on winning. What separates them is their ability to get back up. A never-give-up attitude is the difference between a player and a champion.

It is critical to move on from the last mistake you made and focus on the next point — or, in business, the next challenge.

According to Richard Branson “Tennis, like business, moves so quickly that if you dwell on the past for even a few minutes, an opportunity will have passed and the moment will be lost. You have to get into the right frame of mind in order to perform your best, and need to be able to put setbacks behind you instantly. In effect, the discipline and determination it takes to compete as a professional athlete is not unlike what it takes to be an entrepreneur.”

If you miss out on winning a pitch or you lose a client, find out why. Make it a time to learn and grow. Steve Jobs was originally fired from Apple and Richard Branson has had 14 Virgin companies fail – but neither let failure prevent them from pursuing their passions and becoming some of the world’s most iconic business leaders.

Everyone will tell you that failure and setback is inevitable in business but it can be hard to deal with if you are not used to it. It is a necessary part of growth. Some of your biggest improvements have come after your worst losses because it forces you to re-evaluate the effectiveness of your strategy and view failure as feedback.

“The winners party and the losers ponder.” This introspection can have a powerful effect on your long-term success as it forces you to constantly make course corrections towards your objective.

  1. Combine Effort with the Right Strategy

One of the most important lessons to be learnt is that the highs and lows of any tennis player’s career were not directly always related to the amount of effort they put in. Firstly you need to combine effort with the right strategy. Try as hard as you like but trying to push water uphill with your hands is doomed to failure. Secondly, hard work is important but after a certain point it can be detrimental.

If you are overly tired or too obsessed with a particular project then you probably will not perform at your best. You need a balance between hard work and giving yourself the space to think and be creative. This means taking a results based approach rather than an effort based approach.

In tennis, there are about 20 seconds between the balls (points). You have 5 seconds to be sad or happy, 5 seconds to rest, and 10 seconds to get prepared for the next ball (point). And that is the key to winning–making time for your feelings, making time to rest, and then getting ready.

At work, find a rhythm between each day, each meeting, and each project. Then give yourself time to celebrate a win or mourn a failure, get some rest and then get ready to play the next round.

  1. Play to your Strength and your Opponents Weakness

If you’re playing a match against Rafael Nadal, who has one of the best forehands in tennis history, and your game plan is to consistently play to his forehand then that is a recipe for disaster. Similarly going up against Google head to head by building your own search engine is equally futile.

Tennis teaches you how to deeply analyse your competition’s tactics, assets and competencies and then build a game plan that focuses your strengths on your opponent’s weaknesses. Dropbox did this brilliantly when they beat Google by competing on speed, agility and design prowess which the bigger, slower Google Drive could not match.

Do a SWOT Analysis and set yourself up to win. The more you exercise your business muscles, the stronger and more match fit you’ll be.

  1. Build a Long-term Thinking Culture

The constant pressure and adversity of tennis and business quickly builds mental resilience which is the voice in your head that tells you to keep going, keep pushing and keep trying even when the chips are down and people are doubting you. Mental resilience is perhaps one of the most important attributes of being a great executive. Having resilience and the conviction to follow your strategy when others are doubting your direction is a hallmark of some of the greatest leaders of all time.

Tennis requires a long-term plan. It is unlikely that a change in your training will reap immediate benefits. You have to be patient, monitor results and trust that you are on the right path.

Taking a long-term view and not bowing to short-term pressures is a hallmark of successful companies like Amazon, Google and Apple. Jeff Bezos famously said in a letter to Amazon shareholders in 199 ”We can’t realise our potential as people or as companies unless we plan for the long-term.”

Sports teaches you character. It teaches you to play by the rules. It teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose. It teaches you about life.

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