The Art of Tennis — the leadership metaphor

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Federer - grace and focus

Federer - grace and focus

Two people yesterday spoke to me about an overwhelming link between the mindset of a great tennis player and the mindset of a great leader. Not that I am going to make a definitive analysis here, but a couple of fun, if not provocative, concepts:

  1. [in doubles,] best to pick a parter you respect and get along with, who also has complementary skills.
  2. in warm ups, everyone looks good. It’s when you are pushed wide out of the court and on the run in a game that you see the great players making shots. Under stress, you see the real you.
  3. the best players are always looking to improve. Seek to improve [get the motivation] and your listening skills will follow. Afterwards, there is nothing to replace hard work.

8 Comments, RSS

  1. Michael April 4, 2007 @ 2:08 am

    Minter –
    I wholeheartedly agree.
    Leadership, as tennis, requires an awareness of one’s position, and making the best choice in answer to the situation at hand. Simply put, I see it as a delicate balance of offense, defense, and neutralization (more on that later).
    The issue is that a tennis player can be forced to shift gears in a moment from calling the shots and dictating play, to suddenly being in an extreme emergency situation, forced to do anything necessary to get the ball back over the net. Tennis players who constantly play as if the game is all offense win only when the conditions are perfect, and they’re 100% “on.” These players are not very successful.
    Similarly, in leadership, it’s how we react in times of emergency, relying on our instincts to do what’s necessary to right the ship. However, one can’t stop there; one must then sense when the moment is correct to once again sagely lead forward.
    Leaders who wage campaigns of constant aggression are likewise only rarely successful, when their circumstances are optimal. Further, they put themselves and their organization at great risk.
    Tennis players who only play defensively, while successful at the junior level, rarely succeed when the time comes to develop a more rounded and mature strategy at the higher levels of the game.
    In much the same way, leaders who rule from fear, afraid to act except in response to outward challenges can never be considered great, inspiring leaders.
    What makes players like Federer and Nadal so great is precisely their ability to defend so effectively, and then to turn defense into offense at the right moment.
    A leader must inspire us in times of emergency, and lead forward once the crisis has stabilized.
    Real-world tennis tip: You can learn to become better at dealing with emergencies on a tennis court by playing more squash. Squash is almost 100% made up of improvised emergency shots, executed skillfully under pressure.
    Minter- Do you have an analogy for improving leadership skills under pressure?

  2. Minter April 18, 2007 @ 10:15 am

    Could not agree with you more about the tip on squash. I have always felt that both games can help each other [as opposed to the many people who complain about the ill effects of the wrist, etc.], but squash is truly useful for tennis in getting those last digs [stretching for the ball], as well as the speed of reaction, deception techniques and patiently building up a point. As for leadership skills, I think in tennis of Noah with the French Davis Cup: passion, team building… But I think a reference to my tremendous squash coach, Dave Talbot, at Yale is due. An inspiring, collegial, human and demanding coach all in one. And boy did we have fun along the way. Great sense of humor, leading by example and also total respect from the team by being able to humble us on the court in action. Pretty good ways to lead in business in my opinion.

  3. Peter Cowan April 18, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

    “The inextricable link between the 2 types of mindsets has got to be powers of concentration. A great leader will never “drop the ball” (pardon the pun), will always be attentive no matter how dull the situation. What differentiates 2 tennis players of equal ability has got to be concentration levels – an unforced error is due to lack of concentration something Federer very rarely suffers from – every point to him is as crucial as the last.
    Amateurs will slip up because they have bouts of relaxation, because they think they are ahead or feel the game is “in the bag”. If you can teach yourself to disregard any form of distraction (Earl Woods used to clash dustbin lids together while Tiger was swinging the club!) and concentrate 100% throughout a 3hr tennis match your opponent is going to have a tough time.”

  4. Vic April 18, 2007 @ 8:26 pm

    this is a very perceptive statement. i agree completely, and have nothing to add.

  5. Mark April 18, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

    Agree wholeheartedly with comments. People, (who know me well) say that I am the most competitive person they know, both in sport and business. I take this comment with a piece of salt, thinking I am no different to others. However……..I do have to admit that the Jimmy Connors statement that when asked “how do you feel about the game you just lost?”….answer “I consider it as war where I have to win at all costs”………..kinda reflects my feelings on certain challenges/tasks/sports.

  6. Misha April 22, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

    All the comments are excellent.
    I do have a mindset of a tennis player, being one forever. I always tried to use it as a great tool in all different aspects of life, especially where the leadership is required.
    Imagine yourself, as a tennis player, to be one team; team members: 1st serve, 2nd serve, forehand, backhand, volleys, defense, offense, conditioning, strategy, concentration, etc. You have to be able to “lead this team” through thick and thin.
    It is up to your focus, personality, attitude and discipline to manage “the team”; use your weapons, minimize your weaknesses, exploit opponent’s weaknesses, figure out patterns of winning and milk them, stay focused, and fight until you win (or at least do your best).
    I try to use this tennis knowledge in managing any team challenge that comes in front of me.
    Now, what I never forget is how I learned all of this: hours and hours of high intensity preparation, mentally, physically, winning, losing, performing under pressure, developing killer instinct, watching others, reading, and one simple important thing: learning the right things faster than the others.

  7. Pierre V April 27, 2007 @ 6:35 am

    j’aime bien tous ce qui a été écrit sur le rapport entre le tennis et le leadership, une seule chose…L’intuition n’est pas mentionnée (je crois)! Comme dans le leadership, on doit travailler fort avant de pouvoir avoir des résultats, et celà est vrai pour n’importe quel sport aussi, et lorsque tu as travaillé fort tes skills, c’est ton intuition qui t’ammenera à réaliser des coups ou des actions fantastiques, c’est ce que l’on appelle l’état de grâce non?

  8. Tennis for life | | Minter Dial June 3, 2020 @ 9:52 am

    […] a prior comment, I posited that tennis is a great guide to leadership. Yesterday, I met a female [French] pro in Nice (Beaulieu) who at the age of 23 had a career ending […]

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