What leaders can learn from elite tennis players

The Australian Open tennis tournament has just concluded and Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka are worthy champions.

Here is what aspiring leaders could learn from their championship wins.

1. Have big dreams

Djokovic, as a teenager, dreamt of being the best player in the world. Now that he has achieved this goal he has reset his ambition and now aims to complete a career grand slam that will place him among the greats of the game.

Many, many years ago I used to play cricket with former Australian cricketer, Greg Matthews, in a combined schoolboys team. I asked him what he wanted to do when he left school. Without hesitation he answered that he was going to play for Australia. I was struck by the certainty of his ambition but he was right. He played 33 times for his country.

Every leader has to think, big, bold thoughts – remember when the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, had a goal to have a computer on every desk in the world. This seemed fanciful at the time. More recently, through his foundation, he has announced the aim of a world without the crippling disease of polio.

2. Aim for incremental improvements

One of the distinguishing features of successful sports champions is that they are never satisfied with their performance. They always are looking for ways to improve. Every day they practise purposefully on specific aspects of their game to improve.

Leaders could follow suit. They often tell me that they wish to become more creative and innovative, for example, yet when I ask them how much they practise their creative thinking they often shuffle their feet. As my kung fu teacher says, if you want to become better at kung fu, practice more kung fu.

3. Surround yourself with a great team

Scotsman Andy Murray beat the world’s best player, Roger Fedora, in the semi-final of this year’s Australian Open. Murray realised he had to become fitter, stronger and more tactically astute to compete with the top players, so he employed the former number one tennis player in the world, Ivan Lendl, as his coach. Murray worked harder than he had ever done before. This resulted in his first grand slam title – he won September’s US Open – and an Olympic gold medal.

4. Put appropriate measures in place and learn from them

It is easier in sport than in business to determine how you are travelling against your goal by the number of games  and tournaments won, world rankings and so on. In Djokovic’s case, he needed to improve his fitness because he had on occasions been susceptible to retiring early in a game if conditions became tough. He is now one of the fittest players on tour, which also gives him a mental edge; he knows he has the capacity to stay on court for as long as it takes.

But an effective business leader also needs to know how they and their organisation are going. This is where effective measurements come into play. As Bill Gates says: “You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress towards that goal” – and learn from this.

5. Stay calm in a crisis

Tennis matches, like any sporting event, are a mixture of highs and lows. Even though Djokovic and Azarenka won their respective championships, they both lost the first set. In these circumstances they did not panic but simply regrouped and worked hard to get back in the game.

Leaders can benefit from this approach. When results are short of expectations or progress is stalled, no amount of yelling or blaming will fix the problem, nor motivate people. A cool, calm, creative approach is a much better option.

6. Leadership is both mental and physical

This is an area where leaders might benefit the most from studying elite sportspeople. Tennis is a physical game of running, hitting and serving. It is also a mental battle with yourself and the opponent. You have to stay focused, concentrate on your game plan and not be intimated by your opponent. If you make a mistake, the challenge is to look forward and not let it get you down.

I believe leaders must spend more time exploring the mental skills of leadership; to convey confidence, to keep taking risks, to back your intuition and to have a grand vision of the future of your organisation.

These need to be practised. Sportspeople regularly talk about mentally rehearsing their performance in a big event. They picture themselves performing faultlessly under the pressure of tough competition and a big crowd. I have never heard a leader mention that they mentally rehearse a big speech or presentation. But these moments of truth are very important in the success of a leader.

Leadership in any field of endeavor can be practised and improved. Leaders need to be open to the opportunity of learning new approaches from the most unrelated fields. 

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