Nine lessons professional tennis taught me about business

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

How an early career in tennis has helped me develop unique skills and built a foundation for success in business.

Recently I was out with some friends and we were reminiscing about our childhood sporting achievements.  Tennis dominated my childhood from the age of four; every waking moment was spent thinking about tennis, watching or playing tennis. School holidays were for tournaments, after school was for training and weekends were spent at coaching sessions.

As tennis was such a big part of my formative years I expect it must play a part in how I perform as a business executive. After some reflection, and input from other sports people who have also made a successful transition to business, here are some ways in which I believe tennis helped me in business.

Tennis photos
(Left photo) My first tournament win aged 8. (Right photo) Press photo for tennis magazine aged 18

1. Ruthless focus on the fundamentals

Tennis players practise the fundamentals every day. In a typical training session they will hit hundreds of forehands and hundred 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 does succeed.  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 latest trend or fad.  The appeal of novelty is all around at business conferences, in business books, or from consultants who evangelise the newest tactics that you should employ. 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.

2. Effort alone is not enough to achieve success

Many times preparing for a tournament I have trained my hardest; doubled my gym time, stayed up late practising, and pushed myself beyond my limits in competitions, only to lose in the first round of a tournament.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that the highs and lows of my career were not directly always related to the amount of effort I 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.

3. Concentrating strengths on your opponent’s weaknesses

If you’re playing a match against Rafael Nadal, who has one of the best forehands of all time, 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 on search as Microsoft Bing has done 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.

4. Getting into a peak performance state

Tennis gives you real time feedback about how to perform at your best. If you stay up late and then play badly chances are that you need more sleep to perform well, if you eat badly and then lose then maybe you should watch your diet.

This feedback has taught me how to get the most from my performance on a consistent basis; I know how much sleep I need, what time of day I am sharpest and what type of meeting environment works best for me.  I think that outside of sport, people are sometimes less aware of how to get themselves into a peak state to perform at top of their game when the pressure is on.

5. Understanding that failure is feedback

I have been losing tennis matches since before I went to school. All tennis players lose sometimes. In 2014 Andy Murray won three ATP tour titles, but during that same year he lost over 20 matches. Even the best players have to deal with defeat.

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. Now don’t get me wrong I dislike losing but it is a necessary part of growth.  Some of my biggest improvements have come after my worst losses because it forced me to re-evaluate the effectiveness of my strategy and view failure as feedback. The quote I internalised from a young age was; “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.

6. Building personal reliance

During the tennis season you might play a tournament each week so there is little time to wallow in defeat; you must bounce back quickly, learn your lessons and come back stronger and better.

This constant pressure and adversity 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.

7. Dealing with extreme pressure and adversity

Playing in front of a large stadium crowd will create butterflies for even the most seasoned of sports people.

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 from regular competitions teaches you to embrace the energy from pressure and adversity and channel it into laser focus that brings out your best performance.

Incidentally I once played a tournament abroad and during the match a convoy of mafia cars arrived, then about fifteen burly men got out of the cars, sat at the back of the court with their weapons visible and started threatening me in between games. After dealing with that kind of pressure presenting to an audience of 1,000 people is easy!

8. Building long-term thinking

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 1997,”We can’t realise our potential as people or as companies unless we plan for the long-term.”

9. An openness to experiment

Many tennis players are open to just about any experience, training or guru that they think could improve their performance. I have been, done and seen all sorts of weird and wonderful things in the name of trying to get a slight edge.  Once I tried a three-day detox which consisted of wearing a special magnet necklace and drinking organic carrot juice for three days. The result was that my skin turned orange and I ended up cramping during training sessions! Perhaps I should have stuck to the fundamentals!

This variety, curiosity, openness to experiment and a challenge-everything mindset has allowed me to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone and make steps to improve my effectiveness as an executive.

How has sport helped your professional career? Let me know in the comments below.

Nine lessons professional tennis taught me about business

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