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How professional tennis has helped me excel in business

From a very early age, the sport of tennis was part and parcel of my formative years; every waking moment was spent thinking about, watching, or playing tennis. As I got older I also dedicated after-school hours and weekends to honing my skills through coaching sessions and playing competitive tournaments.


Therefore, it is not surprising that tennis has had a huge impact on the way I have approached my business career. After combining my musings with input from several other athletes who also were successful in business after a career in sport, I came up with nine ways in which I believe tennis helped me in business.


Ruthless focus on the fundamentals

Tennis players practice the fundamentals every day; they would hit hundreds of forehands and serves repeatedly in a typical training session. This is important because basic skills should be learned to perfection to serve as a solid foundation in learning more complex skills. 


It is common knowledge that achieving business success would require having great customer service, focus on cash flow, a great team, and being in the right markets, among others. However, not everyone succeeds. Merely knowing what to do is futile when there is no consistent action on the fundamentals. As simple as it may sound, many still get easily distracted by the latest trend or fad. Conforming to the current trends in the market can only get you so far. In the long run, adhering to emerging and novel practices may not be sustainable. Essentially, the strategy for success is easy, but the difficulty lies in maintaining a laser focus on the basics to generate positive results. 


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Success does not solely rely on effort 

Among the things I have learned in tennis, one of the most important is that the best and worst performances in my career do not always translate to the amount of effort I exerted. The combination of effort and the right strategy is necessary to achieve your desired outcome. Moreover, you have to be realistic; you can try as hard as you like but attempting to push water uphill will ultimately result in failure.  


In addition, although hard work is vital, it can also be detrimental. When you push yourself too much, it is possible that you exhaust yourself, which in turn affects your task execution. Being overworked and having an obsession with a subject, you will probably not bring out the best in yourself. That said, maintaining a balance between hard work and the provision of room for creativity is imperative; take a results-based approach rather than an effort-based approach.


Focusing your personal strengths on the opponent’s weaknesses

Through tennis, I also learned to deeply analyze my competitor’s tactics, assets, and competencies, and to use these pieces of information to formulate a game plan. By knowing your opponent’s weaknesses, you can then focus on the certain strengths that can combat his or her fragility. For example, Dropbox centered on speed, agility, and design prowess against Google Drive, which is bigger and slower in terms of file storage.


Reaching peak performance state

Playing tennis gives you real-time feedback about how to perform at your best. If you play poorly after having an all-nighter, then that means you probably need more hours of sleep to perform well. If you have been eating junk and then lose, then maybe you should watch your diet.


Receiving feedback has taught me how to maintain good performance consistently. I was able to know the hours of sleep I require, the time of the day I perform best, and the type of meeting environment that works best for me. Outside of sports, people are sometimes less aware of how to reach their peak performance state to perform when the pressure is on.

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Failure as constructive criticism

Even the best players have experienced defeat. Take Andy Murray, for instance, who won three ATP tour titles in 2014, but lost over 20 matches in the same year. Even the best players have to deal with defeat. I, too, have experienced failure in tennis, even before I started school. 


Failures and setbacks are inevitable, but it can be difficult to deal with when you are new to the experience. I dislike losing, but it is necessary for growth. Because after my worst losses, I was forced to re-evaluate the effectiveness of my strategy and view failure as feedback, which in turn allowed me to achieve some of my biggest improvements. “The winners party and the losers ponder,” is a quote I internalized from a young age. This realization plays a powerful role in your long-term success as it forces you to constantly make course corrections to achieve your objective.


Development of personal reliance

In any form of failure, you must bounce back quickly, learn your lessons and come back stronger and better. During the tennis season, you might play a tournament every week; hence, there is little to no time to wallow in defeat.


This constant pressure and adversity quickly build mental resilience, which can manifest as a voice in your head that tells you to keep going, pushing, and trying even when the odds are against your favor and people are doubting you. Mental resilience is perhaps one of the most important attributes required to become a great executive. Having resilience and the conviction to follow your strategy when others are second-guessing your direction is a trait some of the greatest leaders of all time possess.

Handling extreme pressure and adversity

Even for the most seasoned of sportspeople, playing in a large stadium with a huge crowd will give them butterflies. Because of the exposure to high pressure, I think sportspeople who have transitioned into business exhibit calm confidence in the boardroom and are very comfortable under pressure and high-stakes situations. The gladiatorial feeling you get from regular competitions teaches you to embrace the energy from pressure and adversity, allowing you to channel it into laser focus that brings out your best performance. 

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Incidentally, I had a distressing experience from one of my tournaments abroad, wherein during the match, a group of men arrived, sat at the back of the court with weapons visible, and started threatening me in between games. After that, presenting to an audience of 1,000 people is like a breeze!

Development long-term thinking

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


In conjunction with business, taking a long-term view and not concentrating on short-term pressures is a hallmark of successful companies, such as Amazon, Google, and Apple. Jeff Bezos famously said in a letter to Amazon shareholders in 1997, ”We can’t realize our potential as people or as companies unless we plan for the long-term.”

Openness to trial and error

Many tennis players are open to just about any experience that they think could improve their performance. I can attest to this as I have been, done, and seen all sorts of peculiar and wonderful things for the sake of getting a slight edge. Once I tried a three-day detox, which consisted of wearing a special magnet necklace and drinking organic carrot juice. As a result, my skin turned orange and I ended up cramping during training sessions. Well, perhaps I should have stuck to the fundamentals!


Giving in to my curiosity and openness to experiment, the variety of my experiences, and a challenge-everything mindset have allowed me to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone and take steps toward improvement as an executive.


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Arif Harbott
Written By

Arif is a CTO, technology disruptor and angel investor. He specialises in combining strategy with cutting-edge technology to deliver impact at speed for the modern business world.

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