How tennis stars keep their winning edge

30th June 2014

Great article by Tom Fordyce on the BBC News website 29 June 2014 about leading tennis players titled ‘Why superstars turn to super-coaches’.

Read the article here

Many of the elite mens tennis players now have former Grand Slam winners as coaches; Murray/Mauresmo, Djokovic/Becker, Federer/Edberg. The list goes on. But as Tom points out ‘these coaches are not coaches at all.’ They don’t work on improving technique, ‘it is about finesse, about obsession with detail, about seeking every possible advantage.’ What these elite players know is that at the top level it’s about squeezing an extra few percent out of their performance. That’s what gets them the win.

Small margins – big difference

For Federer it’s about bringing more aggression to his game so he can finish matches quicker against younger players. For Djokovic, it’s about mental attitude when the big points come around. These things represent small, incremental changes to their game. That means the coach’s influence is a subtle one.

Common themes

The areas they work on can apply to any other area of elite performance, especially at work;

  • Discipline
  • Focus
  • Confidence
  • Self-belief
  • Mental approach

All of this is about maintaining their performance standard – keeping their A game – under pressure. The central idea has nothing to do with physical performance. As in the world’s best coaching book, The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey, the players are encouraged to use their brain differently.

How does it work?

When we think of the human brain we tend to think of the right and left hemispheres – feeling versus thinking – but neuroscience shows us that it’s more complicated than that. The brain also has a front/back split when it comes to functionality. The front half is mainly about self control while the back half is about information processing. In other words decision making versus sense making. By focusing on sense making – ‘What’s going on?’, before decision making – ‘What should I do?’, the players give themselves breathing space to assess the situation objectively and consider their most appropriate response instead of a knee jerk reaction or ‘sticking to Plan A’.

Business application

Boris Becker could be talking about any CEO when he says; ‘The competition never sleeps… the top players today… want to consistently improve and they have to find new ways to do that.’

Continuous incremental improvement will be a familiar theme to people who have read the Lean Startup by Eric Ries. In coaching terms what this means is finding someone whose company you enjoy, who has relevant experience at your level, and who can help you be more objective with sense making and decision making. You need someone you can comfortably have difficult conversations with. You won’t get it right every time, but just like Murray and the others, you will get it more right more often. Most important of all you will win more often when it counts most.


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