What we can learn from Federer
As a die-hard tennis fan, I have always enjoyed watching Federer play – I can’t think of any other contemporary player who would qualify to be called an artist. When he is in full flow, he makes tennis look so easy and effortless – to me that is the big difference between Federer and the others.
However what is amazing about Federer’s performance in this US open is that he came with a new energy and approach to the game. Despite the fact that he is already a legend of the game, he went to work on his game and reinvented himself. He has inspired me and reminded me of some key life lessons.
Answer only to your own self: Federer was still in the top 5 in the world. He had very little to prove to anyone and could have continued with a ‘do-nothing-new’ approach. Conventional wisdom (& ‘expert commentators’!) seemed to suggest that a 34-year old should retire. And indeed nobody would have faulted Federer if he had. However, Federer believed he had more gas in the tank. But he also realized he needed to do something different to counter younger (& talented) players. By working on a new more attacking approach he took a big risk – if he had lost early in the tournament the calls for his retirement would have gotten louder. Only someone supremely secure about their own self could have made that choice and that’s the reason he can be happy with where his game is even though he didn’t win the tournament.
Play the game, not the opponents: While most of the tennis world is moving towards power hitting from the baseline, Federer chose to the serve & volley approach. Federer has not been winning many matches against the top players when he is playing from the back of the court. Instead of going to work on that ‘gap’, he decided to instead work harder on the serve & volley game. Did he know it will work for sure? Obviously not. But given that he is much older and that his strength is in the fluidity of his game & not power hitting, the serve & volley approach made more sense for him. Ultimately, he was focused on playing the game and not his opponents even if it meant going against the current trend.
Focus on the inputs: It was obvious to everyone who saw Federer play that he had put in a lot of effort into practicing his strategy. The most visible proof of that was the SABR which caught everyone’s attention. (if you don’t yet know what the SABR or Sneak Attack By Roger is, check this out). Even a seemingly out-of-the-box innovation such as SABR was actually a result of the hours he put into practice. In addition to volleys from the net and half-volleys from the back of the court, he practiced moving well into the court to take the second serve – which is how he accidentally discovered the SABR. He also made important choices – he chose not to participate in a number of tournaments so that he can practice without distractions. He chose to get help from someone who was arguably one of the best serve & volley experts in the game.
Every one of us and organizations as a whole are often at similar decision crossroads – we need to choose a strategy and execute. In making decisions, we could choose to risk failure or avoid turbulence. Both options are perfectly fine options but the only way to be happy about the consequences of each option is being true to yourself. In defining our strategy, we can focus primarily on what the competitors are doing or we can focus on the end game, look inside and play to our strengths & passion. And once we identify the strategy, we need to focus relentlessly on the inputs, make tough choices, minimize distractions and importantly measure success on how well we execute on the inputs we control.