How the Gentle Warrior Wins

I tire of the athlete-success-story. I feel like I know the script too well.

Innate talent. Hard work and training. Motivational coach who challenges just right. Sports psychologist who creates the optimal mind space.

Nice. But how does this relate to how you and I maneuver in the world?

Then there’s Roger Federer.One of the all-time great tennis players. 36 years old. Seriously old in the life-cycle of a pro tennis player. Had not won a Grand Slam tournament since 2012. And this year, of a sudden, after an absence due to injury, a winner at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. In the fourth round of the US Open as I pen this post.

Roger’s not acting his tennis age.

Here’s what DOES interest me. Roger’s really good. Really really really good. So are Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. The Top 4. So what’s the tipping point this year? How is Federer rising above the pack, at an age when most pundits had figured his Grand Slam Championship days were in the past? What’s Roger’s little extra edge this year? And what can you and I, non-Championship athletes, divine from this edge for ourselves?

I devoured Peter de Jonge marvelous article on the matter, Wonder Year, in the US Open Issue of the New York Times Magazine (8/27/2017). It got me thinking. So what’s the everyday leadership wisdom you and I can extract from the Federer’s current wave of success?

  1. Take pleasure in what you’re doing.

Sounds obvious, right? But here’s the Federer difference. Take pleasure in absolutely everything you’re doing. The moment when you’re center stage. The moment you walk off. The moment when you recuperate courtside, in-between.

When you watch Federer, suggests tennis great Mats Wilander, don’t just watch him play the point. Watch what he does in between points. He’s always fiddling with a tennis ball or with his racket, and he’s hitting an extra shot, trying some crazy drop shot when the point is over, or flicking the ball to a ball kid after a missed serve. Nobody else does that.

Don’t switch on an off. Find the delight in the moments between the moments. Sustain it. Which gets us to item #2.

  1. Be relaxed.

Many players bounce with taught intensity right before a serve. Fiercely concentrated. Focused, yes. Relaxed – not always. It is not dissimilar to the sort of hovering anxiety you and I might bring to a high-stakes meeting, even when we have rehearsed our pitch and are clear on our strategy.

Federer has always been known for playing loose. According to Jonge, this looseness has been elevated to spa-like levels of relaxation on the court after his Australian Open win.. Nice. Develop your own habits for finding, and giving into, states of relaxation. Relaxation is our natural state of being. We are very skilled at blocking it. Don’t block. Many of us have developed muscle memory for performing routine tasks. Develop muscle memory for stepping into your own spa-like state of relaxation.

  1. Do it with grace.

Federer’s main competitors are grinders, defenders and counterpunchers. Their ferocity has created great successes for them. Consistent ferocity also takes its toll. All of us have colleagues who have burned out. We have experienced our own moments of burn-out. Ferocity and stress, sustained for too long.

Federer performs with free-flowing shots that exact much less of a toll. The fluidity of his movement has made him a lot less accident-prone than his competitors who are more likely to force, over-force, and strain. Consider what more fluid and less forced behavior might look like in your everyday interactions at work. Let that be your norm. Don’t be a grinder in your business interactions. Grinding never generates long-term impact. 

  1. Give yourself the luxury of practice.

Pro athletes always train and practice, but they train in-between having to perform. Rushed in-between practice can become just another numbing routine. Federer had the luxury of taking 6 months off from pro tennis. He practiced longer. He practiced with less performance pressure. This less hurried sort of practice, Federer asserts, benefited every part of his game.

Do you practice? Do you create space for practice? I know from my work as a C-Suite coach that practice and rehearsal for key business opportunities set us free when the important moment comes. We show up with a measure of subtle confidence and ease that would not otherwise be there. Yes, we show up at our very best. And this, in turn, conditions us for more future personal-best moments. Exhilarating. 

Yes, this is the subtle stuff.

The difference between wrong effort and fluidity.

Between focus and strain, between forcing and allowing.

Discover it for yourself.

Federer knows.