I can’t tell you how many leadership lessons I’ve learned playing Tennis. Since moving to SoCal, Tennis has creeped up to my Top 5 list of life priorities right now. You wouldn’t necessarily see that dedication if you watched my doubles game, but at least you’d see me having a good time chasing a yellow ball around.
Here are three of my favorite leadership lessons from the court:
1. RESILIENCE – Every shot is a chance to begin again.
Anyone who has played a sport knows that the mental game is even more important than the physical game. Tennis is ALL mindset. You hit a few good balls and your mental chatter quiets down, you get in your flow, and you feel unstoppable. Conversely, you hit a few balls into the net and your mental chatter spreads like wildfire, your body is running on frustration, and you continue to bomb and look at the racquet as if it’s the racquet’s fault.
Perhaps the most important lesson in Tennis (and leadership) is that every moment is a chance to reset and choose how you want to show up. Do you keep on the frustration train or jump off, breathe, and reset for a new beginning? Resilience is not about playing like a Pro on or off the court; it’s about how quickly you can get back to neutral and prepare for the next shot, meeting, interview, etc. Resilience is about spending the absolute minimum time in remorse or regret. Bounce right back, shake it off, and get ready for a clean slate.
As my coach always says, the ball never knows what happened in your previous point.
2. PACE – Speed and accuracy are inversely correlated.
I’ve been playing for a couple of years now. And I’m not one who enjoys status quo (for better or worse). When I see my game at a standstill, I double-down to take it to the next level. For me, the next level right now is about speed. I play a very “nice” game, but there’s not an ounce of aggression or offense in it. As I’ve taken it up a notch in the speed category, I’m learning that accuracy is likely going to be the cost. Some balls feel incredible at speed and others look like I’m playing the wrong sport (hello, baseball outfield).
My coach reminds me that it’s OK to barter accuracy for speed once in a while. I reflect on how leaders push that accelerator all the time. They want to go faster, harder, more innovation, more products, more market share. I urge you to think about the balance between speed and accuracy. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to gun it and go for lightning speed. Other times, it’s more important to pace yourself and the organization so that change can take hold and filter through the game or organization properly. Be mindful of your pace and make conscious choices around it. That self-awareness is often the difference between a win and loss.
3. RISK – There is no room for hesitation; you’re not going to break anything.
I overthink everything in Tennis. I hit the ball too late and find myself in no-man’s-land between the base line and service line as if it’s my job. The more I overthink and hesitate, the more my game stalls. As my coach often tells (or yells), hesitation is a killer on the court (and in the office). Once you’ve set your course and aligned your team-mates, it’s time to go. There is a time for thinking, strategy, discussion, and buy-in and there’s a time for action and momentum.
Consider your relationship with risk. I default to playing it safe so that the ball goes in reliably and we can keep a point going. My risk tolerance is pretty low because I’m a collaborative player. Put me against a shark and I get eaten alive. So, I’ve had to really think about what risk means on and off the court. In most things around leadership (and obviously in Tennis), you’re not going to break anything. You have a chance to really go for it and change the landscape of your organization, team, family (or point). Risk as expansion rather than risk as fear is an essential part of a leader’s journey.
Tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love – the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.Andre Agassi
From Theory to Action
Pick whatever sport or hobby you’re invested in right now and learn to track the leadership lessons. It’s incredible how much deeper we fall in love with our passions when we can pull the threads and connections into all that we do. Remember that leadership is holistic and seeing it bubble up in the moments of our days is how we continue to invest in our personal and professional development.
So, your challenge between now and when we meet next is to unlock leadership lessons from your daily activities. How you do anything is how you do everything so notice who you are being in your hobbies. Are you bossy? Aggressive? Collaborative? A sore loser? A gracious teammate? A team captain? A quiet observer? Only involved in solo activities? Notice your patterns, habits, preferences, and tendencies. You will be amazed at how these ways of being inform all of who we are.