As a teen, I was a handy tennis player. But when it came to crunch time and everyone else was turning pro and packing their bags for Ukrainian Challenger circuit tournaments, I lost my mojo. I grew a foot in a year, became a gangly, awkward mess on court and, in the end, my interest disappeared. Honestly, I probably just wasn’t bloody good enough.
Instead, I went to uni and studied psychology. The plan was to become a professional sports psychologist on the ATP Tour and live vicariously through the success of others. That never happened either. But, when I turned 35 I did qualify (by age) for the International Tennis Federation Veterans Tour. Entering the main draw of Seniors Gentleman’s Wimbledon, I had the opportunity to stroll into SW19’s locker rooms as a player for the first time. While I had my arse handed to me, I’d also accrued enough ranking points to end up in the top 300 Over 35’s in the world. I was pretty pleased.
On court, as in life
My experiences on the tennis court have never been far separated from other areas of my life. And the lessons hard-earned under a blistering Melbourne sun have stuck with me for years – never more so, than in the arena of failure. You see, tennis is a binary sport. You either win or you lose. There is no draw. It should come as no surprise then, that this has been one of the fundamental breeding grounds for my views on leadership. The ethos of accountability has never left me.
Leadership is about owning the outcome. Every time. Every point, every game, every set – win or lose. If more people in leadership positions did so and more organisational designs allowed for it, then I think we’d have much more collegial workplaces. In my tennis career, the losses were always hard to stomach. But they taught me the ability to compartmentalise. During the course of a match, you have to shrug off a lost game and find ways to change tactically. You have to reset your confidence with every point, trying to will yourself to the win. And, if you finally fail, the internal monologue around the post-mortem and the gut-wrenching disappointment of the loss only serve as a catalyst to focus on the next match. And the training you need to do improve your chance of winning.