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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

Tennis: The Language of Life

With Wimbledon in the rear view mirror, the post-Wimbledon blues are strong, so in my mourning I was inspired to write about one of my greatest passions, tennis, and all that we can learn from it. In life, we all need passions. I can’t explain them, I struggle to even understand them. What do I know? - it’s like converting the black and white of life into colour. I have many passions, but ask anyone that knows me, above all else, my greatest passion is tennis. Growing up my parents carted me from sport to sport, activity to activity, exposing me to as much as an after-school, all-weekend schedule allowed. Strangely, tennis wasn’t one of them. In a weird way, tennis chose me. For 3 years from the age of 12 I ummed and ahhed until at the age of 15 I finally made the leap. Not to sound too cliche or anything, but it’s been a whirlwind ever since. So I asked myself the question: what are the lessons tennis has taught me that translate into the language of digital transformations?

Firstly, what captivated me?

For me, it poses a completely unique challenge. You’re on your own out there, there’s no one to help you with your strategy, there isn’t a clock you can run out if you’re not feeling it; your ability to compete is simply defined by your ability to beat the opponent across the net from you. And when I say beat them, I mean you literally have to win the last point of the match regardless of what has happened beforehand. As a professional sport, it makes for a great spectacle, all those who watched Andy Murray serve out his first Wimbledon victory against Novak Djokovic in 2013 can attest to that. He had played a near perfect match up until that point, a completely flawless strategy well executed. But he stood on the edge of tennis immortality, and as a Brit, even more so. Nerves took over, tension in the stadium reached boiling point and now we were about to see what he was really made of. And that is what has made me almost obsessed about the sport, it is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. At 40-0 with 3 Championship Points, the challenge was almost 95% mental and 5% physical. He was going to have to dig deep into reserves he didn’t even know he had to get over the line.

Andy Murray couldn’t predict how he was going to react in the face of that situation until he was in it. But he had developed an effective game plan based on his strengths and honesty about his weaknesses. This is what marks tennis out more explicitly than any other sport, every single point is an opportunity to strategise, do you stick to the plan or do you rewrite it?

So why is tennis so unique, what does it give you that other sports don’t?

It’s an individual sport - you are pushed into the gladiator arena that is a tennis court and told for the next 1,2,3 hours, how ever long it takes, you need to survive, no outside help, no additional perspective, just you and your opponent. It’s an intensity I’ve rarely felt anywhere else. Trust me, the helplessness you feel when it’s all going against you makes my spine tingle just thinking about it.

It’s your responsibility and yours alone - you are responsible for maintaining focus, staying motivated, and deciding when to stay on strategy and when to mix it up. There’s no one to help you, to make up for your weaknesses that day or to help you come up with a better strategy. It’s real-time problem solving - how is your opponent winning the majority of their points? Can you intuitively pick out key statistics without having them in front of you like the number of winners vs unforced errors on their forehand/backhand, where they serve on the big points, how often do they come to the net? All of this is vital in the pursuit of a dynamic strategy that sharpens the focus of your initial plan into a refined product to simply beat what is stood in front of you on the day.

The power of momentum - Across the many sports I have played and watched in my life, never have I seen the fragility of momentum as much as I have witnessed it in tennis. You can be leading, cruising along to victory then all of a sudden, almost inexplicably, you lose concentration or your opponent hits a great shot out of nowhere and suddenly you’re not cruising anymore and it almost feels like your opponent can’t miss. At this year’s Championships Murray was 5-0 up in the 3rd set of his first round match before inexplicably losing 7 games in a row to lose the set, never have I seen the power of momentum as clearly as that. The grapple for momentum is the biggest battle that takes place on a tennis court, whoever holds this momentum for longer is undoubtedly going to win. For me, this is proof, more so than anything else, that tennis is a physical and mental game in at least equal measure, if not even tilted towards mental. The point is, there’s no clock, you can’t relax, you can’t say “this match is done now”. You have to see it out. In the most literal sense possible, you have to win the match.

The trap of complexity - Often whether you win or lose is fraught with complexity. It’s so easy to get lost in the trap of statistics blaming this point or that point, the fact that my first serve percentage was too low, or I didn’t come to the net often enough. The key to success is simplification. There are going to be a million reasons why you didn’t win, there are going to be multiple things you could’ve done differently to win. But what can you learn and what can you apply differently next time to make that difference, it’s not going to be all of them, that’s too much.

The key to tennis, as is the key to digital transformation, is simplification. I know that if I bring them into the net I’m going to win the majority of the points. I might also know, if I let my innovation team work independently outside of the business to work through solutions themselves, most of the time they’re going to produce solutions that add value. Simplification, take the stimulus away, quieten down the noise.

The Tennis Life Lessons

When done right the game of tennis can be effortlessly easy and there’s no reason why the same can’t be true for digital transformations.

Control the Controllables:

The only shot in tennis that you have 100% control over is your serve. This acts as the foundation for the rest of your game. Your serve dictates the return your opponent hits, if you serve well you serve in such a manner that it plays to your strengths by allowing you to dictate the rally with your strongest shot as the first shot of the rally. If you serve well, you hold serve easily. This not only takes pressure off your shoulders but puts pressure on your opponent to follow suit in their service games. You may even start relaxing on return, taking the edge off and giving you the clarity of mind to be more creative on your return games, boosting your chances of a break of serve.

The same can be said for digital transformations. The only thing you have 100% control over is your company culture. You control who you hire, it’s your responsibility to set the values your employees adhere to and you control how you communicate with your employees. You can’t guarantee that Innovation X is going to definitely improve productivity by 20%, it’s just an estimate, but you can control how well your employee base is prepared for change. And this is like serving well, once you start achieving success they too will start to relax and not just accept change but become advocates for it. The result: in the exact same way as returning, they relax and operate with a clarity of mind that stimulates creativity and more fuel for innovation.

Not every point is worth the same amount:

So often, the key to winning a tennis match comes down to a few critical “big points”. On the surface it looks like every point is worth the same amount, but in the context of putting pressure on your opponent, it’s not even remotely true. Winning the first point on your service game can be the difference between cruising to an easy hold of serve, or starting on the back foot. At 30-30 winning the next point can be the difference between game point and break point, huge difference in pressure. The same is obviously true for deuce (40-40). The player who rises to the occasion on the big points is the player who invariably wins the match. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a professional match where one player has absolutely dominated, walking to victory but at the end of the match only won 10 points or so more than their opponent. They may have played anywhere around 100-200 points plus, and the difference was only 10 points. What was truly the differentiator: the one who cruised to victory won more of the critical big points.

Again, the same can be said for digital transformations. Being change-ready is important all of the time but there will be certain critical moments where it’s important to be 100% ready throughout the entire employee-base, from top to bottom. The slightest doubt, the smallest rebellion has the potential to bring it all crashing down. If you play the "big points" of change well it won't take much to convert a high failure rate into overwhelming success. Ask yourself, what are your "big points"?

Be Adaptable:

Be adaptable, and never let complacency hold you back. One of the most beautiful and most frustrating things about tennis is the need for adaptability. What worked against one player may not necessarily work against another and just because your forehand was on fire yesterday does not guarantee that it will be today. Tennis is a game you never complete, you never reach a point where you go “I have the perfect game” because the perfect game against one player might differ hugely to the perfect game against someone else. The trick: adapt to what’s in front of you and adapt to the tools you have in your toolbox that day.

I have often spoken about the importance of a digital transformation vision but it’s important to be adaptable within the parameters of your vision. Each and every day is going to throw up unexpected challenges that are either going to potentially threaten the achievement of the vision you have in your mind or pose as opportunities to go above and beyond what you initially imagined. It’s important to be wise to these dynamics because as soon as new information comes to light yesterday’s roadmap might not be relevant anymore today.

The Language of Life

Last year, when the first lockdown hit here in the UK, I read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. It was one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I have long dreamt of being a professional tennis player and like with many childhood dreams, the reality of what it means to be a professional is very different to what I had imagined. I was hooked and it remains one of the few books that I have read in my life where I physically couldn’t put it down, reading it first thing in the morning right up until starting work, at lunchtime and picking it up the second work finished. I want to leave you with the quote that stayed with me the most: “It’s no accident, I think, that 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.”

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