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Deconstructing Roger: Success insights from the world's greatest tennis player

Sarah Pearce discusses the lessons business leaders can learn from the tennis legend.

Roger Federer. It’s not a name that’s often whispered in awe in business circles, like Elon Musk of Tesla fame or Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin. Even if you aren’t a raving tennis fan, you probably heard him make the news earlier in the year - when he won his 20th grand slam while playing in the Australian Open. He’s been winning grand slams for the last 15 years, making him pretty much the best tennis player in the world for much of this time.

Here’s the thing. Roger is not just resilient, he is resilience personified. I've watched his career over time and become increasingly curious: what makes Roger Federer successful? Or, more specifically: what makes Roger Federer so enduringly successful - in spite of all the usual setbacks? Let's deconstruct his success and see what business insights can be learned.

First off, what setbacks has he endured? A lot, actually. For starters, he’s old (for a pro athlete), he’s also had injuries, suffered a major illness, and he has to compete with the younger, hungrier generation coming through, who are always snapping at his heels.

He’s also already been incredibly successful and this factor in itself can be dangerous to endurance. Any successful business leader will testify that when you've 'made it,’ it becomes more and more tempting to justify kicking back and resting on your laurels.

So what makes Roger keep going and keep winning? Here are 6 main ingredients.

1. He maintains a positive mindset.

“I’m a very positive thinker, and I think that is what helps me the most in difficult moments.”

-Roger Federer

When Roger first started playing on the big stage, he was the typical brash young athlete who smashed tennis rackets, scowled a lot, and even fought with the umpires. Today, however, he’s matured as a person and is committed to remaining mentally upbeat, regardless the circumstances. We often see this in his public demeanor. He’s always smiling and can be seen to uplift his opponents – even when he’s crushing them on the court.

In business, positivity is a key success factor too. Look at leadership for example. There are leaders who are generally miserable, embody negativity and ultimately end up being hated by all employees. They use fear as a driver to create success. But this is rarely sustainable, good people eventually leave them, and the organisation is pathologically political in its culture.

Then there are other leaders who remain positive and inspire success by making everyone want to produce great results for them. We all know of these leaders, and if we don't work for them, we tend to envy those who do. Positive leaders build a positive culture - this is great for productivity, increases retention, attracts the very best people, and ultimately maximises revenue. Like Federer, these leaders are the real winners.

2. He never gives up.

“When you are the best at something, you don’t really want to give that up – and for me

it’s tennis.”

That’s what Federer said after his 19th grand slam victory. It’s impressive, given that the average age of retirement for tennis players is 27 years old, while Federeris 37. And, as mentioned, it hasn’t always been easy for him.

In 2013, his season was cut to only one win due to injuries. In 2015 he underwent knee surgery. Yet, here he is, back winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open. He has never won 3 grand slams in less than 12 months before, and if he had given up any sooner, he never would have. Look at him go! Passed his ‘prime’ and on the road to advance from 2nd best in the world to top of the list.

3. He works hard.

There is no way around hard work. Like Roger, you just have to embrace it. You have to put in the hours because there’s always somewhere in your business that you can improve. Slacking off is for losers.

Federer used to schedule his events in groups. He would play 2 or 3 tournaments, take a few months off, then repeat. Once his trainer, Stefan Edberg, joined the team, Federer increased his workload, cramming 15 tournaments and daily training into his yearly schedule. This helped him maintain a rhythm, kept him powering toward his end goal, and got him in fantastic shape.

4. He now also works smart.

With coach Severin Luthi, we see Federer being super strategic about which tournaments he performs in. They will turn down opportunities in order to save Roger for the ones that matter, and ones that they know he will win. For instance, Roger only played 12 tournaments in 2017 and skipped the entire clay court season (including the French Open) in order to continue playing on the ATP World Tour for as long as he could.

These decisions were made because Federer took the time to determine what he ultimately wanted to accomplish, then mapped out the most efficient way to get there... and stuck to it. In business, strategic planning plus stringent follow-through is equally critical to your enduring success.

5. He adapts to change.

“Change is the only constant in life.”

-  Heraclitus

This is true in tennis as well as in business life. The sport has changed quite a bit with its rise to popularity. Even in Federer’s career, the industry, its standards, and the rules and norms have all changed in some fashion. One example is found in the racket itself, which traditionally measures 9 inches (22cm) wide and 27 inches (68cm) long. Today’s standard has the racket measuring 10-12 inches (25-30cm) wide, while still 27 inches long. One writer refers to this change as “the inch that changed tennis forever.”

Federer swapped his older racket for a larger one in 2014 and, after a period of adjustment, he gained confidence and later even credited his improved backhand to the change. His ability to adapt is admirable. Many other successful people (and businesses) are reluctant to change, fearing that it will ruin their ‘formula for success.’ Yet, often, it is this very reluctance to keep up that contributes to their eventual demise.

Roger’s adaptability in general has not gone unnoticed by his peers either. As Boris Becker observed, Federer “has been able to adapt to the opposition all the time. That’s why he’s been so good for so long.”

6. He loves what he does.

He does play like the cliché – like he is broke – and yet he has got everything.”  

-Mark Petchey (Tennis commentator and writer)

Anyone who watches Federer play can tell that he does it with an incredible passion. While the other items on this list might not be immediately obvious, this one is. When watching him play, it feels like you are watching someone do what they were born to do.

Federer himself acknowledges the role of passion in his success, and he attributes it to his fans too. He has said that without their dedication and commitment to showing up and cheering him on, the thrill of it all might have waned long ago. Whether that is true or not, it has nevertheless been a source of motivation that keeps him moving forward in a game he adores. This quote from Roger sums it up perfectly, “If you’re great at only one thing, make it everything.”

But when all’s said and done.

Roger Federer is one of a kind. He happens to have truck-loads of raw talent, along with those 6 ingredients above. But you don’t have to be him to succeed like him. We've taken the time to reflect on how he has become successful, and I highly recommend that you do the same for yourself: analyze or deconstruct your own success.

What ingredients have worked for you in your life/business? How can you improve on them? Which can you identify that aren't supportive? Now you're aware of them you can choose to let them go. Ask yourself, who else inspires you - personally or professionally? What makes them unique? Break it down. Can you adopt what they do?

In business and in life, we should always be curious and always be learning. Try approaching your world with some of the success ingredients you identify in others, and, like Roger, you will see some amazing results too.

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age. 

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