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Business Lessons from Tennis

Updated: Jan 17

Tennis players shaking hands after a good match

I used to play tennis somewhat regularly, but took a break of over 20 years while I focused on racquetball. For the past few years, I started playing doubles tennis twice a week with a group of strong players. I figured that my racquetball skills would translate well into tennis, and that I would make quick progress. Some skills did translate, but progress has been slower than expected. I’ve finally progressed to being competitive in most sets, although I still lose the majority. It strikes me that many lessons from my tennis experiences are also applicable in business.

Focus. I get the best results in tennis when I focus on the ball, its spin, its speed, and how it comes off my opponent’s racquet. I need to rely on peripheral vision to see what’s going on around me. With two opponents across the net, salivating to smash a poor return, this is easier said than done.

Focus can also be difficult in business. For example, a new opportunity may beckon. Can we sell current products to a different type of client? Should we follow our competition and introduce a new service? Should we utilize a leading edge technology? New opportunities can distract from the core business that pays the bills and generates profits.

An opportunity should receive peripheral focus until you determine whether it’s a good fit. Limit the investment of time and money until you determine proof of concept.

Anticipation in tennis allows me to be in the best position to hit a strong return. I need to quickly process how my shot options are limited by my skill, my opponent’s shot, and the geometry of the court. That’s a lot to think through quickly, and as an inexperienced player I struggle at the net. As I gain experience, many of the decisions will be performed by the faster acting sub-conscious. I then expect my reaction times to improve dramatically.

Experience in business also results in quicker and better decisions. An experienced project manager recognizes a risk early, and acts to identify and resolve the cause. A manufacturing employee recognizes a machine under stress, and shuts it down for maintenance. A business leader senses a lack of team cohesion, and plans for team building activities.

Following through on a tennis shot is crucial for it to go over the net and in the desired direction. When I chop at the ball or block it with the racquet I invariably hit a poor return. Such “defensive” shot making rarely ends well.

Generating ideas in business with no follow through also leads to poor results. Strong ideas need a champion to move them forward through the organization, and to acquire the needed resources. A good idea well executed is more powerful than a brilliant idea that never sees the light of day.

Flexibility and adjustment. With 15 players in the group, I’m constantly playing with different people. During each set, I need to adjust to my partner and to my opponents. I also need to adjust during the set and to mix up my shots, in order to keep my opponents off balance.

The business world is constantly changing. 88% of Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were no longer on the list in 2014. And these are the large stable firms! Flexibility and adjustment in business are critical to survival and success.

That’s enough for now – there are more business insights from tennis than I originally thought!

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