Learn from success not just your failure


Dominic Thiem has just beaten Rafael Nadal for the first time in a slam, reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open, where he will face Alexander Zverev.

We often hear how failure is not something to be feared and we should aim to learn from it.  However, we should also look to learn how we can improve when we succeed.  We should celebrate how well we perform in success and indeed, in Thiem’s case he was the better player for most of the four sets – it’s rare that someone can dominate Nadal off the ground in the way that he did and it was an impressive performance.  However, following success we’re often in a more receptive state to conider how we can improve.

When serving for the match in the fourth set Thiem clearly got a case of the elbow!  Tightening up in key points – although it’s often referred to as getting the elbow, in Thiem’s case it was principally in his movement – in two points in that game his movement, which had been exceptional throughout, was the main issue as he got tight and cramped, hitting the ball too close to his body and missed his normally reliable forehand.

It is so tempting both in sport and at work to judge a performance by the result.  Yet we can perfrom at our best and lose, similarly we may go for a job and however good we are someone may be better suited.  Whatever the outcome we are human and imperfect and there are always ways we can improve.

I remember some years ago turning around a significant business change programme for a major investment bank, where almost everything that could have gone wrong had done so.  We coached a team that had been seen as a failure, building a cohesive, high performing team that delivered to plan and under budget.  As I’ve consistently done, I sought feedback on my own performance, getting a set of key stakeholders together for a review after I had completed my work.  It turned into a love-in! Effusive praise, despite repeatedly asking what I could have done better it seems they thought I was perfect, yet I know at times the programme was on a knife edge and there were definitiely things I could have done better.  I wanted specific feedback to that effect, yet I didn’t get it becasue in the minds of the people involved the outcome masked any short-comings in my performance.

It’s all too common that the result ends in a ‘halo’ or ‘demon’ effect – if you succeed then everything is great, sadly, fail and you’re a catastrophe!  Yet we all know that the margins between success and failure can be slim.  We need to assess our performances honestly, being prepared to celebrate success but always aiming to learn and improve.


#thiem #coaching #australianopen #tennis #culture #selfimprovement #continuouslearning

Lies, damn lies…..


So, the next gen are on their way but experience delivers.  The graphic on the left was displayed by Amazon during their coverage of Medvedev v Tsitsipas to demonstrate Medvedev’s dominance on hard courts this year.  Clearly, Medvedev has had an exceptional year – rising to four in the rankings.  The top three of course have been familiar in those positions for years and played less and lost less than their younger challengers.  From a percentage win/loss perspective only Djokovic of the top three has a lower percentage win/loss on hard courts than Medvedev and that’s marginal.

It’s been heartening to see the youngsters come through in Shanghai – and when Federer and Djokovic were playing well. The semi finalists are all 23 or under.  Clearly, we’re beginning to see a shift but four members of the top 10 are still over 30, with four 23 or under.  Learning how to win in a one week best of three tournament is different to winning seven best of five matches over two weeks.  It will be interesting to see whether we finally get a younger grand slam winner in 2020!



Building Capability and Capacity


So, we’re nearly through the second week of Wimbledon. The main draws in both women’s and men’s singles each feature 128 of the most talented players on the planet. It’s now been narrowed down to the last four in the men’s and the finalists in the women’s singles.  Technically there is little difference between those who’ve already lost and the woman and man who will raise the trophies at the weekend.

The scoring system in tennis means that those that have got so far have not only played well but are those who have managed themselves and their energy most effectively at the right time.  This enrgy ebbs and flows through the course of the match.

At this level the margins are fine but it’s also being able to stay present, or stay in the moment, at critical points that makes the difference.  In tennis this is done by developing the ability not to be rattled by set backs.  At the top level in tennis players learn routines to still their minds after a point and re-focus on the next point.  These can be things like playing with their racket strings, bouncing the ball before serving.  Whatever the action they are ways of tuning out of the last piece of action and re-focusing on the next.

The pioneer in researching this in sport, Jim Loehr, has also extended his work into business, where senior people often start early, work long hours and go from meeting to meeting.  Understanding how to use small amounts of time to tune out and re-focus has been critical to build capacity (and hence productivity).  We have used similar techniques with teams in challenging environments to great effect, building capacity and ensuring positive outcomes.

Building capacity is not about working longer hours, it’s about working smarter. This includes becoming aware of your own energy and capacity and learning and practising techniques to increase your focus.  Even when you’re at your busiest you need to take breaks, your productivity can drop-off without you noticing.  Learn how to use the break time to tune out, then in returning take stock and re-focus.  It also helps us to manage the ebbs and flows that we face and so readily affect our confidence, one of the most significant factors in our performance in all areas of our lives.

#capacity #energymanagement #continuouslearning #capability #coaching #tennis #wimbledon #rogerfederer #staypresent

Young Guns Upset at Wimbledon – Are They Just Imposters?


The first Monday of Wimbledon and there were some interesting upsets.  Some members of the younger generation in men’s tennis have been making significant strides over the last year.  Alexander (Sacha) Zverev won the end of season ATP tour title last November and is currently ranked five in the world at the age of 22 (he has been as high as 3).  Stefano Tsitsipas, at the age of 20 has risen to six in the rankings with some excellent wins.

Both were expected by most to win their first round matches, however both went out, Zverev in four sets to Jiri Vesely and Tsitsipas in a fifth set decider to the 30 year old Thomas Fabbiano.

In his post match press conference Tsitsipas seemed weighed down by the expectations on him, upset that he had let down those around him.

Zverev was quoted as saying ‘my confidence is below zero’. John McEnroe, commented later that Zverev has a habit of quickly developing negative thoughts that clearly impact his performance.

On the same day in the women’s event, world number two, 21 year old Naomi Osaka lost to the lower ranked Yulia Putintseva.  Osaka is a two time grand slam champion and may have been expected to win, though she had played Putintseva twice previously, losing on both occasions, the latest being on grass in Birmingham just prior to Wimbledon.  In her post match press conference she was visibly upset when asked whether the weight of expectations had got to her and left the interview room.

It seems that a combination of doubt or lack of confidence and the weight of expectations has got to these young, talented players.  It often leads to what is referred to as imposter syndrome – not uncommon in the workplace.  While the successful experienced players on the tour learn to deal with it over time, for young players having early success it can still play on their minds – a rapid rise through the rankings and questions like ‘what am I doing here?’.  The problem for the individual athlete, unlike in the workplace of course, is that there is nowhere to hide.  Performance becomes affected and it is evident in results.

It may seem strange that highly successful young athletes (all between 20 and 22 years old) should face such self doubt but it is amazing how a little uncertainty and self doubt can affect performance for all of us.

So, when you face it find someone who you can talk about it with.  Learn to be realistic about performance, we all make mistakes, yet it is easy to magnify these, particularly when doubt sets in.  Finally, challenge negative thoughts – you can also turn these around.  Tiger Woods reputedly after hitting a poor shot would tell himself that this would give him the opportunity to show how good he was in getting out of it.



You can’t always choose what happens to you ….

In the UK this week the tennis headlines focus on Andy Murray’s comeback following hip surgery, winning the Queen’s doubles title on his return at the age of 32.  Perhaps more remarkable is that his partner, Feliciano Lopez, had just won the singles at the age of 37 and in the course played the last five consecutive matches of the tournament – two singles and three doubles matches – something I’m not sure has ever been done before! On the same day Roger Federer, also at the grand old age of 37, won his tenth title on the grass courts of Halle, in Germany.  Experience continues to deliver!

However, I was also impressed last week (and have been through the year) by the emergence of some of the young talent in mens tennis.  Lopez won a tight match in the semi-final against the young Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime, only 18 years old and ranked 21 in the world.  Auger-Aliassime had previously won his quarter-final match against the 20 year-old Stefano Tsitsipas, ranked six in the world.

Both these players have shown exceptional maturity this year as they’ve risen up the rankings, particularly in how they’ve handled themselves on court throughout the year.  Auger Aliassime has had an interesting week – beating Dimitrov, Kyrgios, where he faced the distraction of Kyrgios’s outburst, then Tsitsipas, before losing in three sets to Lopez.

We often talk about distinguishing what you can and cannot control and focusing on what you can control.  For tennis players managing your mental state in the time between points is critical to maintaining focus and peak mental performance. Similarly, in a work or personal context we often say that you can’t always choose what happens to you but you can choose how you react.  It’s not always easy – how often do we, whether in business, sport or personal contexts react irrationally?  However, to perform at our optimum we need to stay present and focus on the task in hand.

For tennis players, this is now a skill that is taught and has been for 30 years but witness the behaviour of some players and we know that it isn’t always easy to put into practice.  Auger-Aliassime maintained his composure throughout the tournament,  he looks and acts like he belongs amongst the top players and I can only remember one point in the match that he lost against Lopez at Queens where he was close to losing his composure impressive for a young professional. He continues to develop and such talent ans maturity on court will surely see him reap the rewards as he progresses.

To maintain such composure under pressure and, in his case, continual public scrutiny,  requires practice – in tennis this is often aided by the use of rituals – playing with racket strings, fist pumping, bouncing the ball, breathing.  We can also identify routines or rituals to help us stay present but, once discovered, they require practice to develop a high performance mindset.


Anyone can have a bad day at the office …


However, when you’re Roger Federer, losing to the number 55 ranked player in the world when you’re the odds on favourite to win may feel like a disaster.  Especially when Roger had supposedly prioritised the US Open as a target slam to win this year.

Federer was clearly troubled, the conditions were difficult but the normally calm Swiss seemed particularly bothered at a relatively early stage by what was only a normal New York crowd.  Flushing Meadow does not have the serenity of Wimbledon and Federer knows it and normally seems to relish it, after all he’s won there five times.

Federer unusually let it get to him and it impacted his performance – a player who rarely serves a double fault served 10, his first serve percentage was inordinately low – 49% overall and in a long service game at the start of the second set just 25%.

Of course, challenging conditions happen to us all in a work context – we can’t always choose what happens to us but we can choose how to react.  This is more easily said than done – interactions with work colleagues can be emotive and challenging.  However, the challenge for us all, like Roger, is to stay present and when we do have a bad day at the office put it behind us and move on.

Of course, all credit to Millman though for executing his game plan and winning through to his first ever grand slam quarter final.



Axxelate charity ride https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/andyaitkenhead

Who’s in your support team?



Yesterday Stan Wawrinka, on the long road back from injury, beat Grigor Dimitrov, 8th seed at the first round of the US Open.  It was a tough draw for Dimitrov, Stan is one of only five men to have won more than one singles grand slam title over the last 15 years (Feder, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are the others).  Stan like Murray has won three, all under the guidance of coach Magnus Norman.

Norman has returned to Stan’s team this summer.  Norman, a former world number two singles player has justifiably built a reputation as being one of the world’s great coaches.  He has played at the highest level and has worked hard to develop his coaching skills since retiring as a player. He coached Robin Soderling, seeing him reach two slam finals and has been with Stan through his three grand slam wins.

On the other side of the court, Dimitrov is seen as an outstanding talent, who has not really fulfilled his early promise.  In Dimitrov’s box was Dani Vallverdu.  Dani was a promising junior, who was coached alongside Murray at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain.  They became firm friends and, while Dani never made it as a player, he joined Murray’s team as a hitting partner.  Dani will have learned much working with coaches like Lendl, Corretja and Cahill and has subsequently had short spells with Berdych and now Dimitrov.  At 32 he is still developing as a coach.

Great coaching is principally learning to ask the right questions, collaborate with the player to get to a better place.  Norman is undoubtedly an outstanding coach.  Being a mentor is a different role, often seen as sharing experience with the player – which may or may not be relevant, as the player may not be in the same situation as the mentor has experience of.

We have worked with financial institutions and emerging companies in the innovation space over the last couple of years. We see many fintech ‘mentors’ – some good, some peddling a bit of experience in financial technology, but many only with low to mid-level delivery experience opportunistically using the term fintech and presenting themselves as experts.  While there are some with genuine expertise, some demonstrate significant gaps in their expertise – they are suddenly experts in how to grow an idea into a real business.  With experience comes the capability to cover relevant areas, including rigorous competitor analysis, product positioning or, most significantly plan for success. This involves ensuring the right leadership is in place, there is a clear vision, the culture and operating model framework is in place to facilitate growth.

Good coaching is incredibly powerful with the right coach and in the right context, being a mentor and providing expertise can also be valuable but there  is a need to be aware of the expertise and limitations that the mentor brings to the party.


Don’t forget:



Playing the context – should we be surprised by the number of upsets?


Despite the focus on the world cup this week, there has been much in the sporting press about the number of upsets at Wimbledon in the first week – should we be surprised and is it something unusual?

Well, no, it’s not massively unusual – however, if things went according to the seedings the top 16 should have made it through to the fourth round, by the time all the second round matches were completed six of the top 16 in the men’s draw and seven of the top 16 in the women’s had been knocked out.

In 2013, by the end of the second round seven of the top seeds in the men’s draw, including Nadal and Federer, had been knocked out and nine of the top 16 in the women’s.

So, why do we get this scale of upset at Wimbledon?  There are a number of factors to consider.

  • Wimbledon seed the women according to the rankings, except where there is an exceptional case to be made, e.g. Serena Williams (in at 25 at the expense of Dominika Cibulkova (both still in the draw).  For the men there is a published formula which re-orders the top 32 players in the rankings based upon an adjustment for grass court performance.
  • The grass is reputedly playing a little faster this year
  • Despite the meticulous grooming, grass is a less predictable surface and will, at times, require late adjustments.  Players have to learn to adjust as they do when they move to play on clay.
  • Along with this almost all the players are coming from playing on clay (the slowest surface) to adjusting to play on the fastest and least predictable surface, with a relatively short preparation period ahead of Wimbledon.

At one level it illustrates the depth in both the men’s and women’s games.  More importantly, it  demonstrates the need to adjust to the context in which the game is being played.  Playing too far back may give more time but leaves the player exposed to the angles.

As the upsets have continued (as they did in 2013) the second week will be interesting. 10 years on we may yet have another Federer/Nadal final!

In the wrong gear?


I cycle a fair bit and later in the year I’m doing a hundred mile sportive with a fair bit of climbing.  As I live in a relative flat area, at this stage in my training I often go up the few and small hills in as high a gear as possible – to build some strength in my legs. On a number of occasions I’ve had some smart Alec – usually the one descending while I’m huffing and puffing uphill – yell out ‘you’re in the wrong gear’!

Well, of course we could spend ages talking about giving directive advice without understanding the whole context.  However, it has reminded me of something that I’ve heard in a professional context on numerous occasions in the last few years – ‘delivering at pace’.  Without exception I’ve heard this phrase uttered by senior managers, all with similar characteristics:

  • Directive management style
  • Continually confuse activity with progress (pedalling furiously and sometimes not even moving forward)
  • Have unsustainable working practices, for example long working hours and unrealistic expectations around output

Of course, this leads to disengaged staff, lack of cohesion, lots of activity but poor performance.

This doesn’t need to be the case. We’ve consistently demonstrated over the last couple of decades that delivering change rapidly, with increased productivity, can be achieved far more effectively by putting the performance and well-being of the team to the fore.  An example of this at a major investment bank can be read here.


By the way – I’ll be looking for sponsorship for my ride in the near future 😉



Rafa continues to demonstrate that experience delivers ….


So, Rafa dropped the first set of his campaign at this years Roland Garros.  Diego Schwartzman clearly had him on the ropes prior to the first rain delay on Wednesday.  That and the subsequent overnight delay gave Rafa and his team time to re-assess and change the momentum in his favour.

In the semis he played Del Potro – the sort of big-hitting player that has troubled him in the past and he brushed him aside.

Nadal has seen most things on a tennis court over the decade and a half he’s been playing and winning in Paris. Like Federer and other experience athletes, they don’t panic in situation when they are under the cosh but see the challenges presented as another problem to solve and, if their initial game plan doesn’t work they will probe and experiment to find something that does,

It’s this mindset that defines them – they suffer nerves like the rest of us but don’t get debilitated by them.  With this continual love of what they do, the competition and the on-going challenge of overcoming the problems thrown at them, they’ve thrived and continued to deliver phenomenal performance and results beyond a point where most people in their sport have typically been in decline or have hung up their rackets.