Managing Momentum…

djokovic_14_52a azarenka_12_13a

So another Aussie Open has come to an end, with good, if not great, finals in both the men’s and women’s events.  In the women’s final Azarenka prevailed after dropping the first set against Li Na, while on Sunday Djokovic beat Murray in a hard fought battle, also after dropping the first set.

For Djokovic and Murray two hard fought tie-break sets, with Djokovic prevailing in the second after Murray had won the first, were followed by two more straightforward sets for Djokovic, as he gained the ascendancy and closed out the match 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-2.  Murray had had his chances early in the second, where playing some magnificent tennis he moved Djokovic about and created opportunities to break serve but was unable to convert them.

In both finals the loser had an injury time out, Li Na needing two after falling, Murray taking one at the start of the third set for a blister.  Neither player attributed their loss to the injury and indeed their is a challenge for both players in a match when there is a time out to maintain momentum. Tennis at this level is a game where the players rhythm is a significant factor and an injury time out or a bathroom break can disrupt it, the danger is for both players and often it is the player who manages their own momentum following a break that disrupts the normal flow of the game  that prevails.

Famously, in the 2011 French Open men’s final Roger Federer was playing phenomenal tennis and leading 5-2 in the first set when the king of clay, Rafael Nadal called for the trainer.  Following the time out Federer’s level dropped slightly and Nadal won the set 7-5 and the final in four sets.

It is not uncommon in the professional game in a hard fought match for a player to take a bathroom break after a set, when in the heat of battle and the heat of an Australian summer it is potentially likely that they don’t have a physiological need for it.  It serves as a time out, a longer version of the use of time between points and games, to allow them to re-focus for the next phase of the match. However, it can also serve to disrupt the other player, it becomes a challenge for the player not taking the break to use that time productively, in order to maintain their momentum.  Nadal is an example of a player who is the master of managing his own time as well as being able to disrupt the momentum of his opponents.

Managing our time and momentum is a challenge during the working day, particularly when we’re at the behest of others.  There are numerous tactics we can employ, including staying in the present, using time productively within the constraints of the situation and recognising what elements of the situation we can and cannot control.

Challenges improve performance…


Today we saw another great match in the men’s draw, as Andy Murray battled to a hard fought win over Roger Federer, for a place in Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.  In the build up there was some discussion as to whether the relative challenges that both men had faced as they advanced through the draw would play a part.

Murray was seen to have had the easier route and had sailed through to the semis without losing a set.  On the other hand Federer was seen has having a challenging draw, Davydenko in the second round, Tomic in the third and Raonic in the fourth.  The first of these an experienced campaigner who has been playing well of late, the other two up and coming young guns keen to make their mark and, in the case of Tomic, a local favourite happy to get into mind games with Federer.  In each case Federer had dispatched them all in straight but competitive sets, coming up against an in-form Tsonga in the quarters who he beat in five sets.

On the other hand, while Murray’s first round against Robin Haase was a potential banana skin, one he overcame straightforwardly, he faced a series of players he was expected to beat.  Even former top ten player Gilles Simon in round four was visibly fatigued, having come through a long five setter in the previous round, and was easily brushed aside.  So when it came down to it Federer was the first big test that Murray faced.

Of the two Murray was clearly the stronger for much of the match but it was interesting that the two tie-breaks Federer won and when Murray stepped up to serve for the match at 6-5 in the fourth Federer was able to raise his game to break. Incidentally, Federer has the highest career tie-break win ratio at .655, though without hard figures I would take a guess that it’s higher in slams.  Federer, at 31 must surely have been impacted to some extent by the five set match in the previous round but was still competitively sharp in the tie breaks and managed to take an in form Murray to five sets.  Agassi had commented before the match that he doubted that the 31 year olds legs would carry him past Murray and so it turned out.

In the women’s draw there is another interesting observation about how challenged some of the competitors have been.  The two women who won most 6-0 sets, Serena Williams (4) and Maria Sharapova (5) both lost before their seeding (and many pundits) suggested – Williams in the quarters (though she did get injured) and Sharapova in the semis.

In looking at Sharapova’s draw it’s interesting to observe that she did not have any significant challenge until the semi-final match she lost to Li Na.  Before losing to Li Na in the semis she beat the following:

R1 Olga Puchkova 6-0 6-0

R2 Misaki Doi 6-0 6-0

R3 Venus Williams 6-1 6-3

R4 Kirsten Flipkens 6-1 6-0

QF Ekaterina Makarova 6-2 6-2

The lack of challenge in previous rounds may well have been a factor, despite losing 6-2 6-2 in her post match interview Sharapova said that she had her fair share of opportunities but when games went to deuce or she had break points she wasn’t able to take them.

We all need to be challenged, or exercised to improve and it is not always pleasant.  There is actually a Biblical principle of being exercised unto Godliness, which involves learning from the Bible how to deal with situations.  It’s also true in the work place that we need to be challenged in what we do to improve.   Growth, or improvement , takes place in incremental steps, we don’t suddenly become a different person.  While for tennis players they can assess their performance by the score, how they hit the ball and move around the court, in order for improvement to take place in other environments we need to get feedback and reflect on our performance in challenging circumstances. We need to determine what our measure is and assess ourselves against it.

It may be seen to be like any other form of exercise, for example using muscle builds it and if it’s not used it wastes.  We need to seek those challenges that stretch us little by little to improve our capability.  However, you can’t leap to world beater from beginner in one go – don’t expect to go on the tennis court any time soon and compete with Andy Murray – unless you’re Novak Djokavic of course!

Play the point you’re in …


So yesterday we witnessed one of the great matches of this years Australian Open, as Roger Federer was taken to five sets by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.  It was the first time Federer had his serve broken in the tournament (he was broken five times during the match) and the first time he had dropped a set (Andy Murray now remains the only player left in the men’s draw not to have dropped a s et). This was not because Federer played poorly.  Indeed the quality of tennis remained high from both players for most of the 3 ½ hours plus of the match.

After a previous match, in the on court interview, Jim Courier asked Federer whether he was a player who came to the match with a plan or was a point by point man.  Federer responded along the lines that he believed in playing to his strengths and that he played each point as it comes.  In fact, like all top players he does come to the court with a plan but in execution he recognises that you can only win the point you are in, so you can only play the match point by point.  So the key to great performances is to stay present.

How do top players like Federer do this so effectively so that he can play at such a high level for a sustained period of time?

Jim Loehr observed in the 70s that the difference between those at the very top in tennis and lower ranked professionals was not their playing technique but what happened between points.  The very top players had rituals between points that helped them stay focused and in the present.  Today these are taught at all levels but what happens between points is still critical.  For example when preparing to serve many of the top men will take three balls from the the ball boy/girl and give one back, they then embark on a pre-serve ritual, which in some cases (Djokovic for instance) can seem to take an age and involves bouncing the ball umpteen times.  Often after a point a player will play with his or her racket strings.  So what does this do?

In short, the purpose is to tune out of the previous point and then to re-focus for the next point – back to the mantra “you can only win the point you’re in”.  Players may walk back to the baseline to prepare for the next point and play with their racket strings or have some other device that helps them tune out fo the previous point.  The pre-serve ritual or receiving ritual is about re-focusing for the next point.

How can this help us – well in sport and particularly tennis, most of us find that making a mistake impacts the next point.  Often the score impacts our mental state – 15-30 down we might be worried that losing the next point will leave us break point down.  Of course we need to focus on the point we are about to play, not on the consequences of winning or losing the point.  We also need to ensure that if we’ve just made a mistake we recognise it has passed and we now need to focus on where we are now.

This is similar to lots of situations we face that cause us stress, where we are not focused on the present but future situations, which might not happen.   Or when we have made a mistake and we spend time worrying about and its consequences, rather than recognising that it’s done and we need to move on recognising where we are now.  When the top players make a the mistake, in the main they get it out of their system straight away, they don’t spend time blaming themselves or others.  It is part of their ownership of the situation that allows them to do this.  There is no time for blame.

So how can this be helpful for us?

Well, to perform well we need to stay present.  To do that we also need time to be able to reflect and de-tune from situations and have time to prepare to focus on what we are about to do.  Often in corporate environments people rush from meeting to meeting, playing catch up, with little time to prepare and focus on the aims of what is happening and then fail to take time to reflect on the outcome before the next meeting.  Attendees, particularly of meetings by conference call, are often “attempting” to multi task.  Consequently, the vast majority of corporate meetings are far less productive than they could be.

Remember to stay present – play the point you’re in!

Belief is critical…


So today in Melbourne Nicolas Almagro (world number 11) stood on the verge of his first grand slam semi-final, up two sets to love and serving for the match at 5-4 he failed to close it out.  He also had two more chances to serve for the match in the fourth set, yet lost to David Ferrer in five sets.

That Almagro  had a 0-12 record against Ferrer and had missed match points against him in Madrid and Cincinnati previously might well have been playing on his mind.  The 12-0 record was almost certainly a factor in Ferrer being able to come back and win, despite his play being error strewn through much of the match.

Belief is such a major factor in determining outcomes, just as is fear, uncertainty and doubt (but more of that in a later post!).  A Spanish tennis coach provided an anecdote last year of when he was working with an up and coming player and came with him to England for the grass court season.  He invited a friend who was coaching in Germany to accompany him.  After a couple of weeks the friend observed “how is he going to believe he can win against the top players if you don’t?” The coach agreed that he had been guilty and subsequently was able to change and the player made substantial and rapid improvement in his ranking.  So it is not just our own belief but those around us that affect us.

Last week, after losing to Federer in the third round, Bernard Tomic commented in his post match interview that he had tried to put out of his mind who was on the other side of the net but that it was extremely difficult, especially as in introducing the players they mention all the slams that Federer has won.  The very top players almost always believe they can and will win.  There are exceptions, clearly at times Nadal has got into Federer’s head, even when Federer is playing exceptionally well.  Going back to Ferrer, his persistence is a factor against most players.  His opponents know that he is phenomenally fit and will run down every ball and not give up until the last point is won.


Going back to Almagro, it is difficult when a player has such a record against another player – Vitas Gerulaitis never beat Borg in competition but with a 0-16 record against Jimmy Connors going into their match at the 1979 Masters he finally turned it around and won, famously saying:

“And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

So things can be changed around but the participants/players need belief.  It is sometimes difficult in today’s corporate world.  Jim Stoddart observed in a recent Linkedin forum (Programme Managers/Directors) that “It seems to be expected now that big programmes will fail, particularly big change initiatives, so it is discounted from the start.”

If there is this underlying belief then it is difficult to get teams to believe that they will and should deliver on time.  Though it can be turned around but only if those leading the change believe what is planned is achievable and convey this regularly to team members and stakeholders, ensuring all are aligned.

Experience Delivers…

I may be thought of as talking my own book here, as someone with mostly gray hair on my head! However, it was interesting to hear Federer following his win over Davydenko in the week and prior to his third round match with Bernard Tomic.


When asked to comment on his upcoming match with Tomic he provided some interesting insights as to why, even in the world of professional sport an age old veteran in the twilight of his career still delivers both in performance and result.

While he said that younger players can improve quickly and he indeed he expected him to  be more of a challenge than his meeting with him last year, he stated that he had so much more experience than Tomic.  His experience going back over a dozen years playing at the top level and having completed over 1000 tour matches meant that he had faced just about every circumstance on court, including the intensity of a night session at a slam and the pressure of a five set match.  No variation in length of rally or match would be new to him, he’d been there.

He was acutely aware of the things he could do now against an opponent that he couldn’t do previously.  When thought of as potentially physically weaker a few years ago than the emerging Nadal he had worked on this so that he built an aura of getting stronger through matches. Despite at 31 being considered at or near the end of his career, he said “I would hope I’m a better player today”.  Indeed during the Tomic match commentary on Eurosport, Mats Wilander offered the opinion that Federer’s half volley backhand was definitely one stroke that had improved.

So back to talking my own book in a business context, as someone of mature years, in leading major change programmes my observations are that experience delivers.  Though to clarify, it is a certain type of experience and character – certainly those who’ve seen a range of situations over the years but also continue to learn and innovate to become more effective, to use that experience to meet the challenges that come along, as well as to challenge oneself.  The desire to continue to improve at whatever stage of career is a common characteristic of great performers.

You can’t control everything but you can control your reaction to things outside your control!

The specificity of preparation that I raised in the last post has already been brought home in the first few days of the Australian Open. Not only is the duration of matches (best of five rather than three for men) and the duration of the tournament (two rather than one week) different to the regular tour but, of course, conditions for each of the slams vary.


This is true both in terms of court surface and weather conditions – the Australian Open is the only slam where temperatures regularly get into the high 30’s (centigrade) and occasionally into the 40s.  This may happen occasionally at the US Open but not as high and as often.  Even playing late in the evening the long three set second round match between eighth seed Petra Kvitova and Laura Robson of the UK was particularly grueling.  Although British, Robson, born in Melbourne, in the second and third sets seemed in better condition both physically and mentally than Kvitova (the more experienced and higher ranked of the two).  Like court surface, weather conditions are the same for both players and, while they can’t be controlled they can be prepared for.

It was also interesting to hear Federer’s post match press conference having won his second round match in straightforward fashion against Davydenko.  He talked about how the game had changed over the many years he’d been playing at the top.  How in fact the pace of the ball has got slower with the capability to create more angles and how he has had to adapt his game to remain at the top.

Often less experienced players let external factors, those they can’t control, get the better of them and get down because of it. Simply, it affects their performance more than it should. This can impact more experienced players, as the blue clay courts in Madrid seemed to bother both Nadal and Djokovic.  The conditions are the same for both players, those factors that you can’t control have to be accepted and play adapted accordingly, whether it’s the court surface, the weather, the crowd, etc.

Blaming external factors is not helpful, having the right mind set for events out of one’s control is an important element in dealing with them and performing as well as possible in the circumstances.  While we can not control all the factors that might impact our performance we can choose how we react to them, whether in sport or in business.

Preparation the key…

Over the last couple of posts we’ve talked about planning, goals and alignment.  We’ve now had the first two days of the Australian Open and in the men’s five seeded players lost, though none of the top 10.  In the top 10 all bar 10th seed Almagro won in straight sets and, other than Tipsarevich (who played three tight sets against Leyton Hewitt), with ease.  The ease of win of the top players is not indicative of the lack of depth in men’s tennis – Almagro took five sets to beat the 175th ranked Steve Johnson – more their focus on the first key goal of the season.

However, as pointed out last time the top players have teams that are focused on preparing their players for these events and clearly the best are ready from the off.  Since Nadal won the first of his 11 slams in 2005, only he Federer and Djokovic have won more than one, with del Potro and Murray each winning one and rarely have any of them lost early.  This speaks volumes for the degree of focus and their preparation. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the tournament pans out.  However, with Nadal out, clearly Djokovic, Federer and Murray (having won the last slam) are seen as the favourites, though del Potro, Berdych Ferrer and Tsonga will also consider they have a chance.

Alignment (2) – ensuring corporate goals are aligned through the organisation

As we head in to the Australian Open it’s worth looking at how alignment of individuals with wider goals requires specific planning and how this sometimes breaks down in a corporate context, where the front line goals get disconnected from those of support services.

The top players will have planned rigorously for the coming year and for players like Murray, Djokovic and Federer winning grand slams will be priority goals.  While the latter two have won multiple majors, Murray won his first last year and is undoubtedly looking for more.  These goals require specific training, with the aim of peaking in January (Australian), May (Frnech), June/July (Wimbledon), August/September (US Open).  Physically the capacity requirements are different for these tournaments than for the rest of the season.  Each major requires that players play best of five set matches and will need to win seven matches over 12 or 13 days to win the tournament.  Regular tournaments during the season require the top players to win four or five best of three set matches over five days (give or take a day).  The physical demands are different and the coaching teams of the top players will be specific in working on players capacity to ensure they reach their peak, physically and mentally, to perform at their best for the majors.  The success of these teams has been evidenced by the number of tournaments that have had the top four players in the semi finals.  Last year Murray made the semis or finals of all the slams except the French, where he lost in the quarters.  Since winning Wimbledon in 2004, out of 34 slams, Federer has never failed to reached the quarters of any and has lost before the semis only four times.

This speaks volumes for the value of the specificity of his training and preparation but what of the corporate world.  Federer and Murray are the ones who have to go out and perform but have significant support from teams behind them.  In investment banking, for example, there are a limited number of revenue generators, principally in trading and origination, with increasing numbers providing  support across technology, operations, risk management, compliance, HR, etc.  To ensure goals are reached these need to be aligned and appropriate capacity provided to ensure performance is met whether it be to address the growth in electronic trading, market data or complex products.  For this to happen business strategy needs to drive capacity in support services like technology and operations appropriately.  For example in the trading world the proportion of structured business to flow business would be a key element in determining technology and operational support capacity – see diagram.




A few years we did some work with a global bank to look at this very issue – analysing how business strategy drove capacity.  Simply put, there was a disconnect in the relationship between the plans of the revenue generating divisions and the largest key areas (operations and technology) that supported them.  Surveying much of the industry at the time this was not a unique or even unusual situation.  Budgets are allocated annually and often seem to have some arbitrary relationship to the previous years numbers, plus or minus depending on the business climate.

For the industry to function effectively there needs to be alignment between those who set business goals and those who support them.  Elite performance is achieved by those who plan and execute rigorously and engage all those involved.

Alignment – ensuring engagement in a team context.

The last post was about personal planning for this coming year and how by thinking through our plans in a structured manner provides the foundation for improved performance.

For an athlete in an individual sport this is a relatively simple process and was essentially the basis for the questions in the last post.  After all, it’s natural to think of ourselves first.  In team sports there is an added layer that needs to be factored in and this becomes more relevant to most of us in the corporate world.  Ensuring we are aligned with the team/organisation we are part of is key to ensuring we are engaged at work and productive.  Hence there are some key additional questions

  • Do we understand what the overall team/organisation goals are?
  • Are our goals and values aligned to those of the team/organisation?
  • How do our personal goals for the next year fit with these?
  • If not, can we adapt our personal goals to fit and, if so, how?
  • Are there any tensions between our own personal goals and those of our organisation/team?

Of course, if our answers to these questions result in us questioning continuing in our current role we may need an exit strategy.  For many, when this happens disengagement follows. After all, studies have shown that large proportions of the workforce in the western world are not fully engaged and in many cases actively disengaged from their work.  However, the sporting analogy might be helpful here.  For a professional footballer to lose heart, will inevitably lead to a drop in performance.  For someone looking for a move to another club this reduces the attractiveness of the player to another coach/manager and a consequential drop in value.  If we want to be seen as attractive to another organisation or team in our current work place we need to continue to demonstrate our value.  So there needs to be a strategy for improving performance in the current environment while ensuring that you market your talents to potential “buyers”.