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!