Why do we bother with Sporting Analogies?

When I started this blog, it was initially at the prompt of one of my kids, who thought I should share some of my sporting (and particularly tennis) knowledge – he has a somewhat rosy view of my sporting knowledge!

The last phase of my career started as a result of my selling the idea of coaching a failing team to a client, who had a particularly thorny problem of a failing change programme, which, as he described it, had lost eight of it’s nine lives, and just about anything that could have gone wrong had done!

As it happened, the combination of inner game coaching and, as I later discovered, a form of action learning exceeded both my and the clients’ expectations in turning around the programme, in the process of which a set of dysfunctional groups across a number of locations were transformed into a cohesive team, which delivered to plan and under budget.  The approach has since been refined and used in a number of contexts, principally in financial services.

While action learning initially came from an academic context, the inner game coaching model was first articulated by Gallwey in the context of tennis.  However, there is plenty of common ground and there are other approaches to change which have similar characteristics, notably Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

In the latest of Gallwey’s Inner Game books, The Inner Game of Stress he says “while I was helping tennis players learn to improve their forehands, backhands and serves, I was really helping them learn how to perform more effectively on the inside. Learning to learn was more important than hitting the ball in court; learning to overcome fear was more important than winning any given match…. Thus the lessons from sport became fundamental in life.”

Reg Revans, who coined the term ‘action learning’, said Learning-by-doing’ is an insufficient description of what I have been on about these last twenty-five years; it is rather ‘Learning to learn-by-doing with and from others who are also learning to learn-by-doing.

The similarities between the two can be seen from the above quotes, while one of the principal distinctions is that Gallwey focuses on learning from an individual perspective and action learning is about learning together to solve problems. Hence when I sold the piece of work over a decade ago based on a sporting analogy and the former, it was the latter that was at least as relevant.

In sport, whether individual or team sport, improving performance is about overcoming the problems or challenges presented.  This is also true of work – we can pitch up and do the same old job, however, if we are not challenged, it is likely that our performance will decline.  Sport can be useful for some in that it provides a connection or point of engagement for their performance in a work context.  However, good we get at an activity there is always the potential to learn and improve.

Federer’s Losing It – Because He’s Failing to Stay Present!


Well, for some time folks have been writing off the legendary Swiss, yet he’s still battling the sands of time.

McEnroe once said it wasn’t the physical elements that were the major problem as you got older but the ability to maintain concentration.  Henman, on the BBC last week disputed this, saying that it shouldn’t be a problem, even for Federer to get up for the ATP Tour Finals.  The problem here, however, is that ability to maintain focus is, like any other, something that needs to be practiced and once you start to lose it, it can be habit forming.

The signs are now increasingly ominous for Federer, while Nadal has a far superior head to head record against him (22-10), Federer had never lost to Nadal indoors before yesterday.  That has now gone.

However, while there have been occasional signs of Federer being a tad slower, the lapses have been far greater.  In the last week he’s continued to play some outstanding tennis but the unforced error count has been high.  More telling has been the muttering when things are not going well.  Something that I believe plagued Andy Murray, until Lendl became his coach (it still emerges occasionally) was something that never occurred with Federer.  A mistake or a winner from his opponent and he just got on with the next point, almost with Borg-like serenity at times.

This trait is something that Gallwey, in the Inner Game of Tennis, talks about as a major inhibitor of performance and is often common amongst club players and lesser competitors but rarely seen at the very highest levels of elite sport.  Staying focused on the present, playing point by point, is what makes Nadal and Djokovic exceptional as the top two players in the world currently.  Federer may have another year in him at the top physically but mentally he needs to get back to being able to stay present.

Playing for Perfection


Well, for the first time in his 12 years of qualifying for the ATP Tour Finals it was not until this week, the last possible week, for Federer to confirm his qualification for the season ending tournament.

In Paris the final four almost had a familiar ring, with the top three ranked players plus Federer (down at seven).  Number three, however, is Ferrer, with Murray having slipped to four and taking time out following back surgery.  So Federer, at the tender age of 32 keeps rolling back the years and is still able to compete at this stellar level.  As one of the greatest players in history and with a record indoors second to none, can he be discounted at the season ending finale? And what has made him such an enduring talent?

Firstly, while all four players will want to win their semi-finals and the tournament, they will all have more of an eye on next week at the O2 and will want to make sure they are in the best possible shape.  However, the match between Djokovic and Federer will be interesting to see how they match up at this stage.  While Djokovic and Nadal (back at number one) will be the favourites for next week, Federer, with his impressive record in the Tour Finals and especially at the O2 should not be discounted.  The breaks he’s had this year, together with coming back to something of his best form indicate that he’s likely to get through the group stages to the semis.

So when so few top athletes stay at the top into their thirties, what has made Federer so enduring?  In Rene Stauffer’s  book on Federer, published a few years ago, he made a couple of observations on Federer which are significant.  As a young player, Federer saw his journey as one in which he sought to achieve perfection but realized along the way that this involved taking risks and hence making mistakes.  One may never achieve perfection but by taking such a course e would continue to improve.  Such mentality has also enable him to bounce back and face the challenges that the other members of his golden generation emerged.

The other critical observation was that he also saw others as fellow journeyman, presenting challenges and enabling him to improve along the way.  As such he has relished the competition, seeing it as a means to improve his own game, as his competitors present challenges to overcome, rather than a war in which the person on the other side of the net is the enemy.

As such it provides a pattern for improvement at work also, we all face challenges and the need to improve continues throughout our lives.