The Tennis Entourage – Peak Performance Needs Support (Lessons for Tech Investors!)

The Championships - Wimbledon 2012: Day Five

On the eve of Wimbledon, we can learn some interesting lessons looking at the top players and the support they have that enables them to perform at their peak.  We’ll take a brief look at that old codger and bookies favourite, Roger Federer, and the current champion, Andy Murray.

Both players are now family men and have comprehensive support teams – the entourage, as it’s often referred to, is not just a group of hangers on but a team that provides specific support to the player.  The ultimate goal, of course is to facilitate the player performing at their peak.

Different players have slightly different configurations of support team but in terms of Murray and Federer, they are similar in that both have a headline coach (Lendl for Murray and Ljubicic for Federer), a regular full time coach (Delgado and Luthy respectively), fitness coach, physio, nutrition support, agents (coincidentally both have set up their own sports agency with their own agents) and strong family support from their wives and parents. Additionally, in Federer’s case taking four children on tour he has comprehensive child care to free up Merka to support him when playing.

Other players will have slightly different configured teams, often smaller, while more than one role may be taken by a single person.  In addition, specific skills may be brought in to address specific requirements (technical improvement, etc) and different hitting partners are often used dependent on need (similar playing style to the next opponent, for example).  Djokovic, for example, brought in Mark Woodford for a spell to help him improve his volleys.

These support teams are critical for their success and it’s an indication of how sophisticated elite sport has become.  Taking such a sizeable team on tour is a costly exercise and, in terms of the size of the Murray and Federer teams, may only be for the very top players.  However, it is undoubtedly seen by them as providing a clear return on investment.

For players early on in their careers their national federations will often invest in some of this support, of which some may be shared amongst players.

Extended stakeholders in the team include sponsors, including racket and clothing suppliers.  A few years ago the focus for Federer was regaining his number one ranking.  This mission and the plan to do this was worked on with his coaching and management team and openly articulated and shared with his key sponsors.

The dynamics of these teams can be unusual – inevitably the player is the focus but they are unlikely to be hierarchical in the way many traditional corporates are.  `The roles can be fluid and overlap, while the life of members of the support team can be short lived.  Though with Matt Little, who works with Murray, and Severin Luthy, Federer’s long time coach, their long tenure is a testament to the comfort the players feel with these individuals and the on-going contribution they are seen to be making.  Often the length of service of coaches is no longer than 18 months (not too dissimilar to CIO’s in financial services!)

So, what can we learn from this?

There are a number of elements we can learn from. Obviously, providing support for our key performers to achieve specific goals is important.  Having a learning and coaching culture leads to improved performance and growth.  Large firms can learn from the dynamics of these high performing teams.  These are themes that we will look at in future posts.

However, having spent the last year working in tech innovation there’s an angle I’d like to explore based on observation.  In recent years money has been flooding into the tech start-up world.  Private equity funds, large tech firms, financial services firms all have money invested or to invest in early stage tech firms.   There are plenty of interested parties and different approaches.

Ultimately investors are interested in the numbers and making a return om their investment.  Some will provide support to differing degrees, others look to influence with a seat on the board.  The success of varying approaches is mixed – it was brought to my attention recently that one large tech firm has bought several hundred tech firms over the last 10 years – around 80 per cent of these have subsequently been closed down, despite the investor  having built a team in house with the skills to facilitate integration.  This is not too dissimilar to the overall world of mergers and acquisitions, where research suggests that around 85 per cent of mergers and acquisitions fail to realise the benefits that are articulated before the integration.

In the case of early stage tech firms, they vary considerably but may be comprised of a small team, with very specific skills and focus.  Over time to realise the return on investment there will be some help they certainly need and other skills which may be helpful.

While they grow, the operating model will change (potentially several times) – this should not be a fudged exercise but with specific focus around the goals of the company over the next period.  Team members will undoubtedly benefit from coaching, particularly as the size of the organisation grows and culture changes with it, similarly bringing in relevant skills around organisation development will help here.  Specific additional skills may be needed around strategy, product management, sales and marketing, developing the technology.

These are all not too dissimilar to the approach taken by elite performers in sport.  While there are undoubtedly some organisations who get this and do nurture their investments, in the main the world of work in this area, like many others, is way behind in understand the components and psychology of performance.

So when you’re watching the tennis over the next few weeks an the camera pans over to the players box, remember that many of the people there have a clear contribution to make to the performance of the player on court.

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