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.

Don’t read too much into the upsets at Queens…

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While the form book has been close to being followed in Halle, with a final between Federer and Alexander Zverev (seeds one and four), at Queens we saw a series of early upsets with the top three seeds (Murray, Wawrinka and Raonic) all losing on Tuesday, leaving us with a final between fourth seeded Marin Cilic and the unseeded but highly experienced Feliciano Lopez, the conqueror of Stan Wawrinka last Tuesday.

These are warm up tournaments, they are not always good form guides.  While Murray won Queens last year and went on to win Wimbledon, in 2012, ahead of his first Wimbledon victory he was also knocked out in his first match at Queens.  Coincidentally, the winner in 2012 was Cilic.

Murray and Wawrinka had both had long runs on the clay in Paris, Murray to the semis, where he lost to Stan, who lost in the final to a resurgent Nadal.  So, after a short rest they would have started practicing on grass during the week before Queens.  For the big names this is part of the process of preparing for Wimbledon – working out their games moving to a faster and lower bouncing surface.

Some players need competitive court time others less so.  Federer took time out after winning in Miami in March and returned in Stuttgart the week before Halle – typically he has previously just used Halle as a warm up tournament.  In Stuttgart he started of in fine form against Tommy Haas, dominating the first set but lost in three – however, he continues to roll back the years with his performances in the last week and is the current bookies favourite for Wimbledon.

Each player is different, back in the late seventies, when Borg left Paris for London he spent his days practicing on the grass of a tennis club in London prior to Wimbledon and didn’t play any warm up tournaments – clearly for five years this worked for him. During this time he would work on flattening out his forehand and practicing serve and volley, amongst other things.  Yes, Borg was known to come into the net – something he rarely needed to do on clay.  In contrast, around this time both McEnroe and Connors have used Queens as a warm up tournament.

What works for one player doesn’t always work for another.  The key for the top players is that they are focused on the big tournaments and while the play to win in the smaller events, it is often about using these to get their games in order for the slams.

For those of us who aren’t professional athletes we don’t have the luxury of not worrying about losing while we’re working on our games.  However, we do need to constantly think about how we can improve.  For many of us there are things we work towards, whether it’s a qualification, a big presentation, a project deadline, etc, and we need to work out ways of ironing the kinks out of our performances ahead of these occasions.

Experience Delivers

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I may be seen as talking my own book here but I’m prompted to write this having watched some great tennis in a match between Fernando Verdasco and Alexander Zverev.  Zverev, at 20, is the new kid on the block, just  recently having broken into the world’s top ten.  However, it was the greater experience of Verdasco that won the day in four sets.  Despite having an overnight break at one set all, Zverev and his team were not able to adjust or come up with an alternative game plan.  Despite Verdasco having a reputation of someone who can be mentally susceptible at times, it was Zverev who broke two rackets and was visibly rattled as he lost the last two sets.

It seems that the upper reaches of the men’s rankings are inhabited by old codgers currently.  With Murray and Djokovic hitting 30 earlier this month the top five are now all over 30.  While not present at Roland Garros, we have seen Roger Federer play sublime tennis this year, winning the his 18th slam in Australia and following up with Masters 1000 titles in Indian Wells and Miami, all at the grand old age of 35.

Back at the end of 2003, the year Federer won his first slam, the top ten had one member over 30, Agassi, while other members of the top five included Roddick and Coria (both 21), Federer (22) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (23). The average age of the top ten was just over 24, as opposed to over 28 currently.  Only two members of the current world’s top ten are under 25, Thiem at 23 and Zverev at 20.  What is also remarkable at the moment is that half of the world’s top 50 are over 30.

It’s likely that only the old folks amongst you will remember teenagers like Becker, Wilander and Chang winning grand slams!  So what’s happening?  I think a number of factors are at play.  One is that better understanding of sports science and the management of physiology, both in the management of injury and training for peak performance for specific events. With experienced players continuing to be able to compete physically with young guns later into their careers then that’s where greater experience comes into play.  Of course the top players with plenty of prize winning and endorsement dollars pocketed are able to afford the entourages to better support their health and fitness as well.

Top players in their late twenties and beyond have played every style of opponent on every surface and faced most situations that they will ever encounter on a tennis court.  Additionally, the best players go deeper into tournaments, getting more competitive court time against more opponents and, therefore, building their experience faster, so a top ten player will get significantly more court time against better opponents over the course of a year than a player ranked outside the top 50.

While most professional tennis players work on or are taught techniques to stay present from an early age, it’s always a challenge to do so in the heat of competition but having the experience of having faced most situations before helps develop the capability.  Some players are undoubtedly better at it than others – Nadal is the master of both managing his own energy and manipulating that of his opponent, while Murray (currently world number one) is probably the most susceptible of the top five to allow himself to be disrupted.

In the working world I’ve tended to find that having experienced team members is important in getting projects and programmes delivered – so I am talking my own book!

Reflections on an Old Codger!

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Well, several days after Fed won his 18th grand slam singles title I am still awe struck by the achievement.

Two old codgers got to the final, perhaps aided by early exits of the top two players in the world, Murray and Djokovic.  However, they both had to play some amazing tennis, including numerous, draining, five set matches, only to end up playing a final over five sets with tennis of exceptional quality.

So, how do measure Federer’s achievement?

Nadal is five years younger than Federer, a youthful 30, however, with his recent injury problems he struggled for form and consistency in the second half of last year but found it at the Australian Open, getting to the final.  This is unsurprising, in most sports you would expect players coming back from injury to take time to build form and consistency.

Federer, at 35, is nearly five years older than Nadal.  He hadn’t played a competitive tournament since Wimbledon in mid 2016 – so over six months out, following a knee injury.  He has managed on his return:

  • To win a slam, winning seven matches over two weeks, with three of the last four matches going to five sets!
  • Became the oldest winner of a grand slam singles title since Ken Rosewall won the Australian in 1972 at the age of 37
  • He overcame a player, in Nadal, who has had the psychological edge on him since at least 2008 and who, despite struggling with form last year, at least has had competitive time on the court in the last six months, as well as being significantly younger.

All this having just returned to competitive tennis having had six months out. Whatever the quality and experience of Federer, his achievement is remarkable.

History must have weighed heavily on Federer’s mind as Nadal came from two sets to one down and break Fed in the first game of the final set and as he failed to break Nadal in his next two service games, despite having numerous break points.  On a number of occasions in the past Federer had played out of his skin, only for Nadal to get under his skin and come back to win.

Federer persisted in playing positively and pushing, ending with him winning four games in a row from 3-2 down to come back and win the final set and the trophy.

At an age when many players would have settled on their laurels, or hung up their rackets and moved on, Federer is still competing at the highest level.  He has had to continually adapt and innovate – rather than following the trend and stepping back on the court to give himself more time, he has stepped in with the aim of taking time away from his opponents.  In 2015 the sneak attack by Roger appeared (SABR), as he stepped in, using his remarkable racket head control and reading of the serve to attack the serve of top opponents – in the main this was successful, other than in the US Open final of that year, when he encountered an inspired Djokovic, who he had beaten with similar tactics in the previous tournament.  He continues to use the court as well as any player, with a variation and invention matched by no other current player.

 

Support and Collaboration Lead to Achieving Goals…

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At the end of August I completed a four day ride from Marble Arch, London, to the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, we have been congratulated by lots of folk on our achievement. Sam, my eldest son, Beth, my daughter, and I cycled over 280 miles, climbed around 9,000 feet over the four days. There hangs a tail – I’d told my daughter there’d be some climbing towards the end of the London-Dover first day, some at the start of the second day and not much after that. Well, between Canterbury and Dover I don’t think I’ve climbed so much on a bike in such a short space of time. The second day was much as predicted but on the third day after a lengthy and gradual ascent and then steep descent, we had the longest climb of the trip so far, which was followed by plenty more shorter ascents. Then on day four not long into the ride out Beauvais we met what turned out to be the longest ascent and followed by several more climbs, prompting Sam to say that the climbing had not been balanced by descents. For the first two days we had decent weather, the third day was torrential and a day when we seemed to be continually cycling into a headwind, the third day started off wet but ended in the sun in Paris. However, facing long climbs in wet and clingy clothing was not what any of us would have described as fun.

Standout performances from both kids (if you can call them that at 29 and 23) but we were admirably supported by my wife Ab and son Joe. While, when we started, if we’d known what we were letting ourselves in for, I’m not sure we’d have had the guts to keep going. However, we also had a couple of rest stops on the first two days when we were met by Ab and Joe, who provided us with much needed refreshment. On the third and fourth days our lunch stop also turned into a major recovery break, with a complete change of clothes at lunch on day three. Ab drove, Joe navigated and, I’m sure also calmed Ab’s nerves. He also provided the food for lunch, his own inimitable gourmet sandwiches, together with soup, cake, coffee, etc., though we tended to take too long and eat too much for lunch because of it.

They also did the checking in and out of hotels, packing up, etc – regular soigneurs – but not too many massages though, so not sure we can recommend them to Team Sky just yet.

On day three the change of clothes was significant, swapping next to useless cycling rain capes for climbing anoraks. None of us had waterproof pants, so it was a change from sodden lycra to dry lycra, which very quickly became sodden again! For some reason it was the wet days when we seemed to hit the roads with the heaviest traffic and it was on day three that we had the only puncture of the trip. Just lovely replacing an inner tube on the rear wheel in the pouring rain!

As the three riders all had intermittent knee problems, the support team provided medical support, all invaluable and without which we would have struggled to complete the ride to Paris.

We also had support from lots of other sources to help us prepare, many thanks to all. Elaine many thanks for your tips, including encouraging us to ride on each others wheels to reduce the overall effort we put in. We had practiced a little before but definitely got better as the days passed, with Sam and Beth both doing some immense work at the front and nobody ever being left behind. We didn’t take arm warmers – but the mornings were cold at the start and, yes, it was always a struggle to get going on each morning after day one but being forewarned we managed.

This was a goal that had it’s genesis in a minor heart condition, which thankfully was resolved last year – but being clear as to the goal, how we were going to achieve it (putting the plan together), preparation (training, route planning, getting all the equipment in place – which for Sam almost de-railed the trip) and a mass of support, we eventually achieved what we set out to do.

We used a Garmin and ridewithgps.com for route planning – if anyone wants to use my files, speak to me and I’ll help you keep off the farm tracks – which are not ideal for road bikes and how we got our puncture on day three!

With the kindness of a lot of you we also managed to raise around £2,000 for the British Heart Foundation and the Arrhythmia Alliance, across our three virginmoney fundraising sites:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/Aitkenheads

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/Acycling

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/riding_my_bike_to_paris

Best Laid Plans….

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So as a family we are undertaking a challenge that I initiated last year – cycling to Paris. Not on one of these organised rides, which put as much in the hands of the organising companies as they do the charities, but self-supported.

The story is to be found at
http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/Aitkenheads

This got added to when I got a place in the RideLondon ballot, so here are some reflections following the first leg of the challenge.

At the start of the year I put together a training plan to prepare for a 100 mile ride on August 10th and then four days in the saddle starting on 23rd August. Working Monday to Friday meant being constrained to riding at the weekend and one or two sessions in the gym during the week. The training has almost gone to plan – though given the weather we’ve had this summer most of the rides have been in good weather and, when it has rained, we’ve seemed to miss the worst of it. So, it came to Sunday 10th August and an earlier start than any in my training – up at 4.45, dropped off in east London around 6am and a short cycle over to the Olympic Park, grey and overcast but at that point dry.

At the start I got to hear that the route had been reduced to 86 miles, missing out Leith Hill and Box Hill, given the weather forecast and the prediction of encountering the remnants of hurricane Bertha. I had mixed feelings, I hadn’t felt intimidated by the hills but also knew that while my climbing had improved as a result of my training the thought of doing a couple of hills after over 50 miles in my legs was not the most enticing.

Anyway, we got off at the appointed time of 7.10 with a good run through London, over Chiswick bridge and the first drops of rain but fairly straightforward all the way to Hampton Court by 8,20 and then out into Surrey with the rain starting to fall.

What followed I described as apocalyptic, I think Chris Boardman later described it as ‘torrential, then Biblical, then horrendous’. One cyclist said to me that he’d been cycling for many years but had never ridden in anything like it. The roads of Surrey turned into rivers, while ascending to Newlands corner was the toughest bit physically for me, going up against the current as it were, some of the descents were almost nightmarish, with brakes almost useless and so much water on the surface that I was surprised there weren’t more crashes.

I had taken my sunglasses off when the rain had got reasonably heavy, as I couldn’t see through them, but at some point in the Surrey countryside with my eyes stinging from the pounding of water I tried putting them back on – not a good idea! Not only could I not see through the lenses but the amount of water falling was still managing to hit my eyes behind my glasses. At some point I also realised that if I’d jumped in a river with my clothes on I would be no wetter than I was.

Nothing I’d done or planned had prepared me for this specific set of circumstances, thankfully the miles I’d put in through the year had prepared me physically and I finally came home in 4 hours 53 minutes. However, getting to the finish line was not the last of the lessons in planning and communication to take from this day. The previous day I had discussed meeting up with my wife and had explicitly agreed on going to the meet and greet site in Green Park, she was aiming to be there with my two sons. I’d also said that I expected to be back some time after 1pm – before the course had been shortened.

When I’d heard the course had been shortened I text all of them to say they taken out the hills and the course was reduced to 86 miles – I assumed that they would compute this into an earlier arrival time (‘assume’ – hah hah!). So I crossed the line just after noon got my phone out only to find that despite me thinking it was protected it was kaput from the water! I was fairly sanguine about it, after all I’d got round and so made my way through the goody bag area and round to the meet and greet area – only to find no family and with no working phone not straightforward to get hold of them.
So, I thought, the sensible thing to do was stick with the agreement and wait at the appointed place, however, cold and wet I felt. It turned out that the boys had pitched up at the finishing line around 12.30 then called their mum, who arrived 10 mins later and suggested they wait at the finish line, where they could applaud me. They stayed there for two hours applauding an assortment of folks over the finish line, while eventually, in Green Park I encountered a friend whose phone I borrowed (many thanks Lisa), only to get her voicemail, so I left a voicemail and tootled off back on my bike to Fulham. The family ultimately got the message and came back – I wasn’t too grumpy, probably from the sense of achievement.
So what did I learn:

  • Prepare as specifically as possible but also be prepared to adapt
  • When you’re communicating with others don’t assume, be as explicit as possible
  • And, for my wife (!) – when you’ve got an agreed plan, stick to it unless there’s a good reason to change it

Plans change…

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But you still need to plan to succeed.

It’s still relatively early in the year for the plans of some elite athletes, tennis players & road cyclists plan on a calendar year basis, but for some plans have already been amended.

Earlier this year the weather has caused problems and not just in Britain. In Italy the first major spring classic, the Milan – San Remo one-day race, had the course amended due to adverse weather as a result of the adverse conditions.  Consequently, the nature of the course was changed, with the removal of a 5km climb. As this made it a more sprinter friendly course both Mark Cavendish and Andre Greippel changed their schedule to compete. Subsequently, it was won by the Norwegian, Alexander Kristoff, with Cavendish coming in fifth. As Cavendish pointed out prior to the race, Milan-San Remo is one of the easiest to complete but the hardest to win. Without the change in schedule, of course, he wouldn’t even have been in with a chance of winning.

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Recently, in tennis, Roger Federer had clearly not planned to play in the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 tournament but changed his plans, asking for a wild card late in the day. He beat Djokovic on the way to losing in the final to his compatriot, Stan Wawrinka. His change may have been a motivated by any of a number of factors – feeling he did not need to rest at this point, given he was playing well, it may give him extra clay court time ahead of the French Open, as well as him feeling that he had a genuine chance of winning a tournament he has only ever got to the final of. On the other hand, given his wife, Mirka, is expecting their third child, it may have been an opportunity to add points to his ranking, given he may miss other scheduled tournaments, so giving him a platform to keep him up in the top four, where he is back after a good start to the year. Whatever the reason, again without the change he wouldn’t have had that chance.

In my day job I occasionally come across project managers who are reluctant to plan, or publish their plans because they know they will change.  A shortsighted approach, change happens but this shouldn’t stop us planning to achieve.  Change initiatives need a plan to succeed and the plan needs actively managing and communicating.  Similarly, where we want to improve performance a plan gives something to measure our progress against.

What’s luck got to do with it?

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At the beginning of this week David Moyes, the Manchester United manager, was quoted as saying that his team needed their luck to change to turn their season around.

This has been the worst start to a season for United for many a year, they have lost eight times this season in the league, as well as having been knocked out of the FA Cup and the League Cup and are over 20 points behind where they were at the same point last season with largely the same squad of players.

Sir Alex Ferguson occasionally talked about getting a little bit of luck in a season and often complained about incidents in a similar vein.  However, they were likely to be individual incidents that he saw as being outside of his and his teams’ control, like the sending off of Nani in last seasons Champions League quarter final, that was clearly a game changer. Once it was done he, and the team, moved on.

In contrast Moyes would seem to be scrambling for excuses in his plight.  After all sport is a game of luck, as Ben Hogan famously said: “golf is a game of luck, the more I practice the luckier I get”.  In football terms its clear that at United under Ferguson there was both a phenomenal work ethic and a never say die attitude.  While the former may still be true under Moyes, the urgency that Ferguson instilled in his team when they were behind, or drawing and needed a win was legendary.  Last season there were numerous occasions that they scored in the latter stages of a game.  In sharp contrast United have conceded in the last five minutes five times this season to drop points, as follows:

·       October – Southampton equalized in the 89th minute

·       November – Cardiff equalized in the 90th minute

·       December – Everton scored the winner in the 86th minute

·       January – Swansea scored the winner in the 90th minute

·       February – Fulham equalized in the 90th minute

These were all games that United would have considered they should have won.  Under Ferguson the occasional blip occurred but there was always a reaction, this has not happened under Moyes and the philosophy of throwing everything at opponents in the last 15-20 minutes seems to have gone out of the window.  There is undoubtedly a lower level of confidence in the team but are Moyes’ recent comments likely to anything to change that?

The urgency that Ferguson instilled meant that these types of events were rare and in moving on he focused on the things that he and his players could control.  Sure there are things that we can’t control that may trip us up but it’s the way we react to those that determines how we perform going forward.  For Ferguson they were put behind him and he and his team moved on.  Moyes’ focus seems to be dwelling on things that are outside his control – which is unhelpful for both him and his players.

There are things that we can and can’t control that affect us all, it is pointless dwelling on those that we can’t control, as these are likely to sap our energy.

It’s that mental thing … it’s easier when you’re having fun and you find your passion!

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Over the last week I’ve seen a couple of interviews by leading sportsmen where the issue of the importance of the mental game and strength of mind has come up.  In a Ski Sunday piece, extreme freeride skier Candide Thovex said “ a lot of sport is in the mind, the mental is the most important. I’ve lernt that through the years in terms of contests and recovery … you have to stay positive and be really patient.”  He went on in discussing recovering from a career threatening back break to say, when faced with the long haul to get back to performing, to say:  “You have fun for yourself, one turn is a good sensation, in the long run you have a lot of good sensations.” And when asked about how long he might continue in such a demanding sport he said: “I’m having fun and it’s a real passion for me …. It’s a lot in the mental too.”

 cav_champselysee7In Hardtalk on the BBC a week ago, when Stephen Sackur interviewed Mark Cavendish, his opening question was: “What’s been more important in your cycling career – strength of body or strength of mind?:

Cavendish’s answer: “For sure, strength of mind, physically I’m actually not that good, if you look at lab tests and that, growing up I was actually told I wasn’t very good and it was my will to win that got me winning and it was my love for cycling that kept me riding.”

Neither of these are particularly surprising, however both have three things in common:

  1. The mental element of sport is far more important than the physical, to the extent that Cavendish talks about his physiological unsuitability for cycling that he has had to overcome.
  2. Thovex talks about having fun
  3. He goes on to say that his sport is a real passion, while Cavendish encompasses both in describing his “love of cycling” as a key motivator.

There are increasing numbers of publications that discuss the mental elements of sport, as there are self-help books that a targeted at helping us overcome obstacles to performance in our lives.  However, rarely do they express the cornerstones of performance in terms of “having fun” and only occasionally does “passion” get a significant mention.  Yet when we are having fun and taking part in something that is our passion we are far more likely to be in ‘flow’ – a term that was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and describes a state of complete absorption which invariably results in optimal performance – doubt and uncertainty (key performance inhibitors) are absent.

I recnetly decided to move from working for myself to joining an established consulting firm that was engaged in the same type of work.  While it was important that the firm I have decided to join is involved in work that I am technically equipped to do, a key decision factor was in repeated conversations with one of the senior management team the use of the term ‘fun’ being used.  We’re aiming to develop a business and it’s capability further but at the same time, amidst the challenges, we aim to have fun.

Similarly, elite athletes cannot compete at the highest level without the requisite technical skills but they’re unlikely to perform at their best if they don’t love what they’re doing.

That Flimsy Little Thing Called Confidence …

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So lots of attention has gone on Manchester United in recent weeks, having changed manager, CEO and gone from runaway title winners last season to an average mid table team this term.  So what has changed?

After back to back home losses in the Premier League, United defender Jonny Evans said “The lads have lost a bit of confidence. You can tell that with the possession and creativity.  Players maybe are not playing how they naturally would. That happens when your confidence drops.”

It certainly does, ask Roger Federer.

Lack of confidence can beset just about anyone.  At times, Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, has undoubtedly lost confidence, most notably this year where he suffered earlier than expected losses at Wimbledon (2r) and the US Open (4r), with a post Wimbledon slump while testing a potential new racket in Europe.

Federer’s lack of confidence against the other members of this golden generation (Nadal & Djokovic) have seen him at times try and go for winners too early, leading to his normally stellar forehand become error strewn.

Why is it that top athletes can be troubled by such a lack of confidence in their own ability?  After all the United team is largely the same as that which won the Premier League at a canter last season and Federer has won just about everything there is to play for in tennis.

A quote in a recent interview with Federer is revealing: “By the end, everyone around me was talking positively again, the mood was much better than in the summer. That boosts my morale for the coming year, and it’s a big relief. The fun has definitely returned.”

So clearly while things were not going well earlier in the year it would seem, by implication, that there were negative vibes coming from Federer’s support team.  Additionally, it would seem tennis, his enjoyment of competing he often cites as motivation for continuing to play at 32, had ceased to be the fun that it was.

We all make mistakes, have bad days, losses, etc. but how we react to them determines our future performance.  In a team or group context how we react to other people’s mistakes or low points can also impact their performance.

One characteristic I observed of Federer in the World Tour Finals in November was that he was failing to stay present.  In matches against Djokovic and Nadal in particular, he resorted to berating himself and clearly unhappy.

A clear sign of lack of confidence and doubt in one’s own ability, for Federer it was ominous but if those around him are now reacting more positively his recent declaration that he still has goals in tennis might yet mean that 2014 might be a better year for him than 2013!