Small Change – Big Impact …

Fed Cilic

So, the old codger does it again.  Let’s celebrate Fed’s achievement – his eighth Wimbledon, 11th Wimbledon final and 19th slam and, at close to 36, the old man achieved it without the loss of a set.

Although it was the first time since 2009 that Federer has won a slam without having to play another member of the big four (Nadal, Djokovic, Murray), Federer seems to be playing better than ever.  As one pundit put it, he has to thank the other top players for pushing his game on.  His once suspect backhand, that Nadal used to attack relentlessly, has become a weapon of power and beauty.  His movement and speed around the court has been exceptional. He continues to strive to improve despite having reached such heights as a player.

As he said in his post-match interview with Sue Barker, “I kept on believing and dreaming” and five years since his last victory at Wimbledon, with two final losses to Djokovic in between, he was here again.  Roger, the favourite, yet he still had to execute.

In contrast, the losing finalists in both the men’s and women’s seemed to lose their way.  Venus, following relentless pressure from Muguruza and Cilic, where a number of factors got in the way – an injury, first time in a Wimbledon final and the relentless pressure from Roger from the off.

In execution, Federer’s pressure came from the very first point and, while Cilic resisted well at the outset, even out hitting Federer in the first four games, Federer’s pressure finally told in the fifth game, when he broke the Cilic serve.  Other factors started to come into play – the occasion and an injury (blister) to Cilic’s foot.  These are things that professional athletes have to deal with, indeed Federer admitted to feeling nerves and whether it was the ability of Cilic to reach other serves others couldn’t or the occasion, Fed himself served two double faults in the first set – it’s rare for him to serve more than two in a match!

So Cilic had a break point in the fourth game and failed to convert, then, as so often is the case, was broken in the following game. A similar thing had happened in the women’s final, where Venus had had set points at 5-4, only to be broken in the next game and then capitulate under the constant pressure from Muguruza.

One noticeable thing and small but significant change with Federer was that, having battled Cilic’s power with power in the first few games, the match was tight and close. Fed then took the pace off some of the shots, which led to errors from Cilic, as he was having to generate his own place.  The small psychological impact of not converting a break point, together with a small tactical change from Fed changed the flow of the game.  In the fifth game Cilic found himself 0-40 down, following a string of errors, saving two break points he finally conceded his serve on the third.

In sport, as in work, small things can have a significant impact on proceedings and so it did in the final.  Federer with a greater experience and the nouse and ability to give Cilic a different look when he needed to – there was only going to be one winner.


Where Was Plan B?

konta williams

After a phenomenally successful Wimbledon for Jo Konta (she’d never made it past the second round before) it was intriguing to see a player with a reputation for a strong mental approach capitulate to Venus Williams.

To put this in context, Williams, at 37, is obviously very experienced with five Wimbledon singles titles to her name.  However, their head to head, prior to this match, was 3-2 in favour of Konta.  So, while they had never played on grass before, Konta was far from the underdog.

Let’s not take anything away from Venus, she was the better player and dealt with everything Konta through at her exceptionally well.  Konta, in her post match press conference, talked about Venus dictating play from the outset.  However, that belies what happens in a match between two high quality players.  At 4 all in the first set there was little to choose between the two and in the next game Konta put Venus’s serve under pressure.  How often it is that after a closely held service game the next game results in a break and so it was.  From then on the pressure told and Venus ran out the winner 6-4 6-2.

There were a couple of notable things that happened in the second set – firstly as the pressure told Konta’s groundstrokes became more conservative, for the most part, where she had previously been moving Venus around, she played much more within the court.  Secondly, other than that, there was little change to her game.

John McEnroe, earlier in the week, commented in a different context, that one of his coaches had said that he should not give his opponent the same shot twice.  Interestingly, Konta’s average groundstoke speed prior to yesterday, over the tournament, was a couple of miles per hour faster than Andy Murray’s.  This is not because Konta can hit harder than Murray but that Murray varies the pace and spin of his shots far more, making it difficult for his opponent to get into a rhythm.

There was a point in the second set yesterday where Konta chipped a short return in, which Venus stepped into and hit long.  Martina Navratilova, commenting on BBC, noted it and the need for a change up but nothing more came.  Throwing in the occasional   short slice may well have disrupted Venus but other than the one instance there was nothing, so Konta seemed not to be assessing what did and didn’t work.

A lot has been made of the processes that Konta has put in place with the aid of a mental coach and relies on to strengthen her and build the positivity to her approach.  However, there was something more needed yesterday, some variation to unsettle her opponent.  Top players tend to be good at probing and assessing where the weaknesses occur with their opponents, this element seemed to be missing from Konta’s game yesterday.

On the other hand, we should  celebrate that Konta did indeed do exceptionally well over the two weeks of Wimbledon, this is the second time she has made the semis of a slam and certainly has the capability to be involved right to the end.



What Got You Here Won’t Get You There



Apologies to renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith for stealing the title of one of his books but it seemed so appropriate.

Watching Federer play Mischa Zverev  reminded me of the need to amend our strategy both dependent on the occasion and the stage of our career.  This has been highlighted by Federer yesterday and throughout his career.

Yesterday against the older Zverev he was faced with a wily player, with a game well suited to grass ,who he expected to serve and volley and in return games to try and get to the net as often as possible. Federer, like the other top players, is good at getting the ball back into play of big servers by slicing or chipping the ball back, giving himself the chance to get into the point.  This is fine against a big server who stays back most of the time – the type of opponent he faces in many matches.  However, against Zverev it would most likely give him a relatively easy volley. So Federer’s return strategy changed – the vast majority of his returns were driven or hit with topspin, with the aim of getting the ball down at the ankles of Zverev.  Tougher to make the return but harder for the incoming volleyer.  The result of course was a straight sets win for Federer.

So, what of career changes.  Federer, faced with the growing competition from Nadal and Djokovic between 2008 and 2011 was faced with two opponents who were exceotional defensive players who played well behind the baseline.  Both stretch the limits of time allowed between play and, Nadal particularly has clearly messed with Federer’s head in disrupting his relatively rapid rhythm between points.

Federer has not stood still in this but has sought to change and in some instances innovate to compete.  First, in 2009, rather than step back and give himself more time, Federer stepped up, more frequently playing around the baseline – Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will often play two metres or more behind it.  What Federer’s strategy did was take time away from his opponents.  Of course, he’s blessed with remarkable gifts that have allowed him to do that – though this has been coupled with many hours of work on the practice court.

Then, of course, a couple of years ago we saw the sneak attack by Roger (SABR) appear in the American hard court season, where he would step forward to take a second serve almost on the service line.  A tactic very few could execute successfully but it reaped dividends, if not quite another slam.  Years ago he resurrected the forehand slice when dragged out of position, as part of his defensive arsenal, which gave him time to get back into points.

In his time off last year he seems to have worked further on being more aggressive, particularly on his backhand – once seen as a relative weakness.  This year its been a weapon and a thing of beauty.

What’s also been interesting this year and, particularly at Wimbledon, is Rafael Nadal, is stepping in more – something that has clearly paid off.  I think he’s currently playing some of the best tennis of his career.

So, what can we learn?

Firstly, as the world is changing around us we cannot rely on the way we have worked in the past, whether in terms of personal style or business or operating models. That doesn’t mean we throw everything out, indeed, where it works and is sound it may well be the right thing to continue with.

However, a week ago I briefly mentioned the dynamics of the tennis entourage.  These vary and are often unusual.  One thing we can say is that they don’t have the hierarchical, command and control cultures that we see in many large corporates.  Given the focus on achieving results, there are people bringing specific skills to bear on this and all need to be heard and often the strategy around these areas is debated between player, expert and other key members of the team.

There is undoubtedly a high degree of collaboration and debate.  The open nature of these debates is part of keeping the team engaged and on-board.  However, in many large commercial firms (my experience is principally in financial services) the hierarchical, command and control structure is counter-productive.  Lack of openness and low trust often result and bad news does not travel upwards effectively, leading to a degree of organisational blindness.

While many firms are trying to innovate and rightly concerned about the competitive threat from tech firms, traditional management styles are not only counter-productive to innovation, they also inhibit performance and productivity.

As large firms, particularly in financial services, where I have spent much of my career, seek to innovate, this cultural element is an on-going obstacle.  Command and control coaching has long since disappeared from much of elite sport – when will senior managers in the corporate sector learn that such approaches are severely limiting to individual and team performance.


Kerber not a happy bunny…

France Tennis French Open

Angelique Kerber is undoubtedly a talented player, a two time slam winner and the top seeded player in what many acknowledge to be a wide open Wimbledon.

However, despite moving into the third round, not only does she seem unhappy on court but is playing defensively. By that, I mean she is hitting the ball well within the lines, getting the ball back and looking for her opponent to make mistake. She is such a marvellous athlete who retrieves well and so far it’s worked but as she progresses it won’t!

Contrast this with Wozniacki, playing with renewed joy, attacking the ball and dusting the lines.  Caroline is a similar age to Kerber and has had her tribulations in the past.  She’s another player considered to be defensive but is certainly playing with more verve and an attacking mindset than Kerber.  While Kerber is hitting well within the lines of the court, Wozniaki is stretching her opponents by going close to or for the lines.

Last year in building a team with a different culture to that of the bank in which we were working, to facilitate innovation, I asked one team member what she wanted out of her job.  Amongst other things a key element was to come to work and have fun!

In the kind of worlds that many of us work in, having fun is indeed a possibility at work.  Indeed, along with a number of other characteristics, enjoying one’s work is a key element of a productive worker.  So at the moment I wouldn’t stake too much money on Angie Kerber winning Wimbledon!


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.


Murray shows his mental strength…


The first British Wimbledon men’s singles champion since Fred Perry, overcame world number one  Novak Djokovic in a less than straightforward three sets.  The hottest day of the year so far in the UK (not saying much given the year we’ve had) saw the match start with brutal hitting and long rallies.  Not unexpected, with two of the best defensive players in the game having both had tough matches in the last week, this was always going to require immense fortitude just to compete.  This was a three set match that lasted well over three hours.

It was a match of break and break back.  In the first set Murray broke for 2-1 but was broken back had to go again to break to take the first 6-4.  In both the second and third sets Djokovic was a break up, only to be pegged back by a relentless Murray.  In the second Murray managed to break for 6-5 and serve out the set. In the third Murray was 2-0 up, only to lose four games in a row, then took the next four to win the match.

Breaking for 5-4 and serving out the match was not the end of it.  Bjorn Borg once described serving out the Wimbledon final in the fifth set as feeling that he could hardly lift his arm, yet Murray dispatched the first three points in straightforward fashion – to bring up three championship points. Almost at the point of celebration he was pegged back.  Ask Federer about having match points against Djokovic – in his last two US Open semis against the Serb he has held match points only to lose. Murray must have only been too aware of Novak’s fighting qualities, as he created break points but he continued to play positively, taking each point as it came, to finally create his fourth match point, where Djokovic netted a backhand to give Murray the match.

The match was tight, with similar stats in most departments, however, one is revealing – Djokovic made nearly twice as many unforced errors as Murray (40 to 21), admitting after the match that he was Impatient, trying to shorten the points.  The drop shot became a frequent ploy in the third set and, with both players feeling the heat, may have yielded more points but Murray is too good and quick a mover to be caught out regularly.  It indicates that Djokovic was less prepared to battle it out than Murray, with such similar games this may have been Djokovic’s downfall.

This was a tough match for Murray in so many ways – primarily in playing and beating the number one player in the world but also with the expectations of a nation on him, he succeeded where so many have failed over the last 77 years.


Have patience when it’s difficult to find rhythm…


So we’ve got the men’s final that the seedings predicted, though with plenty of upsets along the way and two great semi finals, of which one, Djokovic against Del Potro, was a classic.

Both winners in the men’s semis yesterday faced the problem of having to win against big hitters who provided different problems but one was the difficulty of getting into a rhythm.  This was particularly true for Murray, playing against the promising, big serving and big hitting Jerzy Janowicz, the lowest ranked of the semi finalists.  For Murray this was another potential banana skin, Janowicz had nothing to lose and came out firing bullets and, despite being set points down on his own serve, ran out the winner of the first set in the breaker.

This is where Murray had to be patient, trusting in himself, as mentioned in the last post, having come back from two sets down builds confidence to deal with situations like this. While Janowicz’s serve is difficult for sheer pace, it doesn’t provide the variety that some players have and being patient, starting to pick direction comes after a while.  The top players read the servers body, necessary when there’s only around half a second between the ball being struck and hitting the return. This is one of the reasons Federer’s serve is so difficult to break – he doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as some but can hit a wide range of serves off the same basic motion, making it one of the most difficult to read.

It became clear during the second set that Murray was starting to pick the Janowicz serve, chipping the first serve back into play to get a foothold into the rallies and doing more when he got a shot at a second serve.  Despite being a break down in the third set against a player serving bullets he didn’t panic and, form 4-1 down, managed to win five games in a row, breaking Janowicz twice, to take the set.  Despite getting annoyed at the decision to close the roof at the end of the third, potentially disrupting the momentum he had built, he came back and broke early in the fourth to take the match.

The final is tough to pick – Djokovic, dropped the first two sets of the tournament in his semi but played some of his best tennis to overcome a superb display from Del Potro – a big man who can hit the ball with frightening ferocity but also has great touch.  Djokovic, himself, said that he believed it was some of the best tennis he had played at Wimbledon, which he needed, given some of Del Potro’s shots, particularly off the forehand.

On the other hand, Murray despite a couple of challenging matches, has come through playing solidly and will have the benefit of the vast majority of the Wimbledon crowd being behind him.

Djokovic has the edge, both in overall head to head and in best of five sets, however, Murray has the experience of outlasting Djokovic in a five set final, at the US Open last year and their only match on grass, the Olympic semi final last year, Murray won in a tight two sets.