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.

 

 

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What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

federer-zverev

 

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.

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

Queenslosers

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.

Nadal – King of Clay – Experience & timely breaks delivers again!

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So, two of the greatest tennis players of all time continue to roll back the years.

Having renewed their rivalry at the start of the year – with Federer winning in five sets, coming from a break down in the fifth in the Australian Open final. Federer went on to win again against Nadal in Indian Wells and Miami.  Federer has since been out of action but returns this week to grass ahead of Wimbledon.

Nadal has come back to dominate on clay, undoubtedly his best surface, on which he holds a 13-2 head to head with Federer.  Winning 10 titles at a single slam is unprecedented. At the age of 31 he dominated every opponent – not since Borg in 1978 has anyone conceded so few games in winning a slam.  Nadal conceded 35 games through the seven rounds, compared to Borg conceding 32 in 1978. Both players are/were masters of the defensive game.

Nadal does a number of things that set him aside.  His preparation, which appears OCD, is meticulous.  It’s seen on the court in the way he arranges his kit, drinks, etc, together with his step pattern from change overs. It starts before the match in visualisation not just of how he might play the math but of the walk to the court.   Spatially Court Philippe Chatrier is larger than any of the other courts – his experience of it is clearly greater than any and in facing a younger opponent like Thiem, in the semis, he had a significant advantage here in his familiarity with the surroundings.  However, where he’s not familiar he has dealt with that in the past by actually doing the walk to the court and spending time on the court before a match to familiarise himself with his surroundings.

For great performers meticulous preparation is critical – a question for all of us as we go about our daily performances at work, is how much do we prepare, particularly for meetings, or key interactions?

Like all top tennis players Nadal is also an expert at managing his own energy and time – legendary (as with Djokovic) for the amount of time he takes between serves. While this led to a warning from the umpire in an earlier round, the routine he goes through is designed to help him stay present – tuning out of the last point and allowing complete focus on the next.

Additionally, both Federer and Nadal have taken chinks of time off in the past year.  Both acknowledge that this has been a key element in their resurgence.  While my work, as a consultant has allowed me to take breaks (some longer than intended), it’s not the norm in a working life.  Our working patterns don’t readily facilitate the effective management of energy – I often see senior managers go from meeting to meeting throughout the day with little preparation, no breaks and hence little or no time to reflect on outcomes.  It’s a pattern of work that is highly ineffective yet persists.  Jim Loehr, in working with senior executives, observed productivity dropping relatively early in the day as a result of this pattern – rarely do those involved even recognise it.  Long days rarely have a positive effect on output!

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!