Tennis Lessons for Business

By Kevin Warren

 “Tennis taught me so many lessons in life. One of the things it taught me is that every ball that comes to me, I have to make a decision. I have to accept responsibility for the consequences every time I hit a ball.” (Billie Jean King)

Kevin Warren, Chief Commercial Officer, Xerox
“Trust is something that has to be built, and most high performing teams absolutely have it.” — Kevin Warren, Chief Commercial Officer, Xerox

I get inspired this time of year as the best tennis players in the world descend on Flushing, N.Y. in pursuit of the dream of a major championship win. I attend as an enthusiastic spectator as often as possible. And while my daily focus is on business, I play tennis on weekends and I’m a constant student of the game — which got me reflecting on the similarities between successful business and successful tennis.

While there are some more obvious business-relevant game play requirements like placement, timing, positioning and strategy, the best players — and the best business people — have mastered these individual lessons:

Keep your eye on the ball:  In tennis, focus is incredibly important so that you can quickly adapt to the different bounces of the ball. The more you can tune out distractions and concentrate just on the ball, the cleaner your shot will be. In business, you have to be just as adaptable. The ability to pivot based on market variability or customer requirements is necessary. And yet, having steely vision on “the critical few” always yields the best results.

Play your side of the court: When playing doubles tennis, it’s important to play your side of the court. Just as important, you trust that if the ball is on your partner’s side, he or she has “got it.” And if you’re caught trying to play your partner’s side, you leave yourself vulnerable for a shot down the line by not covering the area you’ve committed to covering. Not to mention, you’re expending extra energy by trying to cover what you should trust your partner to handle. The same in business – every interaction, every project, and every initiative your team is trying to execute is affected by trust. Whether it’s energy, speed or overall execution, there’s a cost if you don’t have trust between your colleagues and teammates.  Trust is something that has to be built, and most high performing teams absolutely have it.

Call the ball, call for help, cover your partner: Although covering your assignment is important, there are certainly times when your partner may need your help and vice versa. This is when communication is game-changing. You and your partner have to constantly be clear on who’s making the play. In tennis, simply using words like “switch” or “I got it” quickly clarifies who’s taking the shot when there’s ambiguity. This kind of communication is just as important in business – it’s about letting your teammates know you’ve got it, and helping them cover for accountability, especially when it comes to getting something done for a customer. That communication and responsiveness to your teammates is paramount.

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Finish the point: Nothing is more frustrating in tennis than hitting an amazing shot that your opponent returns weakly, and then missing the winner because you thought (erroneously) that the point was already over. In tennis as well as business, you can’t take your eye off the ball until the point — or the task — is complete. Never squander your hard work by relaxing or celebrating too early. Take nothing for granted.  Keep competing until you hoist the champion’s trophy.

Tennis is not for the faint of heart. There is no team on the bench to give you time to catch your breath or collect your thoughts. There’s no one in your corner spewing strategy. There’s no caddy calling the shots. Your coach and your fans are barely within earshot. Just as in business, you have to be in the moment, you have to take responsibility for your actions and be accountable for the results. You have to collaborate and communicate with the one person positioned to help you cover the court. You have to be empowered to make fast decisions, try new shots, and go after opportunities.

And don’t forget the best players – and the best employees – have the discipline to keep learning, and the commitment to keep raising their game. Once you’re ready, you have to stay ready to adapt to whatever way that ball bounces — and that’s why you survive by being a lifelong learner, whatever the lesson may be.

From the editor: This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

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  1. Sierra Hernandez September 13, 2017 -

    Enjoyed reading this and seeing how you masterfully tied the sport to the business environment! Seems it applies to many aspects of life in general, even personal life situations.

    • Kevin Warren September 13, 2017 -

      Thanks Sierra! I’m glad you liked it and can relate.

  2. Viniamin Tokarchuk September 20, 2017 -

    Nice, I liked it! Makes me want to pick up tennis again.

  3. Eric October 20, 2017 -

    As a Xerox employee and tennis player I agree each item in this article. Like in tennis, career success comes with hard-work, precision, mental and patience. This sport can learn you so much about yourself ! Thank you Kevin for having well described it in your article.

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