Playing Tennis is Like Running a Business

Multiethnic business people working together in the office

The game of tennis. The game of business. Characteristics of a good tennis game apply to effective ways to run a business.  Some of the following may seem like trite sayings, but there are many similar truths.

  1. Keep Your Eye on the Ball – In tennis, if you don’t watch the ball, you miss lots of shots. Same in business. If you don’t pay attention to your core business, your business will fail to deliver and quality will suffer. Keeping your ‘eye on the ball’ is more difficult than it sounds. In tennis, the ball is on the racquet’s strings for about five milliseconds.  (Our eyes aren’t quick enough to see the impact). In business, it’s easy to spend too much time on an acquisition or new line of business, and forget about your customers and the attributes that helped you build your core business.
  2. Every Shot Matters – In tennis, it’s amazing how often players give up on the point.  Three things matter when keeping the point going: stay in position, anticipate your opponent’s next shot, and don’t give up on the shot. In tennis, a player’s movement when not hitting a ball is just as important as the movement to a ball hit by an opponent. In business, everything matters (this is DLA Piper’s business slogan, and it’s definitely true). Don’t ignore certain aspects of your business because you don’t enjoy it. For example, don’t ignore your financials just because you don’t like reviewing financial statements. Or, if you’ve developed great products, you still need a marketing plan to reach customers. Don’t expect customers to find you without it.
  3. Endurance – To play tennis, players need a certain amount of cardio training to keep the pace for an entire match. John Isner, an American tennis player, has a knack for playing long matches. He’s the guy who, in 2010, played an 11 hour, 5 minute match at Wimbledon. We don’t need that level of fitness, but to play an entire match, it requires stamina. In business, you need consistency and the ability to perform time and time again. Anyone can hit a great shot occasionally, but you must build solid processes and systems (and endurance) to ensure repeat performance.
  4. Be Opportunistic – In tennis, if your opponent hits a weak shot and you have a chance to hit a winner, do it. Don’t back off—you need to put the ball away and win the point. In business, when you see a market opportunity because of a weak competitor or a new market, jump on it. He who hesitates is lost.
  5. Be Strategic – In tennis, put yourself in the best position possible to win each point, game and set. Identify types of shots where you can best capitalize on your competition. If your opponent doesn’t cover the court very well, hit the ball to open positions on the court and make your opponent move. If they hit weak shots and you can take the net, do so and find a shot to put away. Same in business: plan, plan, plan. Without something to shoot for, you’ll never be able to measure your progress, but, adjust those plans accordingly as new opportunities present themselves.
  6. Be Realistic – In tennis, don’t try to serve a winner if you’re opponent has hit a strong return. You should keep the ball in play and hit as strong a shot as possible. Same in business. Understand your business’ competitive strengths and weaknesses, but if your cost structure or products don’t allow you to compete in a certain market, work at creating advantages before trying to capitalize on the opportunity.
  7. Hone Your Skills – In tennis and in business, we need to continually ‘sharpen our saw’ as Stephen Covey says. We need to work on our strengths and improve our weaknesses. This takes time and energy and we shouldn’t expect for it to happen without hard work and determination.
  8. Exhibit Good Sportsmanship – Nobody likes an arrogant winner or a sore loser.  This, too, applies to both tennis and business. Don’t try and get away with fudging the rules to your advantage, because it may end up costing you in the long run. An example in tennis: the foot fault (stepping over the baseline before the serve). This may give you an advantage if your opponent doesn’t call the foot fault, but if an opponent calls you out on this, it can impact your ability to make changes when needed. The same philosophy applies in business. If you cut corners trying to get around rules and policies, it may prevent you from accomplishing other achievements later.
  9. Champions Win the Important Points – Prepare yourself for the crowning moments on the tennis court or in the boardroom. Surround yourself with a strong team and be humble as you enjoy these moments. While it stinks to lose a game or deal, don’t sweat it. Respond to both wins and losses with gratitude and thoughtfulness.  This will increase your likelihood of future achievement and success when it really counts.
  10. Have Fun! – How often do we forget about the pleasure of playing the game—whether it’s tennis or business? Enjoy the great moments. Endure and learn from the challenging times. But most importantly, enjoy yourself each day and in each match.