What Tennis Teaches Us About Business

Tennis is a unique sport. Unlike most sports, there is no coach on the court to guide your strategy. You’re not competing against the clock, or your personal best, or performing in a vacuum. Your game is only as good as your ability to react to the opponent across the net. Success in tennis requires a mix of preparation and improvisation. You can’t decide what your first hundred shots will be before the match starts; you simply have to stay focused in the moment and respond to the shots your opponent gives you. At the same time, you won’t be able to react effectively to the unexpected unless you have put your work in beforehand, improving overall fitness, developing your strengths, and being honest about your weaknesses. Every shot your opponent hits asks a question: Where is your skill level at? Where is your head at? Are you thinking about this point, or still ruminating over your missed volley in the last point? Did you study my tendencies well enough to know that I would try a cross-court drop shot from behind the baseline, or are you left flat-footed on the court because you didn’t do your homework?

Stacey Bullman playing for University of Oklahoma in the Big Eight Championship her freshman year (1989)

The lessons learned on the tennis court will also help you succeed in business. Developing a great game plan is key, but you must be able to adjust your strategy at any time during the match if things aren’t going as you anticipated.

No one understands the parallels between tennis and business better than we do. Before spearheading I’M NOT MAD AT YOU Consulting, Founder and Chief Belief Officer Stacey Bullman went to the University of Oklahoma on a full tennis scholarship, and during her time there won a Big Eight Championship. Both tennis and business require passion, positivity, and a strategic approach to success. Stacey brings all of these qualities and more to help companies and executives prepare and perform at their best level.

Tennis isn’t like other sports

If you had to choose among basketball players, football players, soccer players, or any other type of athlete, why would you want a tennis player to coach you in business? Consider what makes tennis unique vs. other sports:

  • You fly solo. Players as young as the age of eight are pushed out of the nest and onto the court to play matches by themselves. No one is there with a wire in the player’s ear, dictating each movement. The sport is so dynamic, fluid, fast – it’s impossible to coach from the outside. Tennis players of every age have to figure out strategy on their own, in the moment and without anyone else’s help, and thus develop skills that their peers, even if they play other sports, simply don’t have. 
  • Whether you win or lose, it’s all on you. In tennis, there are no teammates to blame, no coaching staff, no poor trades. It’s on your shoulders to move faster, improve placement, pull surprises, and maintain focus. If you’re having a bad day, you can’t just pass the ball to someone else, or bring in the backup. You have to quickly identify what isn’t working and come up with a new and better strategy. You have to problem-solve in real time when your can’t-lose strategy is losing after all. If your opponent is having the best serving day of their career, with an 80% first-serve percentage, you can’t hold up the stat sheet and object that normally they only serve at a 50% rate. You have to adjust, try a new strategy, throw your opponent off somehow. 
  • There is no clock. For other solo sports like running, swimming, and biking, you’re racing against the clock. In tennis, there is no clock – and therefore, no clock to just run out. Some tennis matches are marathons, lasting for many hours and even taking days to complete. Your focus has to stay with the match the entire way, no matter how far ahead or behind you get. Circumstances may shift at a moment’s notice. Your opponent may seize an opportunity or you could stumble. The weather could become stifling hot or there might be a rain delay. Your refusal to check out mid-match is what allows you to pull off a shocking comeback or keeps you from suffering an excruciating loss in a match you thought was under your belt.
  • You’re in it for the long haul. Not only can the matches be long and grueling, but the career trajectory is, too! It takes about 10 years to master tennis – which is arguably much longer than it takes to become a decent runner or skier. As a tennis player, you’ve got to be intense in the here and now, but also able to look at the big picture and have the endurance to persevere. 
  • You’re accustomed to failure. Every great tennis player is born through loss. Even on your best day, you’ll fail a lot, lose a lot of points, lose a lot of games. Even if you win a tournament — and it’s very hard to win a tournament — the road to victory is strewn with failure, lost points, lost sets, parts of matches where your opponent is dominating and you don’t seem to have an answer. It’s these failures that help fine-tune your game and groom you for the sort of composure that ultimately results in big wins.

We don’t have to tell you what a tough game business can be. There will be failures, tough competition, and tests to your dominance, no matter how good you are. As a CEO or business owner, you’ve got to take responsibility for the company’s performance, regardless of how you got there. It’s a mentally demanding world, but your ability to remain composed during the stormiest times sets you apart from the pack. When your back is up against a wall, no one understands your struggle more than a tennis player.

The lessons learned in tennis and business run parallel

Many of the same lessons learned in business are at the heart of competitive tennis.

  • Serve well: In tennis, the only shot you have 100% control over is your serve, so do the most you can with it. Win the point with an ace or dictate how the point is played so that a few shots later, you have set yourself up to win. The lesson here is that in tennis and business alike, there are many factors that you cannot fully control. When you control the variables that you can control, you minimize the unexpected.
  • Seize opportunity: Sometimes the difference in an entire match comes down to a few break-point opportunities won or lost. When you get the rare chance to break your opponent’s serve, you have to take advantage of it. It’s the same in business: It’s not enough to create opportunities to succeed, you must be able to seize those opportunities when they arise.
  • Be brave: Too many tennis players never reach their full potential because they are unwilling to come to net. They insist on staying in their comfort zone at the baseline, even when coming into the net raises their chances of winning the point. At times you may look a little foolish if your opponent hits a winning passing shot, but fearlessly establishing your position at the net can give you a decisive advantage. Business leaders, too, must learn to be bold and step outside of their comfort zone, leveraging calculated risks to reap big rewards.
  • Be coachable: What brought you to a certain level of success may not be enough to get you to the next level, and it might take the outside eyes of a coach or mentor to suggest critical improvements.
  • Win with grace: Great tennis players and business leaders celebrate wins the same way, with the level of humility and grace befitting of a well-earned success.

Play to Win

Andre Agassi explains, “It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” At I’M NOT MAD AT YOU Consulting, we provide that objective, unbiased professional opinion and roadmap that helps you overcome the obstacles and hurdles that prevent you from achieving maximum success. We work with you to discover untapped revenue streams, increase employee performance and uncover blind spots that exist at every company. WE TAKE AWAY EXCUSES. Contact us to learn more about our leadership services.

Stacey Bullman, Business Consultant, presenting her Wheel Assessment findings to one of her clients