Roger Federer has long been my favorite tennis player. Sports commentators have often mentioned his fluid movements and graceful game on the tennis court. He makes playing tennis look like an art and is sometimes referred to as the Swiss Maestro. After winning one of his first few major tennis championships, the tournament director told Federer he had “made it look easy” out there on court in his route to victory. How do you take that kind of feedback as a tennis champion? It might not go over as well as you think.
In my recent reading of The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey, I learned just how often Federer received that feedback when he won. But when he lost, people thought maybe he wasn’t trying as hard as he could be. The effort he put into each match wasn’t really any different, so why was there such a discrepancy in the feedback? People had given one of the all time great tennis players no middle ground.
Maybe you’ve seen coworkers or friends make different tasks look effortless in much the same way. There have been so many times I’ve watched someone give a conference talk or presentation that was fantastic, interactive, and just looked natural throughout. What’s really going on behind the scenes may be quite different than you realized. We can learn some interesting career lessons from Roger Federer’s growth as a tennis player.
Controlling Your Own Destiny
Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played soccer as well as tennis in their younger years. The time came at which each had to choose which would be their focus. For both Federer and Nadal, it was tennis. They chose tennis because each wanted complete control over his own success. In singles tennis, there’s no team of people on court. It’s two people playing best of 3 or best of 5 sets. If you want to win, it’s up to you and you alone. My tennis coach in high school used to tell us at our level matches weren’t really won but lost because of the opponent’s mistakes. At the professional level, you can win a point by hitting a great shot the opponent just can’t return (a winner as we call it).
Tennis fans watch the dance of shots back and forth over the net until someone makes a mistake or someone hits a shot that cannot be returned. We see players run down balls that land across the court and at other times see them not even move when a shot is too good to be returned. When you have the potential to be on court for several hours, why waste the effort running down something that you have no chance of getting back in play?
In the realm of career, we aren’t that different than a tennis player. We have control of our success. There are coaches and trainers to help us along the path, but the match, every shot we take, and the level of effort we put into it is ours. The player on the other side of the net is you. That’s right…it isn’t everyone else in your field. I think Steven Murawksi said it best in episode 106 of Nerd Journey – “it’s not that I need to be perfect tomorrow. I need to be a little bit better than I was today.” If today you were playing yesterday’s you, would you win? Success is something you can define for yourself and won’t be the same as success for someone else.
Looking Effortless Isn’t Lack of Effort
It’s easy to see the physical effort a tennis player puts into running down a ball or hitting a specific shot. They are, after all, incredible athletes. But you can’t see the mental game that happens inside a player’s head. There are hints of what might be going on based on body language and attitude exhibited, but there’s no way for us to truly know.
For Roger, the mental game was a challenge. When he was younger, he had so much energy before playing that he needed to move around and let it out. And he had trouble keeping his cool when things didn’t go his way on court (i.e. a match he felt he should have won, if he wasn’t making the shots, etc.). The good news is he eventually got some help mastering the mental game, and once that happened, it took his tennis game to a whole new level.
Andy Roddick told a story in the book of the difference between Federer and Nadal when it came to their locker room behavior before a match. Nadal had headphones on and would be running around like a warrior waiting to strike. Federer would sit down and talk to you about life and family, calm as could be. But once Federer hit the court, he was in the zone. In most matches, you would see him focused and ready to strike without a lot of emotion (aside from the occasional yell of “come on”). At the end of a tight match, whether win or lose, Federer would often times cry. He needed to let out all the emotions kept in check during the match. All of this was part of his mental discipline.
Making something look effortless takes tremendous effort and consistent, deliberate practice. Regardless of a match’s outcome, the effort put into it was there (whether we the observers noticed it or not). Some of Federer’s former coaches said they had to consistently change things up in the way Federer practiced to keep him sharp and at the top of his game. Federer believed if he kept doing the right things, in the end it would balance out. Even though he wanted the outcomes, he knew the focus on process was critically important.
Whether you believe it or not, people are watching you. Some of the things you do may look effortless to them, even if it takes tremendous effort for you. No one can truly know the amount of practice you’ve put into it, but if they watch you over time, they will see the improvements. If they have just met you, they lack context on what it really took for you to accomplish something (i.e. completing that challenging project or task, delivering a conference talk, writing that article, etc.). If you’re having regular 1-1 meetings with your manager, he / she should be able to see your progression to that next level. While the accomplishments may not be trophies like in tennis, the milestones along the way are things we should be documenting for a promotion package and consitently communicating to the boss. Communicating your “wins” isn’t bragging. They are to be celebrated, and hopefully your manager sees that. We need to understand how far we’ve come to appreciate our own efforts along the way.
The saying goes that perception is reality. But it’s also without context. Maybe we should be more empathetic to others becasue what we see is not always the situation someone wanted it to be.
Answering the Questions
Athletes like Roger Federer have their opponent to deal with on the court, but that isn’t all. They also have to answer the questions being asked in their own mind…those questions we don’t see or hear. I’ve beaten this person previously. Can I do it again? I’ve never been this far into a major championship. Do I have what it takes to win? Can I beat one of the best players in the world even though I have never been able to do it? Is this my only chance to win big?
The mind can be your enemy as much as it can be your ally, and the questions will be different for you. The impostor within may be telling you there’s no middle ground, quietly waiting to sabotage you. You’re either great or terrible in every scenario. Like sports, many things in life are outcome focused. And when the outcome isn’t what we wanted or we’re unsure we can get to the outcome we want, the doubts creep in. So many people you know have experienced impostor syndrome in some way, even if you’ll never know it.
Roger Federer’s fans, the press, and others gave him no middle ground because they focused only on the results they saw him produce. But his efforts to improve never stopped. He experienced some crushing losses (matches even he thought he should have won) and was able to let that go, moving the focus to what was next. Even when he lost, the great shots during a match still looked effortless.
Now think about yourself. How much time and effort are you willing to put in making what you do look effortless? Will you allow yourself a middle ground between the outcome you wanted and one you didn’t want? Or can you walk the road less traveled and let your focus be on your own definition of success, constant improvement, and be proud of how far you’ve come? Answer the questions of the impostor on your own terms and with your own measuring stick. This, my friend, is the path to growth.