Don’t write off the ‘Old Guard’

It has been an intriguing summer of sport already, and (thankfully) it has a long way still to go. What has struck me as interesting is that it has resulted in a large number of teams and individuals being toppled from the top spot.  In football’s World Cup we saw a shock early departure of Spain from the tournament.
spain defeated
In tennis, at Wimbledon, we saw last year’s champion, Andy Murray, and the world’s number one seed, Rafael Nadal, exit the competition – both beaten by younger rising stars of the game. In the women’s competition, we also saw the departure of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and other past champions. Here, as in the men’s game, there is an exciting emergence of new young talent challenging the ‘old guard’.  I have no doubt that the rest of the summer’s sport, in events such as the Tour de France, golf’s Open Championship at Hoylake and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, will throw up other demises, departures, abdications and shock defeats of established past winners.

While the emergence of new talent is both exciting and essential for the good of the sport, what is equally, if not more, fascinating is how the so called ‘old guard’ respond to that challenge, and the hugely important leadership role they play in creating the next generation of champions. Despite the performances of the emerging stars,  the four semi-finalists in the World Cup are all established ‘giants’ of the game, and the eventual Wimbledon winners in both the men’s and women’s finals this weekend were also past winners, and amongst the pre-competition favourites.

Which past champions disappear, slide off into the sunset, and enjoy the dreams of their past glories, and which go back to the gym, come back stronger, fitter, fresher and ready to mount another bid?

Some, like Spain, may have to wait several years to refresh their team, a process in football that does not happen overnight. It may take two or three championships, before a new generation knits together in a way that Spain have done in recent years. The best coaches in football, try to keep reinventing and recycling the team, so that they are not all getting old together. They inject new talent to keep people on their toes, to ensure that people do not feel their place is guaranteed. This can of course take some time and requires patience and commitment on everyone’s part to see the fruits of the strategy emerge. Sadly, there are very few leaders in football prepared to invest in such longer term strategies. Short term success is demanded. Quick wins at all costs, with little regard for the future. Typically the football coach is gone within a few years and not committed to (or rewarded for) long term success and legacy.


Others, like Novak Djokovic, have been able to find the inner strength to extend their game, and mental resolve, to overcome the disappointment and mental doubts generated by losing in five of his last six grand slam finals.  In yesterday’s epic men’s final at Wimbledon, Djokovic prevailed in a five-set thriller against the legend that is Roger Federer.  Both of these players can be counted as part of tennis’s ‘old guard’ category, and both reached the final by seeing off the challenge of the ‘upstarts’ that threatened their status. With the record of achievement that both men possess, not to mention the punishment their bodies endure on a weekly basis, they could be excused for easing up somewhat. But something deep inside drives these players to be ever better, to reach levels that take them into territory previously untouched. A deep intrinsic motivation to be as good as they possibly can be.

Things do not go on for ever, and nor do they remain the same. If they do we become tired and lose vitality. The most successful are constantly adapting. They are reinventing and remodelling their approach. When people or teams come back from serious defeats and extended periods away from the top, it may even require regeneration or rebirth.

In business, as in sport, young talented people are constantly emerging. They are often hungrier for success and the ‘old guard’ can become complacent. They may have become good at playing each other, but they can lose sight of the fact that new people with new methods and ways of thinking are appearing, and who need to be engaged with in a different way.

Great leaders, do not focus on their own success, they gauge their success in terms of how well they develop new leaders; the next generation. Stepping aside and providing others the chance to grow and develop is the mark of a great leader. Setting the challenges but not stifling the opportunities to shine. The ‘old guard’ is vital in this respect. They set the bar, they provide the role models, they ensure the next generation needs to aim high, and when they do relinquish the crown they do so in the knowledge that they have left the future in good shape.

The most valuable legacy to tennis of players like Federer and Djokovic is not going to be written in the record books by the number of slams they have achieved, but by the levels of performance that will be reached by the next generation as a direct result of the standards they have set for them.


“The Vital Edge” takes you on a fascinating journey through the minds of athletes, Olympians, tennis players and more, as you discover insights that will transform your thinking and enable you, your teams and your business to perform at your very best.

Available to order direct, either as a paperback or eBook at the following locations…     Apple iBookstore     Barnes & Noble  

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