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?

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Learning from Wimbledon (revisited)

It’s one year since I wrote the post called Learning from Wimbledon.  Andy Murray had just lost an emotionally charged final to Roger Federer. His tearful speech in front of a packed Centre Court and millions more on TV was hard to watch. But, despite the despair and pain that he (and his followers) felt, it was clear that something had changed. His raw talent was clearly good enough to win the major prizes. His tactical awareness was not in question. His physical fitness had been transformed such that no-one in the game worked harder to ensure they were able to go the distance.  The final piece of the jigsaw for Andy was conquering his Inner Game. For years his temperament had been called into question. He cracked at the big moments. The pressure placed on him by the British media and public, hungry for a British Wimbledon men’s champion, was becoming unbearable. If Andy was to succeed, it was going to be a victory inside his own head that would secure the breakthrough.

andy-murray-wins-wimbledon-2013-1373217266-custom-0The Inner Game is played out completely inside the brain. To succeed in the Inner Game one must quieten the ‘voice’ in the head that judges, criticises and worries. It can act in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways, but basically it does one of two things. It either causes us to dwell on and regret past events (e.g. a poorly executed drop shot at the end of the last rally that cost you the game), or it worries about and raises anxiety levels about future events (e.g. if I don’t win my next service game, my opponent will be serving for the match). Neither of these thought processes are useful or conducive to delivering your peak performance. To perform at your best, you need to be operating neither in the past nor in the future, but with total concentration on the present.

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Are you in Control? Time to let go.

Imagine yourself riding a motorcycle in a high-speed race. You are at full throttle going round the final bend. Only a delicate balance between gravity and centrifugal forces are preventing you from flying off the track. At that moment, are you in control of your bike, or are you out of control? The answer is you are ‘right on the edge’. Too much ‘in control’ and you probably aren’t taking enough risk, and are unlikely to win the race. Too much ‘out of control’ and the likelihood is you are in for a very painful crash.

In your life, are you in control or out of control? Or, have you found the right balance – not just for you, but for your teams, your colleagues, and for your organisation? Are you pushing the limits constantly, in order to win the race, and, as a result, are you in danger of spinning out of control? Or, are you driving a safe race, within the pack, within your comfort zone, making sure you finish, but never in danger of winning? What about the people you see around you? Do you recognise the cruisers and the risk takers?

The reality of course is that Continue reading

Don’t let Goals dilute your Purpose

There are many words used to describe the things we do and the reasons we do them.  Objectives, targets, vision, dreams, goals, purpose, KPIs (ugh!), and I’m sure you can think of more.

Let me simplify this down to just two on this list.  Purpose and Goals.  Goals can play an important role in ensuring we stay focused. They provide us with milestones on a longer journey. They help us maintain momentum during periods when we might otherwise be distracted or lose some sight of our purpose. Goals on their own, without a bigger purpose, however, can cause us to drift aimlessly. It is important to periodically ask yourself the question “What purpose does achieving this goal serve?”

Too many leaders, managers, and teams of people in our corporations, find themselves participating in the annual game of concocting targets, objectives and goals, which then dominate meeting agendas, reviews and reports, often taking on a life of their own, and a level of importance that detracts from what ought be the real ‘purpose’ of the business.

Let me use an example from Continue reading

Winning margins

Rebecca Adlington, the darling of British swimming, put in a faster time this week to win Olympic bronze in the 400m Freestyle than the time she clocked to win gold in the same event four years ago in Beijing.  This simple fact, whether surprising or not, encapsulates the essence of high performance sport. The margins between top performers are ever-decreasing, and every athlete is seeking that special something that might just give them the vital edge that will make the difference on the day.

People sometimes ask why people like Usain Bolt, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods need coaches. After all, when athletes have already become the best in the world, what more coaching do they need, and who is ‘qualified’ to coach someone who is the best?  The answer is simple. They want to remain the best, and only being as good as you are now is not going to achieve that.

I am fascinated by the variety of ways that performers seek to gain that vital edge over the competition. Swimmers, for example, are increasingly engaging in an intriguing mixture of cross-over training. Rock-climbing, pilates and ballet are just three unlikely activities that are being incorporated into their already punishing schedule. This is not just to generate variety and ease boredom from swimming lengths, although the value of that is not to be under-estimated, nor is it just because they are proven for building exceptional core strength, something that is vital for top swimmers. The additional benefits gained relate to developing an increased sense of overall body awareness. Having spatial awareness of hands and feet is very important to swimmers, especially in those micro-seconds and vital millimetres when a wall touch needs to be timed to perfection.  One swimming coach this week stated that “…..he and his swimmers will leave no stone unturned to find that extra ingredient that might just make the vital difference, and if that means tapping in to other disciplines then great”.

I referred in my last post to the importance of ‘Learning from the Outside’.  This can be thought of on different levels, whether as an individual or as an organisation. In any walk of life, whether athletics or business, any fresh and innovative ideas that can be drawn upon to enrich training methods, and ultimately produce peak performance are to be welcomed. Business leaders have been slower than their counterparts in the athletic world to adopt this ‘leave no stone unturned’ mindset, and to tap in to other disciplines to help create the winning edge. (See Why aren’t Business Leaders more like Athletes?)

Of course, this focus on sport and winning, raises another dilemma for many people. Some argue that competition can be harmful and unhealthy, and actually brings out the worst in people.  After all, not everyone can win the gold medal, and doesn’t competitive sport result in more disappointment and failure than anything else?  Well, I like the treatment this subject gets from Tim Gallwey in his book the Inner Game of Tennis.  “Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value of winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached.”   In other words,  the essence of competition  is all about the challenge and obstacles to be overcome.  In a game of tennis, the opponent provides the obstacles required to allow a player to reach and experience their own peak performance.  To that end, when an opponent Continue reading

Learning from Wimbledon

It’s the Tennis season, though those of you living in the UK or Ireland could be forgiven for mistaking it for the Asian monsoon season. Thank goodness for Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof or we could still be waiting for the final matches to be played.

I was delighted to see how well Andy Murray performed, becoming the first British men’s player to reach the singles final at Wimbledon in 74 years. Although he lost in a great final to an inspired Roger Federer, I sensed that Murray had buried a few ghosts that have been haunting him. In fact, what pleased me, even more than the level of tennis performance that he put in, was the Inner Game he played.


All sports, games and activities that people undertake can be thought about on two levels. The outer game is the one played out physically, and witnessed by others. In the case of tennis it includes the serves, ground strokes, smashes and lobs. But more often than not, especially in a contest between two players of comparable skill levels, it is the one that plays the better Inner Game who comes through and wins.

The Inner Game is played out completely inside the brain. To succeed in the Inner Game one must quieten the ‘voice’ in the head that judges, criticises and worries. It can act in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways, but basically it does one of two things. It either causes us to dwell on and regret past events (e.g. a poorly executed drop shot at the end of the last rally that cost you the game), or it worries about and raises anxiety levels about future events (e.g. if I don’t win my next service game, my opponent will be serving for the match). Neither of these thought processes are useful or conducive to delivering your peak performance. To perform at your best, you need to be operating neither in the past nor in the future, but with total concentration on the present.

This applies, of course, not just to Tennis, sports or games, but to our everyday lives. How much of your thinking time in work is preoccupied with concerns or regrets about past events or with anxiety about deadlines or future presentations?

As it is the Tennis season, I wanted to give my own game a boost, so I re-read Tim Gallwey’s seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis. This is a hugely recommended book for tennis (and non-tennis) fans. It’s simple messages about quieting our inner voice, and questioning traditional ‘teaching’ and ‘coaching’ methods, are every bit as applicable to how we operate, function and interact in our personal and working lives, as they are to tennis.  I was lucky enough to hear Tim speak recently (via videolink from his home in California) at the Association for Coaching 10th Anniversary Conference in Edinburgh. He used a simple formula to describe excellence – Excellence = Potential minus Interference (i.e. where interference is all of the internal negative thoughts, doubts, limiting beliefs, self-criticism and judgement that we are capable of inflicting on ourselves on a regular basis).

Tim describes the typical ways of learning that people adopt :- Continue reading