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Grit + Gumption = Glory. What Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can teach us about lasting success.

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Fedal-2

Roger Federer’s recent win at the Australian Open reminded me of the almost-certainly apocryphal tale of Robert the Bruce and the spider, that most of us have heard as kids. Don’t remember the story? The legend goes thus – Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, was apparently once holed up in a cave where he observed a spider trying to bridge the gap between one part of the roof and another. In vain the spider tried to weave a connection between the two surfaces. Once and then twice the spider tried…and failed. And then, on the third attempt, it succeeded – and in the process inspired King Robert to pay no heed to his prior defeats and roundly thrash the English in future battles. It isn’t clear if Roger Federer has heard of this story or what his views on arachnid inspiration are. Being Swiss, he seems more William Tell than Robert the Bruce. But with his recent exploits at the Australian Open, he certainly lived up to the adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”.

Yes, I’m a rabid Roger Federer fan and hence it’s no surprise that I’m back writing yet another article extolling his virtues. But in my defense, these observations don’t stem from Roger’s exploits alone – they include learnings from Rafa’s super-human efforts to stay relevant as well. While they may have proven their mettle and uncanny ability to endure, on the tennis court, their methods are worthy of application in any realm of life. After enjoying fabulous careers (and ruining those of several others like Andy Roddick) for the better part of the 2000s, both have been written off many times in the past few years. Several self-proclaimed pundits have tut-tutted sympathetically that the best days of these amazing athletes is surely behind them and hence, they should be on their way to retirement and should patiently await a call from the Tennis Hall of Fame. And yet, in a brazen display of ignorance of the script, both these men ended up in the finals for one more installment of their rivalry. What’s the secret behind their enduring success?

Grit + Gumption = Glory

Yes…they’re insanely hard-working, talented beyond description, intelligent, etc. I don’t want to peddle these fairly obvious facets of their personalities as having contributed to their lasting success. Of course, these qualities have helped. But these are baseline characteristics that ALL top tennis players must possess. These do not distinguish Roger or Rafa from the rest of the madding crowd. They do not explain why these two gents have been around for so long and between them have won so much – while the rest of the field has been left licking their wounds. In my opinion, observing their methods and learning from their journeys holds great promise for all of us in our career and life journeys as well. Like Roger and Rafa, there are others in many realms of life who have enjoyed similarly lasting success. What makes them so tough? What makes them so different? What makes them so lastingly successful?

They feel boundless joy in their calling.

joy-9They exude an almost-inexplicable sense of joy in what they do and in life in general. Despite the hard work, the long hours, the defeats and setbacks – both Roger and Rafa (as evinced by their various interactions with fans and the media) display true passion and love for their sport. They seem to find themselves deeply on court and there is nothing else they’d rather be doing. One cannot attempt to gain mastery (an ingredient for repeatable success) at any pursuit without truly loving the pursuit independent of the rewards it may bring. Without this, you cannot and will not be able to justify to yourself (let alone to others whose support you will undoubtedly need) that the effort is worth it. If sportsmen are in it for just the medals or trophies, there will come a time when the effort simply doesn’t justify the short-lived elation of winning tournaments. The same goes for one’s career. Money, promotions, titles and other outward manifestations of success cannot serve as sustainable motivation to consistently put in the hard yards needed to achieve one’s fullest potential. What the French call joie de vivre, is an essential ingredient for lasting success at work and play!

They work hard at retaining control of their life’s narrative.

Grit.jpgTo quote H. W. Longfellow, “Into each life some rain must fall”. And fall it will. Please nod in acquiescence if there have been times in your life where you’ve felt that the narrative arc of your own story is out of your control. I know I have. In all folks who have managed to achieve enduring greatness, I see that they simply don’t seem to ever feel anything is out of their control. While naysayers may have waxed eloquent about why Roger or Rafa can never win again, these two gents have always behaved as though they have everything under control and they KNOW that they can work things out – no matter how uphill that climb may seem. Achieving lasting and repeatable success is not about never feeling that things are out of your control. It is about being able to wrest mental control back to a state where you truly believe you’re in the driver’s seat and nobody in the world can drive your own life better than you can and that only you have control over all the elements that can make that life meaningful and great. If you don’t achieve this, there will always be the odd incident here or there, the occasional crushing defeat, the unforeseen injury, the disappointment of being passed over for an opportunity or promotion, which causes you to give up and resort to hopelessness, despair and whining.

They seem immune to boredom.

boredEver tried doing something that’s really really REALLY hard every single day (even on holidays) come rain or shine for years and years on end? No – I haven’t. But I’m willing to wager that every single player worth his/her salt in the ATP/WTA top-100 has, since early childhood no less! IMHO, where the truly great distinguish themselves from the merely great is how intense their focus is when their body and mind is screaming at them to please stop and take a day off. Sure, it is but human to feel bored occasionally no matter how passionate one is, or how glorious the promised land that one is persevering towards is, in the mind’s eye. I am sure even the best of the best tend to feel bored – the likes of Roger and Rafa included. So, what is the downside of once in a while going through the motions while feeling bored? Quite simply, when one succumbs to boredom and loses focus, learning gets compromised. Excelling at something needs an attitude of learning – constantly observing what works, what doesn’t, etc. even during practice. The baseline hard work needed to even stay competitive will force all top players to continue practicing or focusing on their physical fitness even when their mind is protesting the routine. While merely going through the motions may avoid the guilt of skipping it altogether, the loss of focus in giving into boredom will compromise the quality of these sessions. A certain cultivated immunity to boredom is essential to playing to peak potential. Learning should NEVER stop. Learning is a compound-interest bearing instrument – every single day counts!

They are audaciously optimistic about their future.

optimismThey are optimistic in the extreme – almost audaciously so! Even in the darkest of times, both Roger and Rafa can be seen dejected, but quietly positive that they can and WILL overcome failure and win again. Maybe it is an optimism born of true self-awareness. Self-awareness of their hard-earned mastery of their craft which gives rise to true belief that their skill and hard-work can overcome all obstacles. But… can this be attributed to mere rational thought? Having been doled defeats ad nauseam in the form of a looping top-spin forehand to a (relatively) weak single-handed backhand, would it really be possible for Federer to feel no self-doubt at all? Having seen his knee and wrist and various other joints give way time and time again, would Rafa have had no flickering of self-doubt about his body’s fragility in the long run? I don’t think so. Self-doubt is an endearingly human quality that none of us should shun or treat as weakness. It keeps the best among us grounded and provides a much-needed antidote to an inflated ego. However, the ability to overcome bouts of self-doubt with reflection that leads to a razor-sharp focus on what needs doing and what needs ignoring, makes these individuals super-human. This simplification of self-doubt into progress-oriented action is a trick that only optimistic people can accomplish. They never rue their circumstances or blame their lot on factors out of their control. While the rest may wallow in dark thoughts, optimistic people choose to NOT live their life as though they are powerless in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and try to do the best they can, to win again. Audacious optimism born of an abundance of enterprise and initiative, is never a bad thing!

Want to be like Roger or Rafa? Take a generous helping of determination and hard work. Throw in a soupçon of gumption with audacious optimism and common sense. Top off with loads of grit by eschewing boredom and truly believing that you and you alone, are the mistress/master of your destiny.

 Grit + Gumption = Glory!

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Wait…Do good things really come to those who wait?!

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

rogerfederer

I admit it. I am an unabashed Federer fan-boy and it took a tennis event of volcanic proportions to rid me of writer’s block and finally update this long dormant blog. As eye-rolling Federer skeptics indulge in a paroxysm of clicks and touches of the back button to head back to whence they came, I will ask fellow #FedFans to join me in yet another deliciously addictive reminiscing of the day Federer turned 18!

It is a state of mind familiar to the most ardent devotees of Roger Federer when I say that it has been two weeks of glorious gorging of all news and media related to Federer. I’ve feasted on every article – mostly mundane, some sublime and a few downright asinine – written about Roger’s pinch-me-hard-because-I-must-be-dreaming victory at the Australian Open. I’ve watched YouTube videos of the match (especially the fifth set!) more times than I care to admit. With each viewing, I’ve marvelled and thrilled at every beautiful shot of Roger’s and Rafa’s in that match – and have cringed at Roger’s numerous unforced errors with the smug sense of relief and none of the usual sense of foreboding and doom felt during a live match – a blissful state of mind that can only be born of knowing that the end-result was favorable.  For the die-hard Roger fan, it has been five years of painful waiting for that elusive 18th title. Five years of hearing self-proclaimed tennis aficionados clicking their tongues with tender pity at his obstinate refusal to acknowledge his sell-by date and gracefully retire. Five years of moments of rapturous promise – like the butt-kicking he unleashed on Murray at the Wimbledon semi-finals a couple of years ago – turning quickly into oh-so-close-but-so-far defeats at the hands of Djokovic at a few finals or the say-it-ain’t-so losses at the hands of power-hitters like Marin Cilic or Raonic. Five years of wondering if people weren’t right after all – that he may never ever win another grand slam again. And yet, five years of arguing with people that a man who loves tennis as much, should play as long as his heart desires – simply because he is still so bloody good at it, even if he doesn’t win as much as he used to! Five years of wondering when the pain that only the die-hard fan feels at his every loss…would ever begin to dull.

 As the saying goes, ‘Good things come to those who wait‘. And boy did that phrase ever make sense on Jan 29th – when the Gods of Tennis rewarded our patience by helping Roger Federer overcome a decade of demotivating losses to win in 5 sets over Rafa Nadal.  Evidence of fate colluding to bring Roger and Rafa together for one more (possibly last) satisfying meeting in a grand slam final, is writ large in the events that transpired over the two weeks. The losses suffered by Murray and Djoker in early rounds, the faster court surface favoring aggression over defense, milder than usual temps Down Under helping our ageing warriors conserve energy – all factors designed to create the black swan event of a “FEDAL” final!  Be that as it may, the final was one for the ages. Drama, tension, see-sawing of fortunes, breathtaking shot-making as well as astonishingly impregnable defense – this match had it all! And for both players, we also witnessed the fascinating juxtaposition of mind over matter and vice-versa.

 Many of the articles I’ve read in the ensuing days has focused on a painstaking analysis of how Roger managed to up-end the now-familiar script of his backhand eventually bowing down to the many RPMs and height generated by Rafa’s topspin forehand. Succumbing to the inexorable march of “Big Data” into the most remote recesses of our lives, tennis is a much measured sport these days. Data is endlessly sliced and diced around first serve percentages, unforced errors, return efficacy, ratio of approaches to net to points won – or various combinations of these measurable aspects. This approach obviously appeals to the geek in me. Being an eternal optimist, I misguidedly hope to glean lessons from this microscopic examination of professional games for profit in my own amateurish attempts at playing tennis. What I – and other lovers of the beautiful game – know intuitively is that no degree of data analysis can explain or demystify the complex ebb and flow of games. To be sure, this obsession with numbers has some utility value – but it feels like today the numbers have assumed a relevance beyond what is truly theirs simply because “Big Data” is the flavor du jour.

The results of poring over metrics cannot (and should not) reduce the experience of magic, like we had in the recent final, to a mundane manifestation in the dry terms of percentages and probabilities. Tennis is an individual sport played all alone. A sport where protagonists have to beat their own inner demons while simultaneously beating the person on the opposite side of the net. The mind matters more than mere matter. Of crucial importance is the fitness regimen that players religiously follow in and off-season, their devotion to spending long hours on the practice court, their single-minded dedication to researching opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and making constant tweaks to their game to stay ahead of the pack (or catch up to it). These aspects are the lowest common denominator for success in today’s game – table stakes to stay relevant. While the effort that goes into preparation undoubtedly accounts for the lion’s share of success on a given day, how does one explain why one player wins and another doesn’t, when this difference in their level of preparation and intensity of effort is so infinitesimally small as to render it a moot point? Can the win and loss be reduced to an analysis of data? I opine not. Body mechanics on the day, mental state in clutch moments, decisions a player takes in split seconds that sometimes may go against established conventions of playing the percentages, how a player reacts to the loss of a hard-fought game with 5 break-points frittered away, how a player resists the urge to alter their commitment to a plan when it is being buffeted by the brutality of Rafa’s topspin (or in some cases how she resists the urge to obstinately stay a doomed course) – these determine outcomes. For instance, at the end of a 26-shot rally of jaw-dropping quality where the flow of control seemed to oscillate between both players, Federer somehow found the gumption to let loose a near half-volley audacious down the line flick for a winner. Or down 30-40 in the final game, he pummeled a deep inside-out forehand that drew him back to deuce. A post-match analysis of the numbers will reduce these two events to a collection of forehands, backhands, winners and errors. Who can quantify how Rafa’s spirit might have been sapped by Roger stealing that point after 26 shots? Or how he dealt with the disappointment of seeing two break points get swallowed up – one by an ace and another by a forehand Roger had no business even attempting, given how much was at stake. 

NOBODY in today’s game embodies the mental toughness required to win in such situations, than Rafa Nadal. My unfettered admiration for Rafa stems from the fact that he is the very Epitome of Effort, a Paragon of Perseverance and the living God of Grit – qualities I hold dearer than mere God-given talent. That Roger was able to mount a fightback from a break down in the fifth set, looking down a fully loaded barrel and in such emphatic fashion reel off 5 consecutive games to win the title, makes the victory simultaneously hard to believe and sweeter than sin. His backhand assumed an air of authority and impunity that it rarely ever exudes against Rafa, while his usually-reliable serve and forehand also continued to fire on all cylinders. The result was an almost Wawrinka-like backhand beatdown that we had never seen in a Roger vs Rafa match before. In fact, in that last set it almost seemed as though Roger’s backhand was more reliable, more incisive and far more likely to generate sharply angled winners than his forehand! Throwing caution to the wind, firing audacious winners from both wings and keeping unthinkable levels of pressure on the Rafa serve, Roger pulled off a great escape of Houdini-esque proportions and in victory applied much needed salve on the wounds of the patiently devoted – like me.

It was beautiful, blissful and immensely satisfying – all at once. When that final hawk-eye challenge went in Roger’s favor, I felt like Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in the climactic scene in my favorite movie of all time – The Shawshank Redemption – when he breaks out of prison by crawling through a river of unspeakable filth to emerge free (and figuratively clean) on the other side. We may never again experience all elements of the universe conspiring in such fairytale fashion – but we can continue to hope that it will. And we can keep hoping that Roger can continue to play, like only he can, as long as his spirit wills him to enjoy the game that has given him so much and to which he has given in equal measure.

Onward now to Wimbledon. Let’s hope there’s more magic in them old bones to water the green lawns with his tears one more time. Go Roger!