Tennis and the inner game of success

It’s one of the most common sporting clichés: 10% of performance is physical and 90% is mental. But, having watched the latest Wimbledon Championships, perhaps there’s an element of truth in that. All of the top 10 women’s seeds crashed out of the tournament in the first week, proving the competition is not just about ability but also about determination.

As Tim Gallwey writes in his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, ‘Every game is composed of two parts. The outer game is played against an external opponent to overcome external opponents, and to reach a goal… then there is the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation.’

As the dust settles on another Championship, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the tournament and what it shows us about overcoming mental barriers, whether they’re on Centre Court or in the office.

“I play better in practice than during the match”

It’s a common complaint made by many players at the start of their careers, but it’s also often experienced at work. Ever spent days preparing for a presentation, only for the speech to go awry on the big day? You’re certainly not alone.

In much the same way, a tennis player can practise their game until they’re blue in the face, only to find that when under the attention of thousands of spectators they blow their big chance.

In his book, Gallwey preaches the three main principles of the inner game: quieting the mind, non-judgment and trusting yourself. Players and staff alike must first learn to apply these in training, so that when they experience the same effects in a high-pressure situation, they have the tools they need to perform and maintain concentration when it counts.

It’s been proved time and time again by the sport’s elite that practice really does makes perfect. The lesson here for businesses is to provide people with the training they need and the right support network around them to help them build up relevant experience within a secure environment. As a result, they can consistently perform at their peak and continue to build self-confidence.

“I know exactly what I’m doing wrong, I just can’t seem to break the habit”

We all have mental blocks to overcome – whether it’s a particular task at work or something in our temperament or background that just keeps catching us out in interviews.

Often, it’s the mere anticipation of the looming mental block that causes us to trip and fall, rather than the actual obstacle itself. Negative thoughts affect our performance more than we’re aware of and can cloud our judgment.

Take Andy Murray, for example. For years, the ghost of Fred Perry seemed to haunt him – a British player hadn’t won Wimbledon since 1936. The failures of others before him were ominous and, as Andy developed his game and joined the top seeds in tennis, the weight of expectation grew.

After losing the 2012 Wimbledon final, it seemed Andy would never overcome the mental block. But the following year, he defied the odds to win the title. After his impressive achievement, Andy went on to win the title again in 2016 and become the first ever British singles player to top the world rankings.

By being more aware of your own mindset, you can also create a more positive and solution-based way of thinking. Visualisation is a powerful tool that can be used to achieve this. In the same way that a player misses a shot and then visualises how they should have hit the ball correctly, you can also create a mental image of how you might succeed at a task and use that as a motivation to overcome it. As a young boy, Novak Djokovic said that he used to visualise himself holding the Wimbledon trophy whilst watching the tournament from his parents’ pizza restaurant in Serbia.

This year’s Championship reiterated once again that attitude really is everything – a rule that applies to the workplace as much as to tennis. Serena Williams returned from maternity leave and was seeded 25th, but she went on to contest the final against Angelique Kerber. In the end Kerber was a worthy winner and herself exceeded expectations to lift the women’s title. While Kevin Anderson, seeded 8th, had a remarkable run to the men’s final, he was eventually beaten by Novak Djokovic, seeded 12th, who was making his own comeback on the courts. The weekend’s results show once again that winning can be just as much about the inner game as it is about technical skills. With the right mindset many things are possible, whether on the grass courts or at work.