John IsnerJohn Isner (the winner of the longest match in tennis history – 11 hours, 5 minutes –  that took place at the 2010 Wimbledon) is a top ranked American tennis professional with one of the highest percentages on the tour for winning tiebreakers.  Tiebreakers in tennis are played when the score is tied at six-games-all and to win, you need to be the first one to reach seven points with a two-point margin.

Why does John consistently win tiebreakers? More so, how does this matter for business?

Because he is able to make small adjustments.  For example, at a Pre-United States Open Hard Court tournament in Atlanta, July 2012, John played Andy Roddick in the semi-finals and won the second set tiebreaker – 7-5 and therefore won the match.  During the tie-breaker, John moved his position to return Andy Roddick’s serve by two steps so he could attempt to hit a big forehand rather than a mediocre backhand. This tiny adjustment enabled him to win one key point on Andy’s serve and this one point was enough to win.  In tennis, as in business, if you want to win more consistently, learn to make tiny adjustments. 

How this translates in the office is very similar.  One of my clients who we will call Julie has meetings with a senior level person who comes on very strong; this tends to make my client retreat, get defensive, and feel that no matter what she says, she is not right.  So, I taught my client to take several breaths before responding to this senior leader.  My favorite number is between five to seven breaths.  Recently Julie attended a meeting with this senior leader who proceeded to attack one of her ideas and instead of reacting, she took several breaths before responding.  Taking the breaths allowed her to listen and summarize what had been said and then come up with a compromising solution.  In the past, Julie had not been able to listen as her head was full of negative thoughts about herself.  The key to making this work is to PAUSE even for 30 seconds to break the habit of negative thoughts.  This very simple technique has now helped elevate how this senior leader views Julie.

The other essential habit that watching professional tennis has taught me is the importance of body posture.  One of my clients we will call Sarah didn’t feel good about how she asserted herself in a meeting.  Sarah is a senior leader who needs to persuade people to buy into her ideas.  She needs to feel powerful.  Sarah described how she didn’t feel that a recent meeting went very well When we examined why, she surprisingly realized that she felt a critical hindrance was sitting in a chair that was too low.  The position of your body can have such a strong impact on how you feel and your ability to influence! We experimented with chair heights and came to the conclusion that unless she sits at the same height as others in a meeting, she feels less powerful. How can you persuade anyone in the wrong body posture?  She raised her chair a few inches and that made all the difference.  Those few inches allowed her to feel more confident asserting herself. 

Another tiny adjustment involves facial expressions.  One of my clients, we will call Joe, was told by his boss that his facial expressions give his point of view away and can at times be inappropriate. This can be a common challenge for many of us expressive types.  In a recent NYTimes article (July 9, 2012, NYTimes Magazine) Roger Federer described how he learned to have a game face.  In Rome 2001, he won a close match against Marat Safin; afterwards, Federer was watching the highlights on television and was surprised to hear the commentators discussing his bad behavior of shattering rackets and losing his cool rather than the brilliant shot he made.  Federer was so embarrassed by those remarks that he decided to stop acting out on the court and instead keep his cool by showing little or no emotion.  This has worked for Federer as he has won 17 Grand slam titles!

All of the top players who win seem to have a distinct RITUAL to manage their aggression and emotions so that the negative emotions don’t take over and reduce their level of play.  I shared this idea with Joe and we have been working on adding a positive mantra and smile for him to use during challenging meetings.  When difficult people offer a sarcastic comment, he says to himself, “Greatness comes from keeping my cool.”  He smiles, takes a few breaths and listens to the person BEFORE responding.  Joe is retraining his brain and emotional reactions to NOT react; rather, he is learning to strategically respond and bring his best self rather than his annoyed self to the meetings.

Balanced WorkerYou have a choice – you can either make your emotions work for or against you.  Athletes accept that they have to manage their bodies and emotions to perform at their best.  The challenge for most business people is that we are so focused on the task or the deadlines that we forget about our bodies and emotions.  Many feel there is no time to stop and focus on these small issues; but, the problem is that the small issues soon become BIG annoyances and before you know it, you are constantly distracted or like Federer, breaking rackets all over the place.  The key to winning more often is to include preparation time and/or a strategy around the SMALL STUFF … such as where to sit during a critical decision making meeting and making time to adjust your chair or consider tactics for how you will manage your reactions to a comment from your least favorite colleague at the meeting.  Like John Isner has learned, SMALL CHANGES CAN MAKE A BIG IMPACT!


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