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The true meaning of this rivalry - as with that of all great rivalries - is to be found deep within the two men as they ask questions of each other that they never imagined they would have to answer on a court.."

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maximising  performance

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learn from the best - federer & nadal...


“It is not just the exquisite contrast in styles and temperaments and the special talent that, in their unique ways, they share. It is not just that they have elevated each other's games to levels that leave us shaking our heads in disbelief instead of merely clapping. It is not even that they have produced two successive five-set finals, first at Wimbledon last July and now in Melbourne, so epic that Tolstoy could have written novels about them.”



Two elite performers, what can this possibly have to do with the world of work?

There are a number of elements that help us understand the nature of performance, the fine margins that determine success and also the difference between taking a transformational or transactional approach to change.


At this level there is virtually no difference in technical ability, although over many years of watching tennis, Roger Federer is the best natural talent I have seen.  The movement and athletic ability of Borg (who McEnroe described as the finest athlete ever to grace a tennis court) and the touch that is at least as good as McEnroe, Nastase or Laver.  Nadal is also a phenomenal player and one of the finest competitors ever, his physical and mental preparation leaves little to chance, in play he rarely gives cheap points away.  Both men have worked very hard to get where they are and continue this effort, including exceptional attention to detail in preparation for matches.

The use of visualisation is key to the preparation of both men, as it is for Tiger Woods and was for Mohammed Ali.

During the 2009 Australian Open Final Nadal constantly served and played to Federer’s backhand.  This shot is not a weakness but just not the strength of the forehand. In some ways this should have been an advantage to Federer, knowing that over 90 per cent of serves are coming to the backhand, but it seems to trouble him.  His forehand is then not getting grooved and not the weapon it is against other players.  Indeed, Rafa's coaching team believe that under the pressure he is put by Nadal, Federer's forehand becomes his weakness.


Federer’s natural talent means that he creates more break points than any other player but the evidence is that against the very top players and particularly Nadal, he fails to convert.  At this level the difference is not ability and Federer does appear slightly less aggressive when he has breakpoints against the serve of Nadal or Djokovic but does not lack this aggression when he is defending breakpoints.

What is it about his mental state, or confidence level at these key points that may be Federer's shortcoming, particularly against Nadal. His conversion rate of 6 out of 19 at the Australian Open 09 was slightly better than 1 in 13 at Wimbledon 08 and 1 in 17 at the French in 07.  These were all five set matches where the margins are tight,  so improving break point conversion rates only slightly could make all the difference.

Recent research by GE into the success of business change programmes established that 100% of successful programmes had a good technical solution. It also identified that 98% of unsuccessful programmes had a good technical solution.  The difference between success and failure was in the head, i.e. the people involved and their state of mind towards the planned change inhibited success.  One former CEO, having overseen many large change programmes in his career, maintains that it is the internal state of the change agent that is the critical factor governing success or otherwise over anything else.

Both Federer and Nadal have excellent, though different, technical "solutions" to the challenge of winning a Grand Slam tennis tournament, however, Jim Loehr observed some years ago that the difference between the very top players and those below them was not in technical ability but how they managed their energy (both physical and mental) between points.  Players develop routines to tune out of the previous point and focus on the next point. 


Federer and Nadal have these routines, for example both take three balls before serving and pass one back to the ball boy.  Both manage their energy well, they use this routine to tune out of the last point and refocus on the next, but Nadal has the edge.  His mental preparation involves visualisation down to the last detail, from the walk out of the locker room, on to the court and even spending time on the court before the match to get a visual feel for the court and its surroundings.


Nadal also uses his routines to ensure that the game is played at his (usually slow) pace.  He is also very deliberate about his movement between points.  While our physiology often betrays our psychology - our body language - it can aslo work the other way, that is we can alter our psychology from our physiology.  While Federer struggles to break serve when in the clinch of a tight match against his main rivals, it’s also at that point that Nadal has the advantage.  In later stages of the final set in the 2008 Wimbledon final and at times in the 2009 Australian Open final Federer’s routines between points on his own serve were unusually rushed, a minute difference but enough to be a factor in not managing his energy as effectively as his opponent.


While Federer is an expert in playing in the state of acceptance – or as Gallwey calls it – non-judgment. He accepts negative or disturbing events and his own mistakes and limitations as a part of the game and a part of himself. He doesn't appear to judge them and feel bad about them, enabling him to maintain the state of flow, or being in the zone. However, against Nadal, there seem to be points when in the clinch where he struggles to stay in the here and now.


Managing the energy of teams involve in change initiatives will enable them to stay in the present, focus on what needs to be done and result in higher levels of engagement.  Too many people under pressure work continuously, without taking time to reflect on where they are and refocus on what needs to be done.


With top players their whole day, week, month and year is devoted to improving their game, whether that means working on technique, tactics, physical or mental preparation.  Most of them play tennis for four or more hours a day, plus additional fitness and other activities, depending on where in the training process or tournament they are in. While their sport is demanding it is less time than most of us spend at work every day.  We need to reflect on what we’re doing, not just as part of a post implementation review but on an ongoing basis – then we can improve our own performance.


What is also extraordinary about elite athletes like Federer and Nadal is that under extreme pressure of playing in a grand slam final in front of thousands they continue to produce the most amazing tennis.  There is little evidence of fear, uncertainty or doubt, while these often beset project teams under pressure.  The top performers continually focus in on positive outcomes.



on court performance specialises in working with teams and individuals in the context of change to continually enhance performance


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