Thursday, July 7, 2011

The inner game of business - 3 lessons from tennis

I recently read "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey. I found the book very interesting and the results on my tennis game have been profound. The basic thesis is that our conscious mind in being critical of our own performance is actually hindering our game. We should work at developing confidence, eliminating self-doubt and internal criticism. Unlike most books on betterment, this book does not advocate positive thinking, which according to the author is the other-side of the negative thinking coin. Positive thinking, can lead to disappointment or a sense of needing to maintain an unsustainable rate of success. What is needed is calmness, and a quiet mind.

Having started a number of business, I wondered how the insights from this book could be applied to the entrepreneur or existing business. Although I do not believe there is a set of personality traits that make an entrepreneur successful, certainly if we view the process of starting a business as a game there are lessons we can apply from the game of tennis. 

The Game of business

The first lesson, is to accept that business is a game, that should be taken seriously but not too seriously. In the words of Herb Cohen "you gotta care, really care, but not that much !".  Having this attitude will allow you to view you business with a detached objectivity and not be emotionally attached to the outcome of events that are often out of your control.

The second lesson, is that for a tennis player to play to the best of his/her ability he or she needs to diminish the self-critical voice and try access all the experience and training that lies within. This requires the player to relax, only when the muscles and mind are relaxed can one play to the best of ones ability. This is how great champions manage to play at their best in critical situations, not by tensing up, but by relaxing. Entrepreneurs are often very stressed, worked-up with large ego's. Sometimes this is helpful, especially when bringing a seemingly crack-pot idea to market. However, being able to relax and control ones stress levels and emotional participation is a skill which would serve us all well. It also perhaps teaches to focus on the things that matter, and not to "flex the muscles" unnecessarily.

The third lesson: When you are playing a game of tennis, it is important to relax during the point and play your natural shots, do not over analyze what you are doing, trust that it is correct. Of course after the game you may want to pick up new skills, again these can be learnt if relaxed. In tennis it is between points that the mind wonders, and we hear expressions like "come on you idiot !", "how could you miss that!" etc. These are not productive ways to ensure performance. Likewise, in business when we are busy in meetings or with tasks and objectives, there is little time to be self-critical - we can tackle these tasks with an inner relaxed confidence (at least that is the goal). However, it is when we are not busy, when we are thinking about, next steps, planning, tomorrows meeting etc. that the mind is even more wondering. It is during these times that we need to exercise the most control (like a tennis player between points). Find something to focus on, something calming and try to relax into it. Ideas come, like great tennis shots when we are calm and collected !
One thing to try in the office context is to focus on things like your colleagues body language - maybe even notice the items on all the desks, how they are positioned, how many there are etc. The goal being to relax and clear the mind, enabling peak performance.

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