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Ex-cricketer Jeremy Snape advises leaders to overcome mental pressure like tennis pros at Wimbledon

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Before facing Novak Djokovic in the French Open semi-final, Andy Murray suggested that the match would be far from plain sailing. He noted that if the temperature were to increase, then it would obviously make it tougher physically and would, in turn, change the way the court played. Essentially, he would need to prepare himself mentally before going out on court. 

This concept was further highlighted when three years after winning his first grand slam title at the Australian Open in 2008, Djokovic won once more in the 2011 by defeating Murray. In the time between Djokovic’s two titles he undoubtedly endured periods of self-doubt. 

But rather than making adjustments in the way he played, Djokovic focused on overcoming the mental challenges that kept him from reaching his potential. The burden from his lack of success became a “mental issue”, Djokovic told reporters. “Every time you get it there, you know, you want to win it badly, but some things go wrong. You’re thinking too much. You’re worrying too much in your head. It’s a mental battle, definitely. Bottom line is that this is a very mental sport in the end.” 

Indeed, a hallmark of championship athletes is their ability to recognise the mental barriers that limit their performance. It’s a simple fact. For example, one cannot search for a Wimbledon battle without the word mental popping up beside it. The truth of the matter is; your brain will give up ten times over before your body does – something which is all the more exacerbated after a gruelling and repetitive task.

The same could be said of business. Although many roles may not involve strenuous activity, it is often hard not to be swept away by mounting pressures. The impact of, for example, currency fluctuations, competition and the rapid pace of technology can all impact a leader’s ability to act in a calm and effective manner.

Essentially, some of the most successful businesses understand the power of creating the right mindset. When you get it right, it’s incredibly effective. In a Real Business article, which rounded-up the most quirkiest suggestions of which mindset to implement, it was suggested that business leaders could benefit from thinking like plumbers, game developers, Chinese emperors or even snipers.

Business leaders should think like plumbers: The quirkiest attitude suggestions

The latter’s concept draws on the much-discussed possibility that leaders can indeed be made rather than only born. Research that had been carried out on behalf of DARPA by Advanced Brain Monitoring showed that successful snipers could achieve an optimal mental state just before taking their shot.

On the flip side of the coin, many maintain that mental strength is not something that can be taught – it is all to do with one’s own willpower. This point was made clear by former England cricketer Jeremy Snape, who suggested there were many things business leaders could learn from sports stars – namely tennis players.

Snape said: “Whether we are in business or sport, every one of us has a psychological breaking point under pressure. One of the reasons we find sporting events like Wimbledon so fascinating is wondering whether the athletes will be able to handle the pressure. Individual sports like tennis distil these psychological demands down further, making Wimbledon’s centre court a crucible of pressure.”

For the amazing feats of concentration and endurance, not to mention skill that can be seen in Wimbledon the athletes have spent huge amounts of time preparing their mind – not just their bodies. In business, the expectation of winning and hitting deadlines can make the pressures just the same. Snape, who has become the managing director of sport and business psychologists Sporting Edge, listed a few tips.

In any high pressure situation our natural reaction is to think about what can go wrong, he said. This creates a thinking chain which can quickly spiral into catastrophe. Champions have learnt to break this chain by bringing their focus back to the next shot as that’s all they can control. 

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He suggested that leader could do the same by preparing well and focusing on a flawless execution –  the rest will take care of itself. 

Snape also claimed that it was highly important to know when to take risks or play safe. In high pressure moments it is easy to forget your basic skills and get tempted into taking crazy risks. Great sports performers know that more often than not, doing the basics well beats a high risk strategy when the heat is really on.

“Know your strengths and calculate your risks wisely,” he said.

Our fight or flight instinct kicks in during uncomfortable situations, which makes many crack under the pressure. However, champions learn to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Stepping outside your comfort zone will be a shock to the system but embrace it because that’s where the fun begins and where you learn your greatest lessons.

Furthermore, he highlighted how Andy Murray had been strict in selecting who helps him behind the scenes: from his physiotherapist, dietitian, his coaches, to the support network back at home. As an individual entrepreneur, you will need a great support team around you.

One of the best things that you can do to prepare, he suggested, is to simulate high pressure situations so you get accustomed to them. In fact, Novak Djokovic practices the high pressure moments, not on finals day but quietly in the outside courts way ahead of the big game. 

Similarly, British number one tennis player Annabel Croft said: “confidence is everything. If you don’t have confidence then you don’t have any belief in your ability.” 

Confidence comes from an ability to draw upon your training and everything you’ve done in practise and repetitive nature so that you come through in a performance when it matters and its actually just believing in yourself at the most crucial times.

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