Leadership Lessons from the Tennis Court

Photo Credit: Montammy Golf Club

Photo Credit: Montammy Golf Club

I had never even been on a tennis court. The closest I’d come to playing tennis was watching Serena hit those 129 mph serves from the comfort of my couch.   However, the coaching guru Alan Fine proved that even something as physical as playing tennis was much easier when the coach avoids giving advice and coaches from an inside out approach instead. 

When I stepped on the court I had a million thoughts in my head. Why am I out here in my workout clothes? I don’t know these people. I should have done more crunches. Does this jacket make me look pudgy? I don’t know how to hold this racket? Is she recording? Then it happened – he pitched one ball. I use the word “pitch” because I hit it like a baseball – literally.

That thing went flying. 

You would’ve thought I was Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron. The ball landed on another court. He threw another. The second one fared no better - think "home run." Now my mind was really going. You look like an idiot. Why did you agree to this? That’s what you get for always trying to be out front. Show off! Now look at you.

I don’t have these kinds of thoughts regularly. But this day was different. I was learning a new skill. Often when people are trying to learn new skills they have the same kind of stressful thoughts. Alan names these stressful thoughts "interference."

  • Then it happened. He focused me. He asked me about my goal. I said that I wanted to look like a tennis player at least hitting the ball on the correct court. He said ok and then offered no tennis advice. He focused me by saying, “When the ball hits the ground, you say ‘bounce’ and when your racquet hits the ball say ‘hit.” I’ve got it. This is simple. I can follow the simple instructions (not really instructions).

I did it.

Alan then threw me about 15 more balls and I hit all of them with 12 of them landing in regulation. Can you say “zero to hero?” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know anything about the physics of tennis and all of a sudden I was self-correcting and hitting the ball.

What does this have to do with leadership?

Well not only did my productivity and quality improve, my spirit was lifted. I was so happy. My engagement was at an all time high. I had overcome, what I believed, was an insurmountable obstacle. Our people are no different. They are often struggling with all kinds of interference. Our roles as leaders are to help focus them in order to minimize the impact of whatever interference they might have - for our organizations and for them. 

We have to believe that they can do what we are asking but they lack the confidence or focused time to think it through. They already know how to be great. Using the GROW model as a tool to coach rather than give advice, is the perfect way to increase focus. Many leaders say they don’t have time to coach but what I learned on a tennis court in less than 12 minutes confirmed that coaching results in such amazing outcomes that we might consider abandoning all other approaches.

The steps are simple.

  1. Get clear on the goal.
  2. Use coaching questions to accelerate decision-making through focus.

If you want to know more about the InsideOut Development approach visit the site or read the book You Already Know How to be Great. Want to laugh? Watch my tennis lesson.