Game, set and match. Lessons in business from a game of tennis.

September 2, 2011Post by Laura Humphreys

My lovely client Bridgette (from Village PR in Tauranga) told me the funniest story about a tennis game she played in Fiji recently.  The parallels to and lessons about business were clearly apparent to us both so I just have to share it…

Bridgette it turns out is a bit of a gun tennis player, or at least she was in her youth, having played for Otago Under 12s.  She hasn’t played much in recent years, with a thriving PR company and two small children to look after, but the love of the game still lurks within.  So when on holiday on Mana Island, Fiji, a few weeks ago, she couldn’t resist asking the island tennis pro for a friendly match.  Mike was happy to take her on, another tourist to add to his unbeaten record as Mana Island Champion.  He suggested 3pm that afternoon.  Bridgette had her doubts about the time of day.   It was towards the end of the 10 day break and she’d been particularly enjoying the three times a day eat all you can buffet spreads that came as part of the all inclusive package deal.  It was a hot day and 3pm was a time more suited for a post-buffet siesta, not exercise.  But being a good sport and keen not to miss out, she accepted and met Mike as agreed at 3 o’clock on the court.  Her husband and a few friends came along for some amusement.  They were not disappointed.  There was some entertainment to be had in watching Bridgette get annihilated 6 – 2 by the somewhat younger, extremely fit, very ‘ripped’ (Bridgette’s words), tall and athletic Fijian warrior.  They watched Bridgette shake hands over the net and found themselves surprised when she announced that she’d agreed to play Mike again that evening at 8.30pm.

Over dinner Bridgette told them how determined she was to beat him.  Her supporters were skeptical to say the least.  “There’s no way you will beat him”, said one.  Undetered by the lack of faith, Bridgette asked her friends and husband for some tips.  “Come on coach me,” she said, “you were watching him, how can I beat him?”  The team became animated with suggestions.  “Go for his back hand”, “He’s weak front of court, do more drop shots”, “he’s slicing, so you have to slice” and my favourite tip, “He’s got long arms so serve into his body”.

Bridgette took good mental notes and come 8.30pm she was back on the court with a clear strategy in her head.  She used her tai chi to focus her breathing, fixed a strong mental picture of herself succeeding with ideas she’d been given.  The game started and before she knew it Bridgette was up 4 -2.  The crowd (of 3) went wild.  Bridgette took her time and served hard and close to his body.  He struggled to return her serves but had fitness on his side, the score went to 4-3.  Bridgette played as many drop shots as she could and took it to 5 – 3.  The crowd were quiet, caught up in the realisation that Bridgette might actually be able to beat this guy.  The two players were now locked in a serious battle. Mike took it to 5 – 5 and then 5 – 6.  Bridgette called upon her focus and her strategy.  Be consistent.  Get close to his body.  Slice it.  Go for his back hand.  Her mantras played over and over in her mind.  She took it to 6 – 6 and they were at tie breaker.  Mike was by this time sweating as much as Bridgette and playing for his island reputation (the crowd had gotten bigger as fellow holiday makers and Fijians alike had heard about the big night game on the court).  At the last minute, after 2 hours of playing hard out, Mike’s fitness showed and he won the game by 2 points.  But still the crowd roared for Bridgette… she had nearly won!  She had gone from “There’s no way you can beat him” to very nearly nailing it… without any more fitness or stamina than she’d had earlier in the day when he thrashed her.

Bridgette and I were talking about the power of planning and strategy in business when she told me this story.  The difference between her first game and second game was pure strategy.  She was nearly able to beat Mike because he had no game plan.  He was relying on his fitness and experience, he was a good player, but he didn’t know what to do with her when she attacked his weak spots.  As we laughed at the story and my admiration for Bridgette went up another notch (it was already pretty high), we agreed that this was indeed just like business.  When you know what you want (to win), you have a clear vision and a plan of attack, including playing to your competitors weakness, you can take on the big guys and succeed.

So a good parable well told by Bridgette over lunch.  The post script of course being that Bridgette is already planning her return visit to Mana Island next year with single minded goal to beat the island champion at his own game.  She’s going to add fitness and a few less trips to the buffet table to her game plan.  I know who I’ll be putting my money on…