He’s got the kind of career success the rest of us can only dream of. A record sixteen Grand Slam titles. Twenty-three consecutive Grand Slam semi-final appearances. A world ranking of 1. And generally acclaimed as the greatest tennis player who ever picked up a racket, perhaps even the greatest sportsman ever. Roger Federer’s success is down to his ability to whack a ball across a court faster and more accurately than anyone has ever done before, but success at anything is never down to just the technical skills required for that particular field. Lots of competitors will have those abilities too. Being the best also means having the right mentality, the right preparation and the right attitude to make the most of the talents you were born with. So what can Roger Federer teach us about achieving perfection?
Recognize Your Potential for Perfection
The first lesson is to know what you’re good at.
That’s easier than it sounds and it’s something that even Federer struggled with, as well as the people around him. Asked after winning his latest title, the 2010 Australian Open, what the secret of his success was, Federer’s answer was very blunt:
“There’s no secret behind it,” he said. “I mean, [I’m] definitely a very talented player.”
That wasn’t particularly modest, or revealing, but he then went on to say:
“I always knew I had something special, but I didn’t know it was like, you know, that crazy.”
He wasn’t the only one not to spot immediately that his talent was that “crazy.” Adolf Kacovsky — a tennis coach at The Old Boys Tennis Club where Federer was the star pupil — would laugh when the 10-year-old would say that he would be the best in the world.
“I thought that he would perhaps become the best player in Switzerland or Europe but not the best in the world. He had it in his head and he worked at it,” he told Rene Stauffer, author of The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection.
It’s easy to spot when you’re better than average at something. But it takes confidence to believe that you can be the best at it, and work hard enough to make full use of that talent in order to get there.
Patience Makes Perfect
It also takes time. When Federer enters a competition now, the expectation is that he’ll reach at least the semi-finals, even if he doesn’t win it completely. It wasn’t always that way. Federer played in seventeen Grand Slams before he won his first. He might not have looked back since, but his experience does show that there are no short cuts to perfection. Even the most talented performers still have to pay their dues, learn the business and build experience.
Federer’s playing history shows that perfection isn’t born, it’s made. That lesson of patience and practice is one that entrepreneurs need to learn too.
Know When to Be Perfect
Ask many people at the top of their profession about the secret to success and they’ll wheel out the cliché, “I work hard and play hard.” But lots of people put in long hours in the office and equally long hours in the night club with nothing to show for it but an average salary and a large hangover.
Today Federer trains as hard as he competes, and there’s no evidence that he’s a hellraiser in the evenings. Married with two small children, his home life doesn’t appear to have any of the tabloid excitement enjoyed by… say, Tiger Woods. But a telling story from his youth does give us one clue into the best way to use perfection. According to Marco Chiudinelli, a Swiss tennis player who played at the same club as Federer when they were children, the two would treat training fairly lightly. They’d goof around a lot and were frequently thrown off the court. Roger would lose to just about everyone. His attitude changed completely when it came time to compete however:
“When it came down to business, he could flip a switch and become a completely different person,” he said in Stauffer’s book. “I could give him a thrashing in training but when we played at a tournament together, he gave me a thrashing. Even back then he was a real competitor.”
Perfection takes focus, effort and energy. It’s not something that can be maintained constantly without the risk of exhaustion and burn-out. It’s notable that while Rafael Nadal has had knee problems and Andy Murray has taken time out after injuring his wrist, Federer has had relatively few injuries. His style of play allows him to achieve perfection at just the times he needs it most.
Achieve Perfection One Goal at a Time
With Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam record already broken, there’s little else for Federer to obviously aim at. Commentators though are busy discussing the possibility of Federer picking up a calendar Grand Slam, winning all of the four biggest tournaments in the same year.
Federer though is having none of it.
“I won’t just put the entire calendar just around trying to win the calendar Grand Slam,” he said recently. “It’s something if it happens, it does and it’s great, but it’s not something that’s like my number one goal, not at all. It’s the same as I haven’t put a number on how many Grand Slams I want to try to win. Whatever happens happens.”
For Federer perfection isn’t a goal. The goal is to win the next tournament, the next match, the next point. As all of those things happen, perfection is reached. Aim for perfection though, and you’re more likely to experience frustration and disappointment — exactly the kind of thing that’s likely to blow you off course long before you reach your ultimate goal.
Reaching perfection isn’t simple, and it’s not something that’s available to everyone. You can do all of things that that Roger Federer does and still come in at just “very good.” But you can also make a perfect effort, and that’s what Federer teaches us all to do. It comes by believing in your abilities (even when others don’t), having the patience to learn and practice, knowing when to put in your greatest focus, and looking to achieve success one step at a time.
Combine those lessons with talent and you can Grand Slam your market too.