This weekend’s Men’s Wimbledon final wasn’t just a battle between two of the best tennis players in the world. It was a battle between two of the best former tennis players. When Novak Djokovic finally triumphed in an epic battle one of the first people he went to thank was his coach, former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker. Federer meanwhile was coached by former ace Stephan Edberg. That both players were coached by former champions might not seem too surprising, but the use of former top players as coaches is a very new phenomenon, and one that points to a change in the kind of support that top performers need.
This 'coach/mentor' trend in men’s tennis was triggered by Andy Murray's dramatic improvement in form when he started to work with Ivan Lendl a couple of years ago. Before Lendl Murray was full of potential but never pulled off winning a grand slam tournament, often falling foul of his own moodiness and tendency for tantrums when things weren’t going his way. With Lendl on board though his behavior changed over night. Within a year he had won the Olympic gold and American Open. A year later he was Wimbledon Champion.
That Lendl was a former tennis player might suggest that what he was brought into help with was technique, but in reality that was the last thing he was there to work on. Players often don’t know why they do what they do, which is why professional coaches are needed to help them develop their technical skills. What Lendl was there to work on was a change of outlook and behavior, to help Murray steer through the complexities of being a player in the modern era, an era where being able to handle the media and pressure is just as important as how you hit the ball.
What made Lendl so effective was he didn’t need the job. In fact he refused to sign a contract, saying that both parties were free to leave whenever they wanted. This put Murray on the spot. Lendl was able to give him the advice he needed, as well as call Murray on his crap. There was equality to the relationship. The problem a professional coach has is his livelihood depends on being a coach – the result is the really difficult conversations just often aren’t had.
The pressures and complexities of modern sport are mirrored in modern business. The biggest challenges of leadership are increasingly not technical, but about how to deal with critical moments, complexity, and a myriad of competing and changing drivers and stakeholders.
Traditional business coaching has tended to focus on two areas – either the development of capability and technique, or clarity and delivery of goals.
What we are seeing emerge in Tennis is a different kind of coaching relationship, one that is more about partnership than support – and one that has an equality to it as neither partner is dependent on it.
Having an experienced trusted partner to turn to is one of the most valuable assets you can have. What is important is not that they are an expert in what you do, but that you have the mutual respect, experience and depth of relationship that means you can talk through complex issues, get clear on what you need to do, and in some cases they can tell you the things that no one else dare say – which is usually the most valuable and important thing you need to hear.