Playing the Game: Tennis as a Metaphor

By Nicole Schapiro

When Anna Marks, publisher of Bay Area Business Woman, asked me to write an article about how I used sports as a tool in my consulting business and personal life I noted that from my early years on, sports have always played a part as “motivator” in my life. As a child I was a gymnast in Communist Hungary, then I played soccer, and when my daughter wanted to participate (rather than stand on the sidelines watching her brothers play soccer), I helped form one of the first young girls soccer teams in Walnut Creek.

We all need constant reminders and metaphors on how to stay in the game – especially in the face of growing competition and in a rapidly changing global environment. But the most “impactful” game metaphor that I use in my teaching and for myself is tennis.

For the last 25 years I have been using tennis as a remainder (both for myself and my clients) of important business success principles. One thing I know is that whether I facilitate team building, teach negotiations, speak about success – the metaphor of tennis always seems to fit.

Playing the Game: Tennis as MetaphorFor example, one of the most important rules in tennis is “keep your eye on the ball.” When I am committed to play in a specific tournament, I carry a tennis ball with me, place it on my dashboard, put it on the table at the restaurant, or on my desk to reinforce the habit of watching the ball.

When we need to negotiate for something, or make a career change, or convince a customer to buy our product, we must keep the goal in mind and ask “what is my influence goal, what do I need to keep my eyes on?”

You are in charge as long as you have the ball. Your opponent can’t do anything with the ball until you hit it over the net. You have a choice of your stroke, timing and placement; just like in any professional communication. Whether at work on the tennis court, you must have demeanor of professionalism. You wear the right clothes, you use the right tone of voice – loud enough to keep the score, but not so loud to throw people off. Confident enough to sound centered, but not cocky.

When you play tennis you must be in charge. Every time I lost a point, whether on the tennis court or in negotiations, I was impatient. I lost sight of my strength or I played the other person’s game instead of my own. You don’t have to rush your answers; take your time, keep you mind on the goal and choose your strategies before you answer or come across with any of your own thoughts.

To win on the tennis court you’ve got to stay in the game. Fifty percent of the game is getting the ball over the net. To win in business, you have to get across to other people what value you bring to their goals, what product you have that they need or what benefit they will have by staying in a dialogue with you.

In tennis you must stay on the balls of your feet, versus falling back on your heels, to be able to move in any direction, wherever the ball is hit, so that you can get to it. In the business game, if you dig in our heel and are not willing to be flexible, you will miss the opportunity to be at the right place at the right time and have enough time to set up and take advantage of it.

Playing the Game: Tennis as MetaphorYour serve is your opening statement. It is the only time you are in total control of the ball. It is also your greatest winning edge. What it takes to serve well is the same as any opening statement in any business dialogue. You have to be well practiced and you must have a strategy where you want to place the ball. You have to be committed to keeping your eye on the ball and then follow through without regret or hesitation and immediately take advantage of your play by following your ball into the opposite court. In business you have to be prepared. Take risks in throwing out ideas sometimes higher and farther than you thought, and don’t hesitate or seem afraid – you must make your commitment. Stay focused and go with the momentum.

Playing a good doubles game is the epitome of being on a well-functioning team. We have a common goal; we prepare the strategies. I trust the other person to back me up and we are rapidly switching positions to support each other’s strength to win the point. But most of all we are committed to communicate clearly, timely, without blame, and to celebrate each point.

What I think tennis reminds me of each time I play, is not to worry about the balls I missed, but to quickly assess and get ready for the next ball, and the next opportunity to make my point.

I do remember that there is always another game, always another opportunity, and not to take any of this too seriously, because just like business there is always another customer, another deal, another speech, another new project, a new idea, a new program, or a chance to apply for another business loan.

One of the best reminders for me when playing tennis – I can’t do it alone. Neither can I succeed in business solo. Most of all the person responsible for having a good game , the right team, is me – “if it’s to be, it’s up to me”. The choice is mine to play or not to play, now to play, and with whom to play.

The goal for my life work is to have women realize our rights and responsibilities are to make choices and widen our alternatives. The commitment that I must make is to keep my mind, body and spirit healthy, flexible, focused, fearless and to remember to have fun. I have earned the right and continue to create the possibilities to choose the “right” game. Lastly, if I don’t take chances I have to remember I will always miss 100 percent of the shots I didn’t take.