How playing tennis makes me a better entrepreneur

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In a match against my brother, I smash a volley ball into the net, and curse under my breath. I’m upset at myself for missing an easy shot, for not taking advantage of a “gimme” and this frustration creeps into my next serve. I double-fault and my brother wins the game and then later handily wins the set.

That Sunday tennis game taught me about myself beyond the court. I learned how focusing on your recent mistake can mire you in mental turmoil that bogs you down in negative thoughts. I screwed up, sure, but why didn’t I clear my mind and just focus on what I had to do in the next series?

Such a lesson can apply to startup culture. As editor-in-chief of Digital Journal, I need to be focused on the responsibility at hand, overcoming the next challenge; I can’t be overthinking any missteps I might have made earlier.

Below are three other ways playing tennis for more than a decade has taught me how to be a stronger leader and more successful entrepreneur:

Work on your weaknesses

In tennis, I have a weak one-handed backhanded. I can hit the ball over the net fine, but my aim and velocity isn’t as strong as my forehand. I know I have to work on my backhand, so I’ve been training myself to go one-handed more often when I have to, instead of relying on the strength of my two-handed backhand.

The same rule can apply for startup execs: know where you need to improve and work hard at it. Say you aren’t very comfortable writing tweets, and you’ve always struggled to come up with tweets that will engage your audience. Don’t just give up, or hand off that task to a staffer. Find out how others are tweeting, what makes a 140 character post interesting, and keep trying. Use analytics to learn which of your tweets are resonating with your audience. Don’t give up. Otherwise you’ll just be staying in your comfort zone…and that’s no way to grow as an entrepreneur.

Look two plays ahead

Like in chess, tennis requires you to look ahead to the next few shots. It’s OK to return a hard serve, but where will you place it? Will you make your opponent run to the baseline so you can finesse a drop shot right after? To take your tennis game to the next level, you have to play beyond your next shot.

Entrepreneurs are right to fine-tune their business vision to their next major challenge. But don’t be so short-sighted you avoid analyzing where you startup needs to go and how it fits in its industry. See where you startup may be in six, eight months. Where will your opponents be in that time? Can you already see which trends will dictate their next decisions, the companies they may acquire that could shift your market landscape?

No teammates to blame

I love how tennis is a match between me and myself, essentially. There are no teammates to blame if something goes wrong. You don’t have a coach (most likely) who may have made a terrible decision. Like in golf, you are playing against your own will and conviction, and your mistakes are your own, plain and simple.

I’ve seen how other startup executives point fingers at colleagues for a certain failure, but tennis has taught me that fate is what I make (to paraphrase a Terminator 2 line). If I fumble, I can’t blame anyone else. If I can’t overcome the challenge, I can’t look right or left at others that may have been in my way. Being a successful entrepreneur means owning your mistakes and learning from them; otherwise, you’ll always be hitting the ball in the net and blaming the wind.

If you play a sport, share with us what business lessons you’ve learned from being an athlete

Flickr photo via Creative Commons

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David Silverberg
David Silverberg is the former editor-in-chief of Digital Journal Inc. He helped pioneer Digital Journal's proprietary technology to leverage content from writers from across the world. He was the host of Digital Journal's annual Future of Media event. David has been published in various publications, writing on everything from technology trends to celebrity profiles.
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