Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Wimbledon 2018 - Cause for pause to reject old paradigms and flawed thinking

I have been fortunate enough to travel overseas for work often enough that I know my post-return jet lag profile. I tell myself "I don't do jet lag", function well all day and then lapse into unconsciousness, somewhat impractically for someone who only does around 5 hours sleep a night, at around 9pm. However this week I knew one thing would save me from boredom and frustration each morning at 2am.... Wimbledon. And this week it hit me. This grand slam dares us to reject conscious and unconscious bias around age, experience, confidence and competence and the continuum of normal/abnormal behaviour. Might Wimbledon 2018 cause us to rethink outdated, outlandish views and old paradigms?

The Role of Context.
Any debate for me on whether or not Roger Federer is the Greatest Of All Time (or "GoAT") might be both as fun and as futile as asking everyone I know who loves world football to choose between Ronaldo and Messi. I just feel lucky that I bear witness to them all playing at the same time and pushing each other to be better. If Nadal didn't play in this era too and if Djokovic had been born 20 years later and not dominated in 2015/6, there would be no discussion and Federer might have 30 slams to his name now. But context including the role of competitors or Porter's so-called "new entrants to the market" is an essential frame to include when evaluating performance, if indeed we have to indulge in the often insidious pastime of "compare and contrast" at all.

Relevant context is not just about other "players". It is also about discrete and unique skills. In this era as in many past, the serve in tennis is a tactical weapon used to scintillating effect by many players who haven't always had a lot of other tools in their arsenal. Our own Nick Kyrgios. Devastating serve. Emotional intelligence and mental toughness? Not so much. Surely the advances made in racquet technology and the speed with which said racquets can be restrung during games allowing for weather conditions and roof status etc. make comparisons with players in past decades difficult. Fifty aces in a game produce 'cheap points' and are therefore a good energy conservation strategy (particularly if your opponent doesn't return serve like Serena, Steffi (forehand) or the Joker, but lots of aces doesn't automatically predict short matches.

The Contribution of Critical Success Factors to Performance
Enter Kevin Anderson and John Isner. Their history making six-hours-plus semi final must also bear testament to the value and efficacy of conditioning and recovery (particularly if one remembers Anderson's epic five set quarter final played two days before and against Federer). Even elite AFL footballers can cramp after 90 minutes.

Where is the metaphor here you ask? Raw talent in any field is a good start. But some will outperform others; possibly even prevail over those with more natural talent if the critical success factors that catalyse performance are in place. And these include Emotional Intelligence, hard work and discipline. The parallel? In jobs with high emotional labour, self-care is critical.

The Continuum of Situational Strengths vs Maladaptive Traits
Camera men were harsh on Nadal a few years ago. They fixated on his developing habits, tics or rituals. Commentators talked about them, bemused. Now they don't. We're more aware. More sensitive. Yes, he probably has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. No-one wants to be anxious. Anyone who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder didn't ask to be. They often know their obsessions and compulsions are irrational and possibly unhelpful, even debilitating, but they do them anyway. Last week, the cameras filmed Rafa adjusting the chairs courtside ever so slightly. He lined up his water bottles just so and of course we witnessed the pre-serve 'routines' (at least until the curfew stopped the game). There was mention made of a marathon night match earlier in the tournament and the fact that Rafa was out on the practice court at 10am the next morning. "Ah yes", said Boris Becker, "Rafa is a man of habit. He sticks to his routines." Well, except for any penalties for taking too long between points, these habits don't hurt anyone. We will all have certain routines, idiosyncrasies, superstitions, some of which are adaptive or at least we think so. Wherever I am in the world, I will force myself to go for a morning jog (their time zone) as a way of acclimatising/orienting to the time zone. For me this is functional - as long as I'm in a safe part of town and I watch for potholes.

We can all be measured on a continuum from normal and adaptive to extreme. We would have to say that at least from those we can observe Nadal's routines work for him. He doesn't skip a practice session even when a match finishes late the night before. The coverage showed a picture posted on Instagram with him sitting in an ice bath. This is part of being professional. Djokovic is 'obsessive' about diet and nutrition. Some executives ensure they read a business book a week. Some of us journal every night or exercise every morning. Some of us buy the same coffee every morning from the same hole in the wall religiously. What right do we have to frame others' behaviours as extreme because they fall outside the realm of our own paradigm? Checking the gas stove when we finish cooking or at least once before bed is probably smart, not neurotic.

The role of experience
This was the first time since 1968 that all four men's semi-finalists were over 30 years old. Now that hardly classifies as over the hill from a life expectancy point of view but it is clearly uncommon in elite tennis. Working in equal opportunity, I am acutely aware of how rampant age discrimination is in Australian workplaces. In the old days (pun intended) one was too young and wet behind the ears. Now those who suffer from stereotypically harsh views of their likely contribution are 40 upwards. This is foolish and wrong. All four of these players had completed tens of thousands of hours of practice, were experienced performing in front of large noisy crowds and could mentally draw on countless situations where they served or volleyed their way out of trouble; a timely reminder of the benefit of experience and the compound interest when experience meets talent and discipline.

And my last dedication in this regard must surely go to Serena who played on Saturday night in a bid for her 24th Grand Slam win. I can't imagine there is anything biologically that compromises a woman's ability to play at the top of her game once she's had a child. Few woman in tennis history have done so. But again experience was to meet talent, discipline and uncommon determination when Serena took the court. I hesitate to use the word "ambitious". We know from research the negative bias in men and women towards female ambition. But perhaps the media has matured in the wake of the #MeToo movement. As Serena "leans in" again to her career as an elite tennis player, I don't hear any sexist commentary voicing concern for her deprived infant child. What a relief! Like Sheryl Sandberg did, Serena probably has a lot of of support. We know they can both afford it. But to play at that level physically after a long time away takes a rare kind of dedication and ability to manage the struggle with juggle. Yes she lost the final. Rare talent, focus and ambition can't always transcend the need for match practice. That's why most exceptional leaders are better leaders now than they were in their early leadership days even if they showed promising signs.

So with my admiration for their discipline, their mental toughness, their sublime skill, my obsession with elite sport and my jetlag for company I sat up the next two nights and watched Serena, mother and GoAT. I watched Kevin Anderson to see if Kevin could transcend the likely impact of a gruelling semi-final and put up a good fight against the winner of the Joker vs Rafa match. I was comforted knowing that if I still couldn't sleep, I had the World Cup final on which to feast.