Federer’s backhand and Jantjies’ box kick: lessons in coaching excellence

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Amongst sports lovers there will always be disagreement about GOATs (greatest of all time), except perhaps Mohammed Ali and Donald Bradman. Sidestepping that debate, regarding men’s tennis, there are facts about Roger Federer that cannot be disputed. 

  • He was ranked number 1 in the world for a total of 310 weeks, including 237 consecutive weeks; the most of any man.
  • Between 2003 to 2010 he won 16 grand slam titles.
  • Between 2010 to 2016 he won only one more slam, and Nadal and Djokovic largely shared the spoils.
  • In 2017/18 at the age of 36, he won three more, despite the above competitors’ continued presence as younger players.

Federer’s extended dominance was achieved despite his having a backhand that was generally regarded as less than excellent. He managed with the largely sliced backhand because the rest of his game was unmatched by any of his rivals and he could generally get around his backhand to dominate with laser guided forehand, service and ability at the net.

Nadal and Djokovic targeted the backhand “weakness”, and both have beaten Federer more times than he has beaten them. Their success is reflected in the decline in Federer’s ability to win major tournaments from 2010 to 2016. Then, at an age when almost all leading tennis players have retired, Federer took time off, remodelled his backhand with his coach and came back to win three more majors.

At the other end of the age spectrum South African rugby has found in 23-year-old Herschel Jantjies an unexpected prospect with fire in his belly and light in his eyes – coming from obscurity a year ago to scoring three tries in two tests against Australia and New Zealand, and playing with the assurance of a veteran. 

Talking about this prospect, the Springbok coach noted that Jantjies scores tries and makes great breaks and there should not be too much emphasis on coaching “certain technical elements” of his game while he settled in at the highest level. There speaks a true coach!  (I think he was referring to Jantjies’ kicking from the base of the scrum, although it looked pretty good to my uneducated eyes.)

From all of this I take three lessons:

  1. You can be the very best without being perfect in every aspect of work or life; it’s not helpful to try to be good at everything.
  2. You will do better by developing and using your strengths than obsessing about your “weaknesses”.
  3. When the time is right, you may need to reflect and self-correct. You will know from experience when this is necessary – it should not be driven by the self-defeating desire to be good at everything.

I frequently come across the desire for “excellence in everything” in my coaching practice, not least in giving feedback on 360° assessments, where people are assessed on a variety of different areas of management and leadership. Invariably the feedback report will have areas of relative strengths and areas where the client makes less of an impact. And almost as frequently the client will pay more attention to the lower scores and wonder what they can do to “improve”. This is often true even of high performing individuals where their lowest scores fall within an acceptable range.

The challenge for managers, human resource departments and coaches is to negotiate a complex set of factors:

  • It really is beneficial to focus first on people’s strengths when giving feedback. It noticeably lifts the mood in the room, and one can often sense a palpable lifting of anxiety in the person receiving feedback.
  • It is important to spend a substantial chunk of time focusing on how an individual’s strengths can be enhanced, and how they can be better used in the organisation. Personal development plans should focus on this as much as on attending to any perceived weakness.
  • It is true that areas of relative weakness must be addressed if they really are undermining the individual’s contribution to the organisation – but that should be assessed rather than just assumed. In that case, supportive development coaching certainly has an important role. Even here, the goal should be to achieve satisfactory function, rather than necessarily excellence where someone was previously weak. We should not expect an introvert to develop an outgoing personality, or someone whose strength is attention to detail to suddenly become the strategic thinker in a team.
  • It is also important to bear in mind that areas of weakness that are less important at one stage in a career may assume greater importance as a person progresses. So, for example, an unwillingness to have difficult conversations or confront poor performance becomes more disabling as a person progresses to more senior levels in the organisation. That may be the moment to attend to it.
  • A person’s strengths may be the best resource for addressing development areas. A manager who is well liked and highly respected may shy away from these difficult conversations because of a fear of losing his or her popularity. A coach should be able to refocus the issue and demonstrate that the very fact of being highly respected means that when he or she raises difficult issues, it will be seen to come from a place of integrity rather than from a mean or bullying disposition. Indeed, it is quite possible that the level of respect will rise if the difficult conversation is held in a respectful and supportive manner.

Managers and coaches should recognise that what we call “development areas” are sometimes the shadow of a client’s strengths. I worked with someone employed in the area of public health. She was in line for promotion but was told that she first needed to moderate her rather aggressive management style. It wasn’t long before we discovered that her deep passion for the work made her intolerant of time wasting – she didn’t want to discuss things in meetings or debate alternative courses of action. She just wanted everyone to get on with the work that needed to be done so urgently, and she struggled with those who didn’t meet her high standards. She was in no way a bully or an unsympathetic person – yet her colleagues often experienced her as such and rather feared her. As she learnt that an empowered and effective team could achieve much more than her lone warrior presence, so she learned to moderate her “weakness” and unleash the power of her strength, which is a deep commitment to bringing change. If we had just tried to “fix” her behaviour, without understanding its roots in her strongest attribute, it would have been a painful and unproductive expenditure of energy.

Achieving team excellence

There is something else that managers and leaders could learn from team sport coaches.  The job is not just to assemble a team of highly skilled operators and let them loose on the field of play, holding each accountable for their individual performance. Yes, everyone must be good at their specific job – but the team really flies when individual strengths complement each other, when team members have each other’s back, and people play roles that are not defined by capabilities beyond the skills required for the job (or position in the sporting analogy).

Good leaders will pay as much attention to this apparently intangible mix of strengths, skills and behaviours as they will to individual performance contracts and key performance indicators. This is a more rewarding and effective approach to performance management than the understandable but misguided default to fix what is wrong.[i]

For more information on Thornhill’s various products and services for all levels within your organisation, please contact us on admin@thornhill.co.za


[i] Thornhill offers an online Team Performance Review that removes the “intangible” from the mix and helps managers to identify and develop the range of behaviours and roles that go into making a successful team.

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