Me & my brother grew up watching Boris Becker deliver his boom boom serves and Mats Wilander execute his stylish two fisted backhands with ease. We enrolled in a tennis academy and ended up with a coach who disappointed us no end!
For one full year (or so it seemed, it definitely was a very long period of time) his standard bark was: “Watch the ball”. If he caught us playing on points, punishment runs ensued. Same with playing fancy shots. If we picked up footwork or two from TV, his response was standard: drop the racquet and go take a run.
We had no option but to get used to him. Eventually, we did get used to him. And we had no other option but to ‘watch the ball’.
What we had no idea about was this : that we perhaps were picking up the most fundamental habits of watching the ball, getting clean ground strokes and volleys.
We didn’t realise that we had made rapid progress on the court. For, he would never allow us to play a competitive match against each other. “Watch the ball. Aim for where you want to hit and then hit it there”. That was his refrain.
We were free of competition. We were free flowing. We were playful. After about a year of just tapping the ball and getting the footwork and strokes right, he finally relented. Much like an upset father handing over the keys of his prized car to just-become-old-to-drive son. And allowed us to play games on points.
Very soon, we started playing competitive tennis at club and district level. We surprised people and won a heap of matches and then carried on with life. Tennis didnt feature there.
Many many years later, at a corporate picnic, I picked up the racquet to tap a few balls. In my mind, I could clearly hear him shout ‘watch the ball’. I hadn’t touched a racquet in a long while, but I perhaps had one of the cleanest ground strokes amongst all the folks there. Far better than the folks that were ‘regulars’ at the game! The next three hours of awesome tennis were in a state of seamless flow! I couldn’t have been more thankful for all the hoarse ‘watch the ball’ hisses! For it taught me near lessons of ‘learning the basics well’ for a lifetime.
You see, the basics can get boring. But, the basics are the only aspects that matter in the beginning. Mastering the basics will eventually get you the game. It is so tempting to get on with the ‘game’. But the best coach / teacher/manager is the one who helps in keeping that temptation in check and focuses on getting the basic habits in place. Delivering results, by ensuring good habit formation. For, it is in the formative years that work habits are formed. The right habits are the ones that make a difference eventually.
Formative years are so very crucial that the role of managers who manage people in their first jobs assumes great importance. There is their chance to shape thought and action and thus, in a way, shape lives. Sow the right habits. Managers who manage students who are crossing over to corporate have a great responsibility of not only delivering results but also help good habits take shape for a lifetime.
Students taking up corporate jobs, often want to do the shiny thing. Strategy and stuff sitting out of corporate offices! Things that have been picked up from the text books. Much like the awesome cross-court shots of Mats Wilander that we picked up from TV.
In retrospect, it is clear now that what we had to do as a beginner was to watch the ball and get the footwork right! The competitive game came later. And it came without effort and stayed on for a long time. Almost automatically!
Developing good work habits. The power of focus. An understanding of what constitutes success can all be learnt. All of this is so key to strategy building. All of these are learnt early in work life.
Good Management Trainee programs have people sweating it out in the field as their hallmark. That builds character and a sense of purpose. If you are a management trainee slugging it out, you are lucky. If you are a manager of one of these lucky blokes, get them to watch the ball, so to speak, while delivering results. Assimilation of what happens on the field needs to happen when the mind is fresh!
‘Strategy’ will flow. Later!