Losing to Nadal makes for learning and leading

April 20, 2009
Rafa Nadal

Rafa Nadal

World No 1 Raphael Nadal collected his expected victory over Andy Murray in Monte Carlo and went on to win the title. But Murray shows how losing can be a building block to future success

Raphael Nadal has become the outstanding tennis performer on clay surfaces, perhaps of all-time. His record, even as a 22 year old has led him to be hailed not just best in the world, but nearly invincible even against his closest rivals.

So Murray was expected to lose. He went into his semi-final match in the Monte Carlo event [18th April 2009] having lost heavily to Nadal on his own favourite surface, (hard court) few weeks earlier. He commented in a pre-match interview at Monte Carlo, that to win he would have to play at his best, and Nadal maybe would have to under-perform– an unlikely possibility with another title approaching for the Spanish phenomenon.

Murray on clay

Murray is still learning the curious art of playing tennis on clay. For most of the world, clay court tennis is a different game requiring different skills. The surface partly negates the big serve merchants. Points are lengthy and tightly contested. A particular skill is simply keeping correctly balanced, which involves (among other things) sliding into shots. Get it wrong and you look foolish, clumsy, and wrong-footed.

The Americans, no lovers of clay court tennis, had politely opted to pass up this tournament, postponing their first tournament of the year on the surface. Murray had never beaten any tennis player in the top twenty on clay. During the earlier rounds of the tournament he had to call on his general tennis skills to compensate for deficiencies in his clay court game which blunted some of his exceptional mobility.

Nadal performs to order

In the first set of he semi-final against Murray, Nadal performs to order. At times he seemed to toy with Murray with drop shots which made the Scot look leaden-footed. A bedraggled Murray ended the set a poor second.

What happened next

What happened next was partly predictable. Murray lost the second set. What might also have been predicted was that Murray would try to find a way to up his game against Nadal. Easier said than done. What was unpredicted was that Murray would find a way to compete, and even challenge for the set, losing only after a thrilling set which suggests that there will be further and closer encounters over the next few years.

Loser or learner?

For many people, sport is all about winning. That is for me as simplistic as saying that sport is all about competing. At least we might take a more careful look at what winning means.

Frank Dick, no mean motivator of athletes, liked to distinguish between losing an event, and being a loser. It’s a fair point. Each tennis tournament is designed to produce a winner. For many observers that means it produces a whole bunch of losers, including whoever is the last player to lose. More thoughtful commentators line up with Frank Dick’s view of the benefits of learning through losing.

Work with business teams is increasingly showing the importance of two related factors, learning from experience and resilience which help differentiate expected from the extraordinary performance. At the level of the team, these are factors which can be encouraged through good leadership. For top athletes the encouragement requires high individual efforts. The learner as leader of self. But there is also evidence of the role of a more widely distributed leadership process.

Murray even a few years into his professional career took responsibility for selecting a team of coaches whose members share the roles of mentors, technical and medical advisors, and so on. This was after Murray found the one-to-one relationships with coaches unacceptable. This seems to have become the case with as great a coach as Brad Gilbert, a story that has never been made public, and which would perhaps demonstrate that ultimately personal success has to be anchored in an individual taking personal responsibility for that success.

‘Now look what you’ve made me do’ is the cry of the real loser.