Why tennis and 5G have a lot in common
I was recently reflecting on my LinkedIn banner, which I designed myself.
It consists of two images: on the left is an image of a clay tennis court, on the right is an image of the globe with ‘5G’ hovering above it.
A thought came into my mind: "When someone looks at my LinkedIn banner, what do they think? How do tennis and 5G go together and what do they have in common? How does one get from tennis to 5G?"
My first thought, and the answer to my own question was: "Well, probably not much. The left picture represents who I was and what shaped me to be the way I am, and the right picture represents what I do now."
Then, I took a pause to reflect on my answer. Firstly, I found it boring and lazy. Secondly, I realized it probably was not very accurate. "The two of them surely must have something in common given I have transitioned from tennis into technology. If I did not like technology I wouldn’t be here, and given that tennis has taught me everything I know about life, there must be some commonalities...?"
So here are three key things that tennis and 5G have in common:
Create your strategy
Strategy in tennis is very important. Every tennis player is different and every day may be different. One day we wake up and all goes well – the timing is there, we feel great, our body moves smoothly exactly as you trained it to, you have a positive mindset, the sun is shining and the conditions are great (no wind, great surface, the racquet is newly strung and the balls are flying where they should be). Those are the very few days when everything goes well and is easy, BUT there aren’t many of those days.
Typically, a route of a professional tennis player is full of surprises and challenges. We all want to win and not every day is a great day. So we learn how to problem solve, adapt and control our minds to get to the right mindset to come up with a winning strategy despite the challenges we might be facing at that moment (wind, a bad referee call, pain in our knee, a poorly executed shot, poor choice of strokes... and so on).
Things ultimately come down to:
1. Self-awareness: Knowing who we are and knowing our own game – use our strengths and mask or minimize our weaknesses.
2. Learn & analyze: Understanding our opponent and his/her strengths and weaknesses.
3. Create a winning strategy during the match that will allow us to secure a victory. A great tennis player needs to be able to adapt, be flexible, stay positive, move on quickly after mistakes, and be able to iterate on his/her strategy. During a tennis match, one needs to be able to promptly analyze and understand what is going on and figure out a competitive advantage alongside "the secret winning sauce" to secure a win at the end of the match. The strategy also needs to be flexible and adaptable as situations change during a tennis match.
Strategy in 5G technology is equally important. There are many companies out there promoting 5G. In fact, sometimes it seems like everyone who has a voice is talking about 5G and the power of 5G.
- How can we get affordable internet into homes? 5G!
- How can we help kids in developing areas of the world get access to school and education and help bridge the digital divide? 5G!
- How can we make our technology more sustainable and less harmful to the environment? 5G!
- How can we inspire more innovation? 5G!
- How about better agriculture and growing our produce more sustainably? 5G!
- How can we make our cities smarter and more efficient? 5G!
- How can we improve our healthcare system and minimize the challenges that healthcare is facing? 5G!
- How can we help retail survive this pandemic? 5G!
- How about sports? How can we make sports more entertaining and more fun for the fans to watch (especially now since we cannot go and watch our favorite sports in person)? 5G!
- How can we make our cars autonomous, minimize traffic, and make our roads safer? 5G!
- How can we do more things faster and better? 5G!
I can go on and on, but I think you get the point... You might be thinking to yourself: "Wow, will 5G change the world?" (Which is also the title of the RCR Wireless podcast. The episodes with industry experts are quite entertaining. I recommend listening to a few.)
There are many companies out there promoting 5G and what 5G has to offer for many, if not all industries. 5G has the potential to help solve challenges we have not been able to solve before and to re-imagine how our businesses could transform to take advantage of this technology. However, this concept of 5G can be sometimes so big that one might be thinking, is this really true? Additionally, a person can get easily lost in the telecom mumbo-jumbo. It’s an industry that likes to use far too many acronyms.
But back to my strategy point.
Businesses that want to monetize and materialize on 5G need to have a good strategy based on a competitive edge. You may be thinking to yourself, "Duh – this is business 101, Klara. Common sense and logic!" Yes, it is, but there are many companies out there that do not follow the basic steps and common sense and logic. 1. Define your strengths and your wanted position; 2. Analyze the marketplace and industry; 3. Draft a strategy and go get it!... and 4. Iterate!
Here is where I see businesses making mistakes. Same as in tennis, I believe that a company needs to be flexible and adaptable enough to iterate on its strategy quickly if the results of the efforts that are invested (assuming the efforts are perfectly aligned with the strategy) don’t deliver the expected outcome. One problem might be that the strategy is too complicated where the rest of the company cannot understand what to do clearly. It can be too difficult to communicate and for people to follow.
A complex strategy makes it difficult to evaluate its accuracy and figure out why things aren’t going the way they should be - there are too many pieces in the strategy puzzle to measure and evaluate. The simpler you can make your strategy the easier it will be to communicate and to create an execution plan aligned with your wanted position that your team and company can follow. We can measure results faster and simpler which then allows us to pivot and iterate to improve our strategy swiftly if the outcome of our effort is not as expected (given the execution is not the flawed part).
Additionally, I am a strong believer that in order for a company to come up with a good strategy it needs to have good self-awareness and understanding of reality - where do we stand, what are we good at and what are we not so good at? What do we believe in and what kind of company do we want to become? Companies, same as people and perhaps because they are created and run by people, may not be very self-aware about their own strengths, weaknesses, and their market position. If a company is not very self-aware and does not have a good understanding of its reality, then the starting point of its strategy work is inaccurate which will naturally create a big issue for a high-quality accurate strategic plan. Companies, same as tennis players, need to know who they are AND who they are not. Personally, I find this to be the most important first step and a prerequisite for creating an accurate strategy towards our future – what do we want to become?
Build your game
Every tennis player who aspires to excel needs to know their game and build the skills that enable them to compete well. This translates to thousands of hours of hard practice – building strength, endurance, technique, tactics, and mindset. For the sake of this blog post, I do not plan to dive into all these areas as that could take a whole book. I will simplify and focus on tennis strokes only.
If you don’t know much about tennis, the game of tennis is composed of the following basic strokes:
- Serve: first and second serve.
- Groundstrokes: such as forehand and backhand which can be hit flat, with a spin or a slice.
- Net game: forehand and backhand volleys and overhead smashes.
There are also other shots such as returns, drop shots, lobs, and approach shots. Every tennis player has their favorite shots that become their strengths that they rely on during important points. For example, my strength shots used to be my serve (first and second "kick" serve) and my forehand. I also had a good aggressive return, a strong net game, and a very consistent and accurate backhand. One of my favorite games from the deuce side of the court used to be hitting my first serve out wide (a.k.a. a "slidder") which then opened up the court of the opponent and allowed me to use my forehand to hit a ball to the wide-open backhand side of the court.
If I executed my play well, I needed two shots to win a point. I had other favorite "go-to" plays, but for the sake of this post, let's stop there. I believe that if you want to be a great tennis player, you need to have at least 2-3 excellent strength shots, and the better you become the fewer weaknesses one must have. In tennis, and probably in life in general, consistency is the key to success. As you grow your tennis game you need to be working on making your strengths stronger but also minimizing your weaknesses. The reason is that you’re out there alone and there’s no one else but you to rely on. If your weaknesses are too visible to the opponent, they could easily take your game apart.
Now, how does building a tennis game relate to 5G? In my opinion, to fully discover the value that 5G can bring, one also needs to consider other industry trends such as IoT, private/ dedicated networks, edge computing, cloud, virtualization, AI/ML, AR/VR/XR technology, the application developer ecosystem, digital transformation, API management, self-optimizing and self-healing software, among others. 5G can be your first "slidder" serve, but then you will also need your "forehand" to hit the second ball to your opponent's open court and perhaps a consistent backhand.
How do you want to build your 5G game? What technology trends do you call your strengths that you rely on, and what are your weaknesses that may need to be strengthened so they’re not too visible to competitors? From my point of view, 5G is only one component of the game – a very important component. But there are other complementing skills that need to be built that will allow you to create the value you’re seeking to transform industries to the degree we have been talking about. How do you build 5G into your company's strategy and the strengths to create a competitive edge and strategic positioning? That’s on you and your own company to answer. Like tennis players, each company should have its own unique game. Build your strengths. Build your own game. Build your strategy. Go on the court and practice. Develop your skills. Do the hard work. Be disciplined and be discerning.
Building your game and creating your strategy should go hand in hand as you may need to change or adjust your strategy based on the game you’ve built. One should start from the self-awareness point: what game do I have now and how does my game need to change in order to succeed in 5G? What skills do I need to build and how do I need to adjust my strategy as I continue building my game? This is yet another reason why I believe that strategy should be simple and adaptable. The simpler and more adaptable we make it, the easier it will be for us to adapt to new market trends.
Find your support system
Every great tennis player needs a strong support system to grow and thrive. I recently interviewed a number of professional athletes for my podcast, "Grand Slam Journey" and each of them speak about the importance of having a great support system.
If you do not have the right support system it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to maximize your skills and become the best version of yourself. A great athlete needs to know who they can trust and share their goals with.
My advice, whether you’re a professional athlete or a telecom company, is to build a team that will be your support system and who will help you achieve your greatness. This team is typically composed of a few people who belong to your very close circle. People you can trust and rely on fully. They’re usually coaches and a few very close family members or a couple of very close friends. This circle is typically small, between 5 and 10 people. The support system and its size can vary from tennis player to tennis player, but it is very important. Every tennis player assembles their own support system to achieve their goals.
For example, my support system was composed of:
- My tennis coach, who was focused on my tennis game. The goal was to master my tennis strokes, technique, and game tactics.
- My conditioning coach, who was focused on improving my physical abilities such as speed, endurance, strength, agility, footwork.
- My mental coach, who helped me with my mental game.
These are the people I relied on to always tell me the unfiltered truth and with whom I shared my personal goals. They pushed me to improve, made me work hard to build my strengths, and minimize my weaknesses. As you get better, older, and grow your game, you could also add a massage therapist, a trainer, an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, and doctors who learn about your body and help you prevent and fix your injuries.
How do you build a support system for a company? Same as for tennis players, support systems will vary from company to company and the size of a company may also have different types of support systems. A board of directors is one example of building a support system that can help your company grow and thrive. I want to believe that all CEOs now have their own personal coaches who help them see their blind spots, build their strengths, and minimize their weaknesses.
The cool thing about a team and a company is that you can make a mindful decision about what you want to focus on and leave the things that you’re not so great at to others. Hire talented people who have different skills to create a talented and well-rounded team. This may perhaps be more similar to a team sport than tennis. In team sports (such as basketball, baseball, football, soccer....) each person has an assigned position based on their particular skill to deliver value to the team as a whole.
This is not possible for a tennis player. They’re out there alone and therefore need to have a good level of mastery of all strokes to truly become great. Teams and companies can maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses by recruiting talented people for things they do not do well.
A support system may also compose of other companies – partners. A business partner analogy aligns better with doubles. When you play doubles, you want to find a partner who has different strengths than you. Example: I had an aggressive game – a big serve, an aggressive net game and poaching, a strong return, and I enjoyed playing the backhand side in doubles. I typically paired well with doubles partners who had a steady and consistent game and who enjoyed playing the forehand side. A few times I played with partners who had an aggressive game like mine. We had a few fantastic games we won very easily, but other times we couldn't find a rhythm together.
In the same way as in doubles, companies can greatly benefit from finding the right doubles partners to win 5G technology matches together. Finding the right partnerships in the telecom space can greatly help elevate your 5G game. You can even use your partners strategically for building your game. There are many examples where service providers are building their 5G network while teaming up with other partners to build their edge computing and cloud strengths. The use of partnerships for API management, virtualization of networks, and deploying IoT solutions in conjunction with private networks has become very common and popular. Telecom companies, more than ever, are realizing that they cannot succeed in the game of 5G alone. They need to build their own support systems and strong partners to achieve greatness, together.
If you succeed in these three things, you’ll be able to thrive in the game of tennis or the game of 5G technology. Or both, if you’re like me.
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