Last week I had the great pleasure of returning to Mallorca with Heather to participate in another tennis excursion. I have learned some good tips that I hope to continue to apply to improve my game. The highlight so far (it’s still going on as I write this), besides meeting some wonderful people, is that one of the instructors (Juan) is going to be attending Mississippi State University next year to play tennis. I asked Juan if he would hit with me. After scoping me out for 10 minutes and seemingly impressed by what he saw, he asked me if I wanted him to give me a lesson. I absolutely did, as that is what I was angling for! We played hard for over an hour, and this was after doing three hours of drills with my group beforehand. Although I was very tired, it was an exhilarating form of tiredness as I had the satisfaction of having worked very hard and pushing myself.
It felt so good to be physically challenged through his constant moving me around on the court. On top of that, he also gave me some excellent pointers as well. And when it came time to pay him, he was expecting me to give him the agreed-upon 40 euros. I felt what he gave me was worth more than that, plus the cost was so reasonable by U.S. standards that I felt compelled to give him more. When I handed him 60 euros, his face lit up. He was so happy and beaming with surprise. He hasn’t been to the United States before, so he needs every euro he can earn as college life, even with a scholarship, is not cheap in the United States, especially when being so far from home. It’s nice when something that is not very much to me in the scheme of things can mean so much to someone else.
Each time I get on the court, I strive to learn a little bit more about the game, how to hit better shots, improve my conditioning, and have that feeling of intense focus and being in the flow state resulting from stretching myself such that my capabilities, confidence, and control all improve as a result. This striving for excellence and continuous improvement is the subject of this blog from observations of Rafael Nadal and from a book I finished while in Majorca.
Our visit to Mallorca in 2022 was centered around the Rafa Nadal Academy, while this year, only one of the days was there. When spending time at Rafa’s academy, I’m struck by what Nadal has accomplished in a relatively short period of time (it opened in 2016) and how quickly it has become a center of excellence. It attracts great junior tennis players from around the world to live, train, and school there. The hotel has expanded and is able to accommodate more families of students as well as a growing number of tennis enthusiasts who travel there to participate in the many clinics that are offered there.
In addition to the numerous tennis courts, it has paddle tennis, a restaurant, cafeteria, snack bars, an excellent fitness center, a pool, a soccer stadium, massage therapy, a pro shop, and Rafa’s museum, which offers visitors a window into his life, philosophy, dedication, and a seemingly endless display of trophies. It also has interactive experiences as well which are quite fun and entertaining.
While Nadal is clearly reaching the end of his playing career, he has been planting the seeds and laying the foundation for what is already a burgeoning business empire. The academy has helped him cut his teeth on hospitality, dining, multimedia marketing, and display, corporate partnering with Moviestar, and expanding his brand internationally with academies in other countries as well as taking the academy to the United States for temporary visits to strong tennis locales such as Southern California and Florida.
Nadal is now involved in the Zel Hotel chain, restaurants, perfume, and real estate ventures. Add to this his lucrative endorsements that will undoubtedly continue after he retires, and it goes without saying that Nadal is on a very firm financial footing that should only compound greatly given how young he is and the power of his brand to expand globally combined with his dedication to excellence.
Unlike some people who only seek to monetize their name without doing any of the work, Nadal was raised in a family that has been very hands-on and successful in business, sports, and coaching. One could never rest on his laurels, and each member was expected to be hard-working, honor the family through good character, and always remain humble. He brings these expectations, attributes, mindsets, and overall approach to all aspects of his life. This will be abundantly clear once his professional tennis playing days are over and he becomes able to dedicate himself fully to his academies, the Rafael Nadal School of Sport at a university in Spain, and his growing business empire.
While in Mallorca, I finished a book called Peak: The Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. I have read a lot of books and articles about mastery, and the research done by these authors is one of the foundations for this subject matter. It also dovetailed well with my interest and tremendous admiration for Rafa on and off the court. The premise of the book is that there are no shortcuts to becoming an expert or master of a subject or one’s craft. People often erroneously conclude that since something doesn’t come easy or naturally to them, then they are not going to be able to learn how to excel at it since it’s clear in so many areas of life that there are a lot of people born with natural talent. Why swim so hard upstream and try to compete with those who can so easily go with the flow?
According to the authors, however, there is no empirical evidence of natural talent alone being responsible for a person’s success. In fact, possessing such talent can actually be a detriment as it can often lead to overconfidence and an overreliance on one’s natural abilities, which takes away from the commitment, dedication, and consistency needed to excel at any endeavor. On the other hand, those people who love what they’re pursuing but also think they don’t have the natural talent that others do are the ones to watch out for as they are far more dedicated to doing what is necessary to succeed in order to become masters of their crafts. They feel compelled to work harder and smarter and to be very open-minded about what it takes to grow in order to succeed.
So what is it that is needed to become the top of one’s field? Deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a very specific kind of practice that is designed to produce consistent, continuous improvement. It’s also not enough to rely on one’s experience as one proceeds through his or her career. For example, one might think that a doctor with many years of experience might be much more proficient than one with far less experience. This is only the case if the more experienced doctor doesn’t rest on his or her laurels and works to improve his skills continuously. According to the authors,
Research has shown that generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.
Purposeful practice is specific, requires one’s full attention, involves constructive feedback, pushes one outside of his or her comfort zone, and enables participants to find ways around barriers that stop progress. This is why working with a teacher or coach is so important because he or she has presumably overcome every obstacle that you have faced or will contend with in the future, so they can help you overcome them as well. The coach or teacher can provide vitally important feedback to identify errors and to help correct them. He or she is also an accountability partner, which is vital to staying on a growth trajectory.
Here is how the authors summarize deliberate practice,
So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.
As we get outside of our comfort zones and establish new, higher baselines, or homeostasis, this new level becomes easier to maintain, but now also needs to be pushed further in order to avoid atrophying through stagnation. And while measuring such improvement isn’t always so cut and dried when it comes to careers such as being a financial analyst, managing an apartment community, being an attorney, artist, etc., it is much more objective when it comes to physical endeavors that challenge our bodies. This is what the authors say about pushing ourselves physically and something I find to be very motivating to continue being very physically active in ways that allow me to stretch my capabilities over time.
This is how the body’s desire for homeostasis can be harnessed to drive changes: push it hard enough and for long enough, and it will respond by changing in ways that make that push easier to do. You will have gotten a little stronger, built a little more endurance, and developed a little more coordination. But there is a catch: once the compensatory changes have occurred—new muscle fibers have grown and become more efficient, new capillaries have grown, and so on—the body can handle the physical activity that had previously stressed it. It is comfortable again. The changes stop. So to keep the changes happening, you have to keep upping the ante: run farther, run faster, run uphill. If you don’t keep pushing and pushing and pushing some more, the body will settle into homeostasis, albeit at a different level than before, and you will stop improving. This explains the importance of staying just outside your comfort zone: you need to continually push to keep the body’s compensatory changes coming, but if you push too far outside your comfort zone, you risk injuring yourself and actually setting yourself back. This, at least, is the way the body responds to physical activity. Scientists know much less about how the brain changes in response to mental challenges.
After reading that, I can’t help but think of the Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter song The Wheel.
The wheel is turning, and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go, and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back, and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will
Won’t you try just a little bit harder?
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
Won’t you try just a little bit harder?
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
‘Round, ’round, robin run ’round
Got to get back to where you belong
Little bit harder, just a little bit more
A little bit further than you gone before
Nadal knows that he could never slow down or stand still if he wanted to keep competing at the highest level. There will always be younger, very talented players with great physical endurance, strength, and skills. What most lack, however, is Nadal’s extraordinary determination, work ethic, and a very specific and effective training regimen to work on the precise requirements he needs to improve upon to stay competitive. What Nadal loses as he ages, assuming he stays healthy, which he hasn’t recently, has been made up for by Nadal’s determination and system of training and preparation.
This is what Nadal has said,
“When one player is better than you, at this moment, the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time. I’m going to wait, and I’m going to try a sixth time. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, a seventh. It’s going to be like this. That’s the spirit of sport.”
Clearly, Nadal is a generational talent, one for the ages. And while he may have inherited those genes that predisposed him to be an incredible talent, he would never have been able to achieve what he has by relying on his talent alone. Only in combination with the fierce determination of a warrior, an incredible coach in his uncle who would push him to his limits and get him out of his comfort zone, utilizing the principles of deliberate practice, accepting the grind, and finding the mental tools to remain motivated no matter the circumstances, and getting deep satisfaction from experiencing continuous improvement, versus solely on winning and losing, could he have won 22 grand slams and become the greatest clay court player in tennis history as this tweet shows.
From a business standpoint, I have found that the more one can break down the critical success factors of a job and find individuals that have the aptitude, skill, and personality traits to excel at such roles, then their chances of success are predictable than just knowing they went to a top university or were involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. And if the person/job fit is enhanced by hiring individuals who are much more intrinsically motivated and don’t gain their sense of self and validation from accolades or external rewards other than they are reflective of a job well done and is indicative of continuous improvement, and they are solid cultural fits, then their chances of success grow exponentially.
If there are ways to incorporate the principles of deliberate practice into the growth and development of associates, then this should be much more effective than the sugar rush one might get from attending conferences, although those can provide opportunities to network and expand relationships, which can be highly valuable as well. The point is to focus on specific knowledge that can be applied and long-lasting versus short-term, temporary knowledge that is much more general in nature.
I have always been a believer in the Charlie Munger approach of investing with fanatics. Nadal is clearly one of those. He knows what it takes to be successful, he does whatever is necessary to improve his chances of succeeding, he doesn’t make excuses, he has an incredible drive and determination, he relishes competition, and he intends to improve continuously. These are the people I want to be invested with and with whom I want to surround myself as they can not only generate compelling rates of return but also elevate the quality of my life and make me a stronger, more capable, vibrant person.