Business Lessons from a Tennis Pro: A Case Study on Rafa Nadal

Wimbledon, the French Open and then a gold medal at the Beijing Winter Olympics: Last year was one of the best for Rafa Nadal, who was crowned the world’s leading tennis player. This year could not have begun any better, with the hard-fought final match in which he defeated Switzerland’s Roger Federer at the Australian Open. Now, Nadal will be able to add another item to his list of accomplishments: His sports career has inspired a case study at the IESE Business School.

Santiago Álvarez de Mon, a professor at IESE, is the author of the case study. Alvarez de Mon explains that the research, inspired by the “most admired athlete in Spain,” will be translated into English and will be used by business school classes — first in Spain and then at the new campus of IESE in New York — as well as in the programs IESE is developing in Latin America and China. The lessons from Nadal’s career are “universal” and can be applied to the presidents of major corporations as well as to young professionals starting out in the corporate world, the author notes. For those just starting out, the tennis player provides an example of how to cultivate values such as humility, discipline and sacrifice so that the goal is not only to reach the highest level but to stay at one’s peak without losing perspective. For those who have already reached the top of their professional careers, Nadal provides a model of how to plan for the future once a career is over.

According to Alvarez de Mon, it is critical to realize that nothing lasts forever, and that being the number-one player is not the most important thing. This means “gaining perspective [on the fact] that your personality is something intrinsic, [and] you can enjoy being an ex-champion,” he says. Alvarez de Mon conducted several interviews with Nadal and the people who surround him, and he notes in his study that Nadal is fully aware of his future options. “He is a young man of 22 who doesn’t want to stop playing, and he can’t imagine retiring in the short run. Nevertheless, he talks openly about his future, and he is preparing for the day when he will no longer be the number-one tennis player…. Nadal has been able to invest in his character [and not just his professional career]” so that he can live and enjoy other aspects of life beyond his sports championships.

“Whatever he does in the future, he will do with intensity,” Alvarez de Mon says. The key, he adds, is to acknowledge the future, as well as to plan for the change — to be aware that “any position is something conditional” and to talk about that fact as something natural. “Retirement always arrives, and you have to know how to differentiate between the [professional] ‘personality’ and the actual person.” Doing that requires major reflection and mental discipline; it is something that one also has to train for, he says.

Nurturing Innate Talent

For Alvarez de Mon, talent is something found in an individual’s DNA. However, “after that, you have to work hard and develop it.” Rafa picked up a racket for the first time when he was only three years old. It was his uncle Toni Nadal (now this trainer) who discovered that the little boy had talent simply by observing how he positioned his legs even before anyone had taught him how to do so. At the age of twelve, Rafa was proclaimed the European champion in his category. “There is a precocious component in his talent and it is innate,” Alvarez de Mon says. That’s where the figure of a coach comes in: He is “responsible for identifying, selecting and choosing that talent,” the author notes.

But how much of talent is simply a person’s nature, and up to what point can someone be trained? “At times, it is hard to know who we are, but we recognize what we are not,” says Alvarez de Mon. But for those who are talented, “if you don’t work a great deal, it is not going to catch on.” On the contrary, no matter how much effort an untalented person makes, not much will come of it. For example, Alvarez de Mon recalls the sports career of Michael Jordan, who became the world’s top basketball player. But when Jordan tried to replicate his success elsewhere, in baseball, he wasn’t able to do so.

Alvarez de Mon emphasizes the importance of the people who surround Nadal and stimulate the development of his talent. His family, his trainer, his friends and his girlfriend form the connective link between the player and regular life. In the case of Nadal, the people who surround him perform an advisory role, but every decision about his career is made by him. That was true even when he was 12 years old, and he had to choose whether to continue playing soccer, a sport in which he also excelled, or dedicate himself entirely to tennis. Like any child who likes to play with his friends, he could have chosen soccer. But it was his family that helped him put a high value on the talent he had for tennis. Carlos Costa, an ex-tennis player who is Nadal’s manager, told Alvarez de Mon that the team surrounding Rafa continues to be important in his career, not only from a technical point of view, but also by contributing “a positive outlook when spirits are low.” According to Costa, “Ninety percent of success in tennis is in the head.”

The characteristics of an elite athlete like Nadal — including discipline, consistency, energy and perseverance — apply to any senior executive, Alvarez de Mon notes. “You have to work with these qualities every day.” However, he adds, “the invincible combination is character plus talent.” In the case of Nadal, his talent is something innate that has been developed throughout his career under the tutelage of his uncle and trainer. Meanwhile, his professional and personal lives have been well rounded. When Nadal was only a boy of eight, he had already won tournaments in which he competed against players who were four or five years older than he was. “That is a period when fathers play a fundamental role in the development of success.” Now, that role is played by his manager, his family, his friends, his girl friend and even by Manacor, his home town — in other words, by everything and everyone around him, Alvarez de Mon points out.

The case study also analyzes Nadal’s relationship with Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis player. “These two men compete in a very polished way,” notes Alvarez de Mon. He recalls that Nadal proposed Federer be given the Prince of Asturias Award (an annual award given in eight categories, including sports.) The final match of the Australian Open was an example of the good relationship between the two players. However, above all, it was a lesson in how to win and lose elegantly. Until the moment when he became number-one in the world, Nadal had been defeated on several occasions by Federer, now ranked second. However, perseverance and training contributed to his victory in the Australian finals. For Alvarez de Mon, every executive needs to have this quality, too — “a natural disposition to continue to learn, and to maintain a natural relationship with mistakes.”

Lessons of the World’s Leading Player

So, what can executives learn from the career of Rafa Nadal? Alvarez de Mon believes there are ten key lessons:

1. Talent: Each of us is born with a different talent. The key is to choose a profession that permits you to develop it. Although talent is a function of genetics, it needs to be nurtured in order to bloom fully. Nadal began to play tennis at the age of five and he was only seven when he won his first championship. At the age of twelve, he was the leading player in Europe in his category. And at the age of 22, he was proclaimed the world’s number-one player.

2. Character: Nadal is an example of how a strong and determined character can propel a career to the very top. Along with talent, character is the second engine in an unbeatable duo.

3. Training: In both sports and business, there should be a natural relationship between making mistakes and being prepared to learn. In the case of Nadal, not everything is technique; it’s also about mental control, and about an eagerness to be constantly learning. Before he unseated Federer as the world’s number-one player, Nadal had been defeated on various occasions by his rival.

4. Values: Before you can become number-one, you have to develop such values as humility in order to have a solid foundation for dealing with success. But you also need to know the difference between yourself as a real person, and yourself as a sports and media ‘personality.’

5. Teamwork: Tennis players are solitary competitors on the court, but they always depend on the team that supports them. Trainers and managers act as advisors off the court, but once the match has begun, responsibility falls entirely on the player, just as it does on an executive. Even when just one person is in power, others are working for him behind the scenes.

6. Positive Outlook: Some athletes lose a match before playing it. The secret lies in seeing the problem and turning it into an opportunity. Beyond such a perspective, you also have to exercise mental toughness in order to play your best when conditions are most difficult.

7. Environment: Your family environment is key; it shapes personality and it’s important to remember who you are and where you came from.

8. Coaching: Often, a talented person is the last one to realize what he has. The job of a good coach is to identify talent, select it and train it correctly so that it develops.

9. Pressure: The only way to deal with the pressure of serious competition is to realize that there are other things beyond winning a championship cup.

10. Collaborators: Both senior executives and elite athletes run the risk of surrounding themselves with people who only tell them what they want to hear.

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