Tennis and Project Management – May the two worlds collide!

I love tennis, I mean I really love it! When I’m not my corporate day job, I am thinking about tennis all the time. I have been playing for more than 45 years and there is not a day that goes by that I am not thinking about the sport. I consider myself addicted, tennis is one of the biggest passions in my life, along with PMOs and project management 

I have worked in project management for 28 years, I am a 4x Author, International speaker, and a recognized PMO & Project Management expert. I have been a USPTA Coach for 4 years and recently became USPTA Elite certified. 

So what? Who cares about what I like, and who cares about my passion? Let me explain in greater detail because I am about to combine those two worlds. 

I believe there are some great lessons to be learned when we look at our businesses through a sports lens and at our sports through a business lens. I want to be clear that this is not just about project management and tennis. You could replace tennis and project management with football, and real estate, baseball or truck driving. Whatever your life’s passions are, and whatever your job is, there are lessons to be learned when you combine the two worlds. 

Like you, I have read numerous articles on how sports and businesses complement each other.  An article that really stood out to me is called, “7 sports strategies you can use to succeed in business” from www.cnbc.com. You can find this article under the “Leadership category” on the CNBC site, it documents how business and sports collide. I think it’s interesting how the main photo for the article is Roger Federer, the greatest Of All Time (“GOAT”)) of the tennis world, helping prove my point of how these two worlds collide very nicely. The article covers seven main topics including “Simplify,” “Play to your strengths,” “Appreciate the team” …etc. and how these seven points can help you succeed in business. I won’t go over the whole article, but I highly recommend you read it, as It takes real business and real sports scenarios and relates the two. The main concept of the article is that sports and business mix quite well, especially if you take the time to look at both of them with their respective lenses. I don’t believe we do this enough, and I encourage you all to start thinking about these two worlds more often. 

Unfortunately, one of the things I think most of these articles miss is the specifics to a particular sport or business topic. Let’s dig into that now, specifically let’s look at Project Management and Tennis. 

Tennis and business have had an amazing connection for many years, and I ‘m very surprised that there have not been any articles that have consolidate these two worlds before today. 

Let’s head back for a minute to a book originally published in 1921 by one of the world’s top tennis players at that time, William Tilden. In Tilden’s book “The Art of Lawn Tennis,” the first sentence in the book is “Tennis is at once an art and a science”. Wow, that’s a powerful statement and confirms my point that sports and business have a powerful connection, specifically, the Art and Science piece.

Over my last 28 years in the PMO and Project management worlds, the statement around Art and Science has come up countless times! 

When we talk about project management, we talk about two critical skill sets project managers must have to be successful — Art and Science. Art in project management is about leadership, communication skills and influence without authority. Science in project management is about risk and issue logs, project schedules…etc. 

But what about tennis? What does Tilden say in his book about art and science when it comes to tennis? Well, he does not get exact in the book, but he talks about great players such as Wilding, and R.N. Williams and says how they play like art. I believe he may be taking some liberties here with the word “art,” but maybe not? Let me ask you, have you seen Roger Federer play tennis in the last couple of years? If that is not art on a tennis court, then I don’t know what is! We digress for a minute, but let’s see a little of this art in action from Roger in this video, that is truly art. Also, have you read David Foster Wallace’s New York Times’s article “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience”, another amazing article on Roger. Even for the non-tennis or non-sports fan after watching Roger play and hit some of those points, you can see that Roger is an artist and the court is his canvas. 

But what about science, what does Tilden mean by science when it comes to tennis? He says that tennis has its basis in scientific methods. He goes on to say that players who have a high degree of efficiency should have a defined method of development and adhere to it. Interesting isn’t it? Going all the way back to 1921 when Bill wrote this book, and he was one of the great pros of that time, he recognized the importance of how tennis must consider both art and science. Can you imagine the thought leadership he had back then? I believe this was clearly one of the reasons why he was one of the top players? Well, today’s project managers need to be thinking about art and science as well. To have any hopes of being a “top player” in the project management field, these two skill sets are very critical. How we can combine these two worlds? 

Let’s dig deeper. What I want to do now is to look at this from both a project manager and a tennis player’s perspective.  

One of the first places to start when combining these two worlds is by looking at PMI’s Process groups and comparing them to the components of a tennis match. PMI is the world’s leading authority in Project Management and is the leading source for all things Portfolio, Program, and Project Management.  In their best-selling book, “The Project Management Body of Knowledge PMBOK Guide®” they document two major components that I want to examine Process groups, and Knowledge areas. For now, let’s just focus on the Process groups and how these can be matched to the game of tennis. I won’t go into any specific details about the different Process groups, and what they do, I will just name them for now. Based on the names, it is pretty easy to tell what they are about. 

Let’s have a quick look at the tables below.

Project Manager’s / Tennis Player’s Perspective 

In this table, we take the process groups from PMI and compare them to the components of a tennis match. You can see in this mapping table project management and tennis have the same components. 

Tennis Coach’s / Project Manager’s View

In this table, we are going to take it up a level and look at what a coach is looking for during a tennis match. 

In this table you can see a coach’s perspective is about watching and recording how the match is going and trusting the players are executing on agreed upon plans. The coach, who in most cases is not allowed to coach during the match, will work with the player afterwards, win or lose, and make corrections for the next match. That is somewhat different than how a project manager will manage a project but be clear it’s not that different and there are definite similarities. The biggest different is that project managers work with the project team throughout the life of the project, you know how a football coach works with the team during a football game. More to come on that later.

As you look at both tables, you can see there is a clear connection between tennis and project management. I think the lesson here is that you are going through the same process groups where you are managing a project or playing a tennis match. 

How awesome is that? Did you think about that? Was that helpful? If you are a tennis player, football player, or hockey player you can take a completely structured approach to how you prepare for your next match, something you may or may not be doing today. As a tennis player, you should be learning these process groups in detail and follow them through every match. But should you? Would that be valuable? What about the art of tennis? Art comes in the hours you put on a practice court and your natural talent. Nothing takes away from art, but art is rooted in science and structure, and you can be much more creative in your play if you are working from a playbook and a solid approach. 

Getting back to the structure, approaching anything with a structured approach and with a game plan in mind has been proven to be a successful formula in sports for many years. A player who has a game plan is much more successful than some who just wings it. For example, do you think Roger Federer wings it? Michael Phelps? Michael Jordan? Or do you think Federer for example, has a coaching team that goes through everything noted above to help him be successful? That’s an easy answer of course. 

But here’s the thing, I believe this PMI process group approach applies to every sport. 

Let’s do a test and try this on football. 

Football Player (Quarterback)/ Project Manager’s View

In this table, we take the process groups from PMI, and compare them to a football match. But first, let’s look at this from the quarterback’s point of view. The quarterback is considered the leader of the team (aka. Project Manager) and so applicable for this test. 

Ok, let’s now look at baseball… Kidding! But I do believe we could keep going across baseball, soccer, hockey, swimming…etc. You can quite easily see that that sport-after-sport these same PMI Process groups are applicable.

What do you think? 

Do you think it’s valuable to approach sports with this structured approach? Do you think that tennis coaches, hockey coaches, or football coaches think about these process groups or do they just let them happen? Do you think that there would be some merit in Pete Carroll the coach of the Seattle Seahawks football team becoming PMI certified? I do, but let’s continue that in another article. Trust me, I’ve got much more to cover on this topic! 

Let me know what you think?

Bill Dow, PMP

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