I managed the world’s best tennis players. Here’s what I learned about being a Top Performer

Years before he ever won at Wimbledon or claimed the coveted rank of #1 tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic showed up at a tennis tournament that Allon Khakshouri was running. But this was long before he had hoards of fans rushing to get his autograph.

“People were laughing at him,” Allon remembers. “He had this whole team of coaches and experts with him. And people said, ‘Who does this kid think he is?’”

Nobody looked at 17-year-old Novak Djokovic and thought to themselves, “Now there goes the future #1 tennis player in the world.” But years before anyone else thought it about him, Novak Djokovic thought it about himself. And he didn’t just think it: he put systems and habits and people in place to make it happen.

Allon has watched this happen again and again with elite tennis players. He’s managed some of the best in the world — including Djokovic himself — and he’s spent years thinking about what sets those elite players apart from everyone else.

Hint: it’s not their wicked serve speed.

Allon’s online business helps others use the lessons of world-class athletes to become superstars in their industry. He started with help from Zero to Launch.

“Nowadays, everyone knows how to play really good tennis — forehands, backhands, serve. Everyone who’s playing at the top levels knows how to do those things,” Allon says. “The difference between the best and everyone else isn’t about any of that. What it really comes down to is being mentally strong and being focused.”

Today, in addition to managing tennis players, Allon is directing his expertise toward a different group of Top Performers: fellow entrepreneurs. And the difference between the two is not as big as you might think. In fact, there are plenty of habits that top tennis players have mastered that aspiring top entrepreneurs could learn from:

  1. Alternate deliberate practice with deliberate rest
  2. Surround yourself with feedback
  3. Cultivate a love of the game
  4. Change your relationship with failure
  5. Have a reach that exceeds your grasp

1. Alternate deliberate practice with deliberate rest

It’s weird to kick off an analysis of some of the best athletes in the world by talking about how good they are at relaxing. But it’s true: one of the most important things that the best tennis players in the world know is when to step on the gas — and when to ease off.

The ultimate example of this: 20-time Grand Slam title winner (and current #2 in the world) Roger Federer.

“He’s a gifted guy, but maybe the most impressive thing about him as a player is that he really understands how to economize all his resources,” says Allon. “He plays fewer tournaments than most people. When he practices, he practices 120% — but he spends less time on the court practicing than most people.”

The reason Roger Federer can spend less time on the practice court than almost any other player and still outperform virtually anybody he comes up against? Because when he is on the practice court, he knows exactly what he’s there for.

This is what psychologist K. Anders Ericsson is talking about when he talks about “deliberate practice.” It’s what author Cal Newport calls “deep work.” The amount of time you put into working on a given task doesn’t matter nearly as much as the quality of the time you put in.

“A lot of people get stuck doing busy work — they don’t focus on the needle-moving activities. These very difficult tasks, you can’t do them for 10 hours. So it’s better to spend 4-5 hours of quality work, and then switch off completely, then spend 20 hours of emailing and social media and checking things out online — doing the kind of things that don’t really move you forward.”

Working 12 hours per day on your business idea doesn’t make you dedicated — it makes you inefficient. So re-calibrate, decide what you actually want to get done, and when you do sit down to practice, commit to getting it done. Then, when you’ve accomplished what you set out to accomplish for that session of deliberate practice, go do something that has nothing to do with your business.

It’s what Roger Federer would do.

2. Surround yourself with feedback

Setting goals is great, says Allon. But all of the goal-setting in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t tell whether you’re meeting them or not.

For elite tennis players, that’s where a coach comes in.

“Almost every top player has a world-class coach,” says Allon. “Someone who watches you, who gives you feedback, who challenges you, who pushes you.”

The first advantage a coach has is simply that they’re not you. While you’re on the court, seeing everything from your point of view, they’re on the outside looking in — which means they can see things about your form, your approach, what your opponent is doing — that you just can’t from your vantage point on the court.

“It’s not that the coach plays better than the player. The player plays much better than the coach,” points out Allon. “But the coach knows exactly the steps that the player needs to do. He can give the player immediate feedback.”

An outside perspective isn’t the only value that a coach brings to the table. “The key is to have someone who’s more experienced than you to guide you,” says Allon.

The same goes for entrepreneurs. “This is why courses like Zero to Launch are so crucial, because people have walked the path that we want to embark on millions of times before,” says Allon. “So for us to reinvent the wheel — we waste so much time and so much effort and so much energy.”

Their coach isn’t the only source of feedback a tennis player relies on, either. Every match, set, game — every point a tennis player plays — it’s new data coming in. And the best tennis players are information sponges, soaking all of that data up.

Entrepreneurs would do well to do the same. “In business, we also get feedback. Income, conversions, opt-in rates — these things are feedback. Having that constant awareness of where we stand is so critical,” says Allon. “So either you need a coach, or you need to be very disciplined in tracking your progress, so you can do course corrections whenever you see that things aren’t going well.”

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3. Cultivate a love of the game

The best tennis players in the world aren’t just great at playing tennis, Allon points out.

“The really top guys love watching tennis. They watch other matches with their coaches, they analyze their opponents before playing them — what their weaknesses are, what their strengths are.”

Think about it: how much time do you spend watching the entrepreneurs you admire (or envy)? And when you do watch them, how are you watching them? Is it through the lens of what you can learn, and how you can improve? Or is it through the shade-throwing lens of the green-eyed monster?

If it’s the second, then there’s a good chance that you’re suffering from a case of fixed mindset — the belief that we’re all born with all of the talent and ability we will ever have, and if someone is better than you, it’s because they’re naturally good at it, and you’re not.

When you have a fixed mindset, you chalk anyone’s success up to some inherent advantage that they have that you don’t, rather than seeing it for what it is: a collection of practices and habits that you could incorporate and learn from.

It would be oversimplifying to say that innate talent never plays a role in success. You could have picked up a tennis racket at age six, practiced every day of your life under the tutelage of the best coach in the world, and you still wouldn’t be Serena Williams. Probably.

But elite tennis players don’t spend as much time as they do watching their competitors in order to wallow in self-pity about how good they’re never going to be. Whether they’re picking up a technical pointer they can incorporate into their own game, or analyzing a clear competitive advantage so they can devise a strategy to work around it — it’s all data to take with them the next time they step on the court.

Don’t give in to the easy defeat of a fixed mindset. Be like a top tennis player. Watch your peers, and in particular, watch the people who are better than you. And while you’re watching, ask yourself: “What is this person doing that’s working — and how can I do the same thing?”

Allon (left, in a suit) looks on while Roger Federer (right, in blue) accepts his first place trophy alongside Andy Roddick at the Thailand Open.

4. Change your relationship with failure

Tennis players are really good at losing. In fact, they may be better at losing than they are at anything else. They have to be.

“Tennis is unique, because apart from the winner of the tournament, everyone loses,” observes Allon. “And they play a lot of tournaments, so you lose constantly.”

Reaching the absolute pinnacle of your field doesn’t insulate you from losing, either. This season, Novak Djokovic has endured a series of crushing defeats and seen his ranking slide from #1 to #12.

“When you play a tennis match, you can’t know whether you’ll win or lose. You might play the next Serena Williams, and she plays the best match of her life. And then even if you play a great match, you might lose.”

If a tennis player came off the court everytime they lost believing that every setback is personal, pervasive, and permanent — they’d never pick a racket up again. So how do you lose to Rafael Nadal five times, and still show up to play that sixth match? If you’re Djokovic, how do you suffer a humiliating second-round defeat, and come back for the next tournament?

Answer: you don’t take failure personally.

“You have to want to want to win, and do your best. But once you enter the match, you need to detach from the outcome. You need to remember that life is much bigger than a tennis game. Remember, ‘It’s only a tennis game, and all I want is to do my best and try to win point for point. And then, if I win, great. And if I lose, I’ll have amazing feedback.’”

Make no mistake: this paradox — of doing absolutely everything in your power to play the best game you can, but at the same time not letting yourself be absolutely destroyed if your best isn’t enough — it’s a tough one to grasp. But it’s the paradox we all have to get comfortable with, whether we’re trying to be top tennis players — or top entrepreneurs.

Allon doesn’t mince words about this. “If you launch your first product and it doesn’t go well, and you need two years to recover from that, then you haven’t integrated the identity of a successful person,” he says.

Whether a match is a win or a loss, it’s a data point. Whether your blog post goes viral or barely gets a single view, it’s a data point. If your launch fails, go hug your husband. Play with your kid. And come back the next day ready to get back to work. It’s not personal. It’s data.

Allon (in the black shirt) and Djokovic (in no shirt) celebrate after winning the Australian Open
(courtesy of Allon Khakshouri)

5. Have a reach that exceeds your grasp

Balancing deep investment in the work with a cool detachment from the results is not the only paradox that elite performers have to master. There’s another kind of “double vision” that aspiring elite performers cultivate as well: the ability to see where you are now, and what you can do right now, and where you want to be someday, and what it will take to get there.

“You need to be able to have dreams that go beyond our current skills and capabilities,” says Allon. “Many people only ever think, ‘What can I do today, and what can I produce out of that?’”

If Novak Djokovic had thought this way — limited by what his capabilities were at the time, and what quick wins he could achieve with them — he would never have shown up at that tournament, and he wouldn’t be the #1 tennis player today.

The same is true for entrepreneurs. Long before you’re being interviewed by national bloggers as a respected expert in your field, or filling up course slots within hours of announcing you’re accepting sign-ups, you need to see that destination clearly. When you can barely string together a sentence of sales copy, or the very idea of sending a sales email makes your blood pressure spike, that can feel like an impossible task.

But if you don’t believe it, says Allon — why should anyone else?

“If you want to own a seven-digit business, you need to become the kind of person who runs a seven-digit business.”

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