Play Lesser Players: correlating your teams’ input with exceptional outcomes

2 Aug 2019

Posted by Nuno Job

It was Toni Nadal, the former coach of pro’ tennis player Rafael Nadal that reminded me of the difference between effort and work.

I had been invited by GP Bullhound to attend the investment firm’s annual summit in Marbella earlier this year. And although I was present at several amazing lectures while I was there, it was Toni’s talk in particular that stuck with me. And it took place on a tennis court…

Toni started by saying that tennis was simple. Hit the ball as hard as you can, try to hit it inside the lines, and, if possible, hit it away from your adversary. All the skill, strength, speed, tactical awareness and the study of your opponent should be built around these simple principles. At their core, these three glaringly simple steps foster improvement in a young player and helps them win more points.

The tennis coach got me thinking. You can put in a lot of effort when cycling, but if you’re in the wrong gear there’s a significant loss of energy. In business it’s the equivalent of a burnt-out team member trying to work long hours on a job that demands critical thinking. Its output will be suboptimal.

Only by being in the right gear and having the best technique you can make sure that your great effort turns into great work. It requires discipline, critical thinking, planning, learning how to say no and, above all, improving in the very basics of our profession. In tennis, according to Toni, that can be summarised in those three steps. But, how would you summarise these for, let’s say, a CMO?

Hard work is by no means a guarantee of exceptional output. How many times have you seen teams create incredible work that never saw the light of day? In tennis, according to Toni’s experience, this can be translated into just how many times you hit the ball with near perfect technique.

If you use perfect technique to return all shots, you score more points. And if you score more points, you win more games.

I obviously enjoyed Toni’s talk, but up to this point, parallels aside, I had learned little in terms of practical management. It was at that point that I was taken by surprise, as Toni told the most contrarian, unusual story.

A really eye-rolling, this-guy-is-past-his-prime moment for much of the audience. Which was, of course, when I knew I was about to learn something new; something truly special always comes with a truly different perspective.

Toni told us a story about his young players. Apparently, a lot of parents come to him and say, “My child loses a lot of games, how can I make them win more games?” He stopped and said, “Well. Have them play lesser players.” Basically, if you suck and want to win, play someone that sucks more than you.

The status quo says that the perfect way to learn is to be surrounded by people better than us, so why the bizarre advice?

He proceeded to explain; if Rafa loses a bunch of games with a specific player, maybe he should be playing a different tournament. You learn a lot in your losses, but you can’t develop a winning mentality by losing all the time. This is the very notion of outcome management.

If you want to become the next Rafa Nadal, you can’t expect to start by competing in Wimbledon; you need to work your way up. If you continually play out of your league you’re ignoring your mental capacity for coping. You will build resilience, but even the most strong-willed of us will at some point give up. You need wins, and sometimes that means playing “lesser players”.

Toni taught us there’s no guarantee you’ll be the best tennis player in the world, but you’ll definitely be the best tennis player you can be.

That’s the difference between output and outcome, you simply cannot guarantee an outcome.

The lessons are very attuned to Nassim Taleb’s concept of ‘antifragile’; rather than building resilience, we create in a way that improves on each problematic encounter.

In business this is about setting people up to win at the edge of their continually advancing abilities, throughout their career.

Illustrations by James Hevey. With contributions from Finn D’Albert. Thank you to the team of GP Bullhound.

Further reading: High Output Management by Andrew Grove, My Turn: A Life of Total Football by Johan Cruyff, and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Nuno Job
Posted by Nuno Job

Nuno is the Co-founder and CEO of YLD Group. Previously he was the Chief Commercial Officer at Nodejitsu, where he was responsible for the world's largest Node.js cloud, providing extensive contributions to the success of Node.js. Nuno's formative work years were spent in the USA at IBM Research and MarkLogic. He is also a proud Stanford alumni.

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