Federer has a coach, the former pro-tour player Paul Annacone, who topped out at No. 12 in the world in the 1980s. Annacone describes his role in modest terms: “There’s no magic pill, no secret whispering with voodoo dolls going on.” He knows the importance of keeping expectations in check. “People tend to get sensationalistic about what’s going on,” he says, “ and I think it’s my job to kind of help keep that perspective.”
When it comes to self-improvement, Federer has some obvious advantages, not the least of which are his enormous talent and an awesome track record of success. Yet even for someone at the top of his field, there is no substitute for hard work and practice. No surprises there. Still, there may be one secret that helps explain Federer’s spectacular ability to perform at the highest level of excellence for years: the way he practices.
Matthew Sayed, in his book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, offers a clue. The differences among elite athletes, less elite athletes, and weekend warriors lie in their practice routines. Just about everyone knows that top performers — “outliers,” to use the term that Malcom Gladwell popularized — have 10,000 hours of experience to draw upon. What Sayed adds to this notion is that top performers use those hours in a particular way. They engage in “purposeful practice.”
Consider this example. If you are in your 40s, you have probably logged over 10,000 hours behind the wheel. But are you ready to take on the top NASCAR drivers? Hardly. The reason is that you have been driving while listening to the radio, thinking about this afternoon’s meeting, planning for your kid’s birthday, and so on. You have been driving on autopilot – barely half-focused on the task. In a similar way, duffers head out to the driving range, hit a bucket of balls for fifteen minutes, and then march off to the first tee expecting improved results. Never going to happen. Elite performers practice with a completely different kind of focus.
Federer and his compatriots at the top of their respective fields set a targeted performance goal just out of their reach and practice a set of highly structured, repetitive moves over and over again until they achieve the goal. One world-class table tennis player stood an unlit cigarette on one side of the table and hit thousands of balls, using precisely the same motion, until he could reliably knock over his target. And then he set another goal, pursuing it through the same process. And then he set another goal . . . You get the picture.
If you watch top performers on the tennis court, in the orchestra pit, or around the boardroom table, you might think: “Unbelievable! How is it possible for someone to be so talented?” Not to take anything away from those outliers, but their path to success is really not so mysterious. There is no secret whispering with voodoo dolls going on. They worked at it, purposefully, small step by small step. As Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”
There may be a lesson here for leaders as well as individual performers. As management guru Jim Collins notes, a common belief within failing organizations is that one magic move will lead to success. Never going to happen. For individuals as well as organizations, improvement happens through a series of tweaks rather than dramatic overhauls.