When Roger Federer arrived at the 2019 US Open, a lot of fans wondered what kind of baggage he would be carrying with him. Just one month before, he had endured a devastating loss to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon men’s final.
I’m a huge Federer fan, and I found it more difficult to let go of his loss than Federer reportedly suggested it was for him. With two championship points in hand, he somehow managed to betray his stupendous talent and give up the points when they mattered most—even though he played better than Djokovic (even Djokovic admitted this). Federer won 14 more points than his opponent, but in the end, that didn’t matter. Because in tennis, it’s the big points that count.
At the time, it struck me that business leaders, too, can learn some important lessons from that memorable Wimbledon final.
Sigmund Freud drew our attention to the fact that we might be wired to master disappointment rather than to seek fulfillment. Babies demonstrate this propensity when they repeatedly throw their toys out of their cots, and then cry about it. You pick the toy up and hand it back to the infant, and they do it again. And again. It’s as if they can’t stop. Yet as adults, learning how to exorcise this impulse—what Freud coined a “daemonic trait”—is key.
You can start this process by using self-talk. According to research, most of us are far more comfortably harping on our shortcomings than giving ourselves compliments. So, rather than defaulting into auto-pilot mode and letting your self-saboteur take over, practice getting comfortable spending time in a winning mindset so that you’re ready to face those big moments feeling—and acting—like a champion.
It’s well established that we carry memory in our bodies and muscle tissue. Likewise, the experience of winning takes the form of “embodied cognition.” This means that like any habit or skill, it can therefore be practiced and reinforced.
So, where do business leaders play into all of this? For entrepreneurs who often experience serial failure and defeat, this principle is particularly relevant.
Methodologies like growth mindset use self-talk to achieve a positive mentality, such as repeating a phrase like “I can and will win!” to yourself. When facing competition or high-stake decisions, repeating “You’ve got this,” to yourself can also help guide you to make better decisions. Addressing yourself using your own name can further help you feel this attitude of success and winning as a full-bodied conviction. You’re training your body and your mind to achieve your goals.
There’s a common mistake many of us make when practicing self-talk: focusing on what not to do instead of stating what how we must act in the moment. Research has demonstrated that this is especially true in tennis, but the principle applies to business leaders entrepreneurs. When you’re at a match point moment with your business or project, your self-talk should be “Hit your best serve now!” not “Don’t hit the net, whatever you do!”
For most of us, telling ourselves things like, “Don’t spend too much!” or, in the case of a lot of entrepreneurs, “Do not expose this insecurity when asking for funding!” might make you do exactly the opposite. So, focus on what you will spend, or what message you will convey to a potential funder.
The idea with a growth mindset is that if you practice it regularly, it becomes automatic. And the more focused you are on positively tackling your objectives and making progress, the more likely you are to succeed in doing just that.
In my 2017 book I explain how embodying the personality of a successful person will increase your chances of success.
Djokovic admitted to doing this at his Wimbledon match with Federer. When asked how he dealt with a crowd so obviously calling for his opponent’s victory, he said he just imagined that they were rooting for him instead. He did this so emphatically that he reportedly said that when the crowd was chanting “Roger! Roger!” he managed to hear “Novak! Novak!”
If you’re feeling anxious before a big meeting, give it a try. Imaging switching identities mentally. Or, practice before closing a big deal, like Djokovic does. Start by thinking of a person or celebrity you admire. Whose nerves of steel do you wish you had right now? Who would be the best person to deftly handle this high-pressure negotiation? If, for example, you’re an admirer of Steve Jobs, you might approach your business pitch through his lens, perhaps incorporating strategic time off into your corporate plan, or using elaborate analogies and symbolism to convey your company purpose.
Djokovic is a firm believer in visualization. Before games, he visualizes how he wants a match to go, and he visualizes himself playing the actual person he is about to face. He visualizes how he will win, and how it will feel.
In sports especially, imagery can improve muscle strength and overall performance. And I believe it can help entrepreneurs, too. You might use imagery to boost your confidence that you can become a leader in the market, even if you’re an underdog. You might also imagine how you would deal with something you are not good at—like keeping records or filing paperwork, for example—and realize that the best move would be to hire someone else to do it.