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Game Changers: Why CEOs Should Embrace Competitive Sports

Sport mirrors life in so many ways, and in the same vein, sports can also mirror business. This week, CEO Gamu Matarira shares with us her experiences on the tennis court, and how those experiences find translation in her life as a business leader! Have you taken up a sport, or do you plan to? Let us know, and have a productive week!

For many of us in business, we have been returning to work since the start of September after a much-needed summer break. Feeling refreshed and ready for a new challenge, I have personally been enjoying reconnecting with my project teams to catch up on major developments, discuss ongoing projects and set priorities for this quarter and beyond.

However, it is not always easy to regain focus and ensure we are spending our time on the most critical tasks especially after being away. Having said that, one of my commitments to myself moving forward is maintaining a work-life balance. During the holiday break, I found myself reflecting on my work habits – the long hours put in, mainly out of passion and shear enjoyment for what I am doing - though I recognise that I must make a few adjustments to achieve a healthier balance.

I encourage every CEO to take up a competitive sport to help you stay on top of your game in business and in life generally. I picked up my first tennis racquet when I was 5 years old and have been playing competitively from the age of 10. Because of the sheer love of the sport, I continue to play club tennis and compete at county league level today.

This weekend, I was the finalist in three categories at my local tennis club – the Ladies Singles, the Women’s Doubles and the Mixed Doubles tournaments. That meant I had to fight for three titles, one match after another, in the sweltering temperatures that the UK was experiencing all day on Saturday. It was brutal!

Why I am sharing this experience with you today is that I became very aware of the correlation between the ability to excel in sport even in adverse conditions and my success in business. You see, when you have a competitive mindset, you possess certain qualities and attitudes that contribute to your success in any other domain. While not all successful business leaders are tennis players or athletes, there are several characteristics and skills that can be transferrable from sports to the business world. Here are several parallels between having a winning attitude in tennis, or any sport for that matter, and business:

Tennis is a highly competitive sport and having had many years of coaching, I developed a strong internal desire to win. This competitiveness has translated into a drive to succeed in all facets of my life. Infact, I would take that statement one step further and say that this competitiveness has translated into an expectation that I succeed in whatever I place my focus on. Thus, I typically set myself (and others) ambitious goals and work tirelessly to achieve them; it’s a way of life!

Now, just like in business, tennis players often face setbacks and injuries.

Particularly during my Ladies Singles game, the sun was beating me up! We were playing in extremely warm temperatures (29°C) without a breeze! I became very dehydrated and began experiencing cramps in my arm and calves during critical points. Although I had comfortably taken the first set, not coping so well with the heat led me to drop the second. At this point, the championship could have gone either way and that was the moment I knew I had to pull something special out of the bag. This is when resilience and the ability to bounce back from a setback is crucial. I had to mentally shift from the awareness that I was physically struggling to a mental headspace that focused on a short-term strategy: one point at a time. And it worked – I won the match!

But there was no time to celebrate as 20 minutes later I was back on court for the Women’s Doubles match. I should add that the Doubles is my preferred format of play; being a team player, I naturally enjoy social settings more than solo appearances. Again, I had to go back out there with a renewed frame of mind that could not afford to focus on the adverse weather, but instead was looking forward to enjoying one of my favourite games. Tennis requires intense focus and concentration, as you must make split-second decisions and adapt to changing conditions. This also comes with discipline and commitment to the end goal.

My tennis partner and I took a bit of time to devise a strategy to outsmart the opponents. I do not have to tell you that this ability to think strategically can be valuable in business, where CEOs must plan for the future, anticipate market trends and make strategic moves to gain a competitive advantage. It is no different in tennis where the goal is to gain and maintain the upper hand!

What many people underestimate is the mental adjustment needed when switching from a Singles to a Doubles match. It is totally different as you cover very different spaces. Being part of a team, I needed to use a different set of skills - mainly clear communication throughout. As we have played together before, this was not difficult. We fought well throughout that Women’s Doubles and won that title as well!

At that point, my body was beginning to give up on me, with the intensity of the cramps increasing and happening more frequently. I needed electrolytes so I made sure I had a steady supply in-between games. Maintaining overall well-being is essential for sports players, as it directly impacts our performance. Similarly, CEOs who prioritise their health and well-being are likely to have more energy, resilience and mental clarity to lead their businesses effectively.

To add to the pain and discomfort, many of my supporters could not make it, so I had to contend with my opponents’ families and friends cheering them on and desperately willing someone to stop my winning streak! Many CEOs out there will recognise that this happens in business too – not everyone wants you to win! However, the only opinion of you and what you deserve that matters, is your own. Believe you’re a winner and you’re 80% there.

We had a very exciting Mixed Doubles match with the introduction of two very strong male players. Men are naturally competitive and aim to outpower each other on every point. I borrowed some of that energy from my brilliant partner and played the best tennis of the day despite probably being in the worst physical shape at that point. Noone else had made it into 3 finals and many expected me to forfeit the last game. For me, it was all about mind over matter, regulating my emotions and remaining composed. I was quite shocked at what happened next. Yes, we won that match as well and I pulled off a hattrick!

My biggest lesson from this weekend? A winning mindset is everything you need!

So, if you aren’t already doing so, take up a competitive sport.

To your success!


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