Although today I run my own agency, my first passion wasn’t marketing. It was tennis.
I started playing when I was about nine, along with my brother (who was better than me, damn him).
After a few years, I was representing my county and playing tournaments in glamorous and exciting places like… Sunderland (no offence to Sunderland). As I got a bit older, people started telling me how good my tennis experience would look on my CV. I remember thinking: great, but it’s never going to make a blind bit of difference to how I do my job.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The older I get the more I realise that tennis is a parallel to life, work and business. The fact I’ve done it all before – the defeats (yep, plenty of those), the highs and the lows – has really prepared me for my career in marketing, and running my own agency especially.
I’d like to explore this a bit more – partly because I like writing about tennis, and partly because I hope you might find it useful for thinking about the things that have shaped your own career.
So, here are four things tennis has taught me:
1. Hard work trumps talent
You need to be almost pathologically determined to be a good tennis player. Often in a match it’s not the most talented person who will in – it’s the one who wants it the most.
And it’s exactly the same when it comes to running your own business. You have to embrace the relentlessness, in good times and especially in difficult times!
So, it doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’re the best marketeer ever, or the best businessman. I’m certainly neither of those things.
But I’ll be one of the most dedicated (some might say bloody minded) and this has helped me enormously in running my own agency. If you work hard enough at something, you can achieve great things.
2. Learn how people think
When you get to a certain level, tennis becomes 90% psychological. There were moments in really big matches that I just couldn’t seem to play as well as I knew I could – it drove me mad!
This led me to become really interested in the way thoughts influence behaviour, and eventually I ended up doing a degree in psychology.
But it all started with wanting to understand how I was thinking – and how my opponent was thinking – on the tennis court.
This is the best asset you can have for a career in marketing. This industry is all about getting into people’s heads and working out what they’re all about.
And it doesn’t matter whether you learn this doing a professional marketing diploma, or from winning and losing tennis matches. As long as it teaches you to see things from another’s viewpoint, it’s good preparation for the world of marketing.
3. Remember there’s a network around you
In tennis, it feels like you win and lose alone.
But when I think about it, I know this isn’t 100% true: my brother and friendships played a huge part in helping me grow as a player, and I can never thank my parents enough for all the time they spent driving me to the four corners of the UK (especially Sunderland).
Tennis itself is actually a really social sport. So many of the people I played with at juniors have gone on to do amazing things. Some of them have even become part of my working life, as partners, suppliers or even clients.
And herein lies the lesson: even though you’re on your own, there’s a network around you.
You should utilise your network to help build your business – and, crucially, you should always repay the favour and support people in return!
4. It should be fun
This is the lesson I learned last, but it’s arguably the most important.
Whatever you’re doing, be it tennis or building up your own business, you’ve got to have fun.
I definitely played too much and got a bit burned out on tennis. And I’ve come close to feeling that way about work too at times.
That’s why balance is so hugely important. While you have to put in the hours (my lesson number 1!), you can’t work 24/7. If you overwork yourself, you’ll only end up stifling your ability to think – which is pretty important to being a successful marketeer.
There was a time I hated my business as I hated tennis, but now I’ve found the right balance, I actually love them both!
It’s all about people
Tennis gave me the skills and attitudes I need to run my own business. And most of all, it showed me my interest in people and psychology, which has been the foundation for my career in marketing.
This is perhaps the key thing I’ve realised in writing this blog post. Marketing is such a broad industry – it’s really all about people – and that means you can come at it from any angle and find a successful place for yourself.
That’s the message I’m going to leave you with. Let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said, or if you have any lessons of your own you think I should know – I’m happy to add to my list!