4 Lessons We Can Learn From Tennis Legend John McEnroe

The annual Wimbledon Tennis Championships is in full swing, and with that in mind, the time is ripe to consider what lessons we can learn about personal development from the sport of tennis, or more specifically, from the multitalented career of a former number one: John McEnroe.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, McEnroe triumphed three times at Wimbledon and four times at the U.S. Open. He was recognised worldwide for his creative, stylish play and unparalleled volleying skills; not to mention his controversial behaviour on the court. In one famous exchange, he shouted at an official: “You cannot be serious! That ball was on the line!” which he says is now shouted back to him by fans on a daily basis. His hot temper became part of his image, although it often landed him in trouble with umpires, journalists, and tennis authorities.

McEnroe achieved number one status in both singles and doubles, retiring in 1992 with 77 singles and 78 doubles titles; an aggregate that remains the highest men’s combined total of the Open Era.

When his professional career ended, he began a lucrative stint as a commentator – some maintain he’s a better pundit than player – and he even dabbled as a talk show host, an art collector and an actor, appearing in several films and TV shows.

A rather incredible career. So what lessons can we learn from John McEnroe?

Make Sure You Love What You Do. McEnroe claims he enjoys playing tennis more now than he did at his peak in 1984: “I was the number one player in the world. I had taken the game to another level. But there was an emptiness”. McEnroe’s experience shows that even if you get to the top, you need your career to have meaning and purpose. He suggests he would have been a better player had he enjoyed it more. Success is one thing, but if it falls out of step with your sense of fulfillment, then it becomes worthless.

Learn How to Deal with Defeat. One of McEnroe’s career defining moments was his surprise loss against Björn Borg at Wimbledon in 1980. Looking back, McEnroe said: “Losing that match – both at the time and in terms of my future career – had a profound effect on me. To be ready to win and then have victory snatched away made me realise I needed to do more. I needed to be better.”

He lost, but it wasn’t a failure… In the same instant that he lost, he saw Björn Borg – his childhood tennis hero – fall to his knees, and thereby realized just how far he’d pushed his opponent. Within the moment of loss, lay a modicum of strength; a vital lesson in self-improvement.

According to McEnroe: “We all need to know how to shake off defeat and carry on. Yeah, I lost to Borg in 1980, but in terms of everything except the result, I felt that I won.” Imagine the potential you could unlock, if every defeat felt like a victory. If you were able to slice through it, and convert that frustration into a positive energy that moves you forward.

Develop a Range of Talents. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You can’t possibly imagine how much training it takes to become a tennis champion; approaching your life with that level of singularity can be detrimental. As McEnroe suggests, “It’s unhealthy to just focus on one thing. The repetition of it, the pressure, hurts you growing up.” Of course you’ll have your key strengths – perhaps there’s one thing you’re really good at – that’s ok. Specialization can be a great advantage; if people recognise you as being the best at that thing, then they’ll call on you before anyone else if and when they require that skill.

But don’t let specialization narrow your horizons. Make sure you focus evenly on developing a range of secondary skills and always continue with your education. It’s good to be an all rounder. It’s important for your personal growth that you have a versatile arsenal of talents and abilities.

Don’t be Monastic about Things. The previous point applies to your personal development too… John McEnroe was never a slogger. His post-tennis career is a testament to his versatility, his desire to have fun, engage with alternatives and try new things. But even while he was still playing, he would always take the time to enjoy the perks, often to the cost of his improvement on paper.

“If that 1 percent means the difference between losing in the finals of Wimbledon and winning, you would understand someone willing to live a monk-like life… like Lendl, or Sampras… I wasn’t able to do that myself. My goal was to have it both ways. If you can be a Hall of Famer and get some of those perks — you know, Forget the tour in Rotterdam, let’s go on tour with the Stones! — I’ll take that one.”

John McEnroe hasn’t only enjoyed an amazing career, but an amazing life. If we follow in his footsteps, perhaps we too can achieve great – and versatile – things.


Click here to learn more from tennis legends Andre Agassi and Tim Henman



Photo courtesy of Edwin Martinez
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