Tim Henman And The Importance Of Perception

The 2017 Wimbledon tournament has started today, and with that in mind, I feel it’s the perfect time to inquire what we can learn about personal development from the sport of tennis, or more specifically, from one of Britain’s most famous tennis players: Tim Henman.

Tim Henman once ranked fourth in the world at Tennis. Fourth in the world. Can you imagine being that good at anything? Let alone something as challenging and competitive as tennis? It’s a truly incredible achievement.

And yet, Henman was, throughout his career, a favourite target for public mockery. His failure at Wimbledon – a tournament that serves for most Brits as their sole annual exposure to the sport – was inescapable. Despite any subsequent achievements, he was to be remembered as “a failure”.

It wasn’t only his sporting prowess that was in question, but his personality too. Henman was described by comedian Linda Smith as “the human equivalent of beige”, and suffered unfortunate comparisons to the Harry Enfield’s comic character “Tim Nice-But-Dim”; a perfectly well intentioned, albeit unintelligent, posh man.

Henman’s plight is a testament to the fact that one can command two seemingly opposing images simultaneously; on the one hand, you can be the fourth best player on the planet, and on the other, widely considered a loser.

Of course, if applied to a non-sporting sector, such as finance, Henman’s struggle seems laughable. Indeed, Tim Henman himself made light of this fact in an interview with the Guardian in 2005: “One of my best friends ended up talking about sport to this banker he’d just met. My name came up and this guy said, ‘Tim Henman hasn’t got what it takes. He can’t cut it.’ My friend’s listening quietly and eventually asks, ‘What do you do?’ And the guy says, ‘I’m a banker.’ My friend asks, ‘How’re things at work?’ and the guy says, ‘Oh, it’s been a tough year – the economy’s not great.’ And my friend says, ‘No, you’re just not good enough.’ He asks the guy what he does in the bank and it turns out he’s not even in the top four of his own company, let alone the world.”

So how does one ensure that they get the recognition they deserve? Speaking of his own frustration, Henman said: “I know I’m not the best tennis player there’s ever been, but calling me a loser is just ignorance.” While this may be true, labelling your critics as ignorant may not be enough to change the way you are perceived. You must be active in cultivating and maintaining an image of yourself as someone who is successful.

As Tim Henman’s career shows, it’s not all hard work and perspiration. Yes, those are essential, but all achievements and credentials go to waste if you aren’t perceived in the right way. With this in mind, focusing on self-improvement isn’t always the best way forward. You must also pay attention to your outward facing self… Think ‘outro-spectively’, as well as introspectively.

Brushing off his critics, Tim Henman said, “You’ve got to block those guys out and focus on the grand slams… I still think I can improve. I still think I can win one of the big ones.” But what would happen if you didn’t ‘block those guys out’? What if you utilized their perceptions of you as a lens to your own performance, as a means of scrutinizing or even changing the way you are received within your working milieu?

For example, you can be perfectly qualified for a job, but you’ll never get it if you can’t convince the employer to give you an interview. Ultimately you can work harder and harder, but until you change those perceptions, it may yet go unnoticed.

So how can you manage the way you’re perceived?

Start by ensuring that you see yourself in the way you want others to see you. Ensure that you match up to your own expectations and desires. If you don’t, then that is the time to change the way you act and perform. Keep doing this until you legitimate your own self-perception. If you can’t see yourself as successful, it may be hard to convince others of your success. Start by filling your own boots.

Once you have done that, surround yourself with people amongst whom you share mutual respect. By creating an environment in which you’re seen through the eyes of the people who see the best version of you, you’re more likely to grow into that image.

Here’s another insight from Tim Henman himself: “When you read that you’re a loser and you come home to your children, to my two girls, you don’t see failure.”

Spending time with family, friends and loved ones will build your confidence and your self-image. By extension, spending time with colleagues and clients who respect you will also help you grow. Start with these relationships, and work from there.

Finally – how to tackle the critics. Are they simply ignorant? Perhaps. But if you need their respect, it’s not enough to write them off this way. Either they are ignoring you, or they are uninformed. In both cases, you must command their attention. Prove yourself to them. Be proactive in drawing them into your personal fan club. If you can change their perception, you can manage your own success.

Learn the lessons from Wimbledon; take control of your personal brand, don’t get stuck on Henman Hill.


Want to learn more from tennis stars? Click here to learn from Andre Agassi how he outsmarted his biggest rival  and here to learn from John McEnroe about motivation.


Photo courtesy of Roo Reynolds


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