The Multiple Intelligences Behind Federer’s Success

Antoni Girod

Published : 29 March 2017
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I have always been convinced that the corporate world could find a powerful inspiration in high-level sport…

Two months after his eighteenth Grand Slam title in late January at the Australian Open and only two weeks after his victory at Indian Wells, Roger Federer has just come out with a stunning win at the Miami Open, thus putting an end to several years of drought and making us forget about a knee operation that had him off the courts for 6 months in 2016. At nearly 36, the Swiss champion had never seemed so incisive and imperial in his game.  The reasons behind such a longevity at the highest level are of course manifold. But the most decisive one is without a doubt his exceptional intelligence.

Etymologically speaking, the word “intelligence” comes from two latin words: “inter” and “legere”. “Inter” means “between” and “legere” means “to choose”. Therefore, “to be intelligent” means to know how to “choose between”, how to go for the best option when you have to make a decision. To choose between such or such emotion, thought, or behavior. To choose the people towards which we want to gravitate and those we should avoid. To choose the words we will pronounce and those we will keep to ourselves. To choose to see a problem as an insurmountable obstacle or a formidable opportunity, to consider failures as testaments to one’s inaptitude or as an invitation to learn and progress. To choose the goals that we set for ourselves and the means that we implement towards reaching them.

Throughout the years, Federer has displayed much perspicacity in his choices and this article aims to explore his multifaceted intelligence by highlighting some of the key moments of his career.

A hard-earned emotional intelligence

The tears of the Swiss champion after his incredible triumph at the Australian Open in January over Rafael Nadal have cast a new light on those he had shed in 2009 at the same venue after losing to the same opponent. Back then, his tears were seen, for many, as the confirmation of his alleged mental flimsiness, as opposed to Nadal’s rock-solid warrior attitude. The fact of the matter is that the mind of Swiss is of a different nature. Whether in victory or defeat, it is not rare for him to let out his emotions once the match is over, in stark contrast to the self-control and inner concentration he displays during match-play. Far from being a weakness, this ability to accept his own emotions constitutes one of the Swiss’ greatest strengths. In his junior days, Federer had very sensitive nerves. Even at the beginning of his professional career, he was quick-tempered and irritable. While watching a recording of a match he played against Marat Safin in 2001 where both players seemed to contend in the art of smashing rackets, Roger made the decision never to smash his racket again. In other words, he chose to stay calm and under control in the face of adversity rather than become submerged by anger and frustration. In August 2002, the death of Peter Carter, one of his first coaches and someone who used to encourage him towards more emotional control, undoubtedly had an impact on his awareness and his growing commitment to self-control. And it was a more mature and level-headed Federer who took to the courts in 2003, the year of his first Wimbledon victory. Self-control is all the more remarkable with Federer as it was far from being printed out in his DNA, which goes to show that emotional intelligence can be acquired as a skill. As he himself said: “One day, I decided to focus more discriminately. I have been doing it for a long time and today my mentality counts as one of my strengths for playing good tennis..

The intelligence to focus on the positive

Another facet to Roger’s mental game lies in a particularly effective strategy: selective memory. Under pressure, he has the exceptional capacity to forget the negative and focus on the positive. Here again, it is not a birth gift but a habit he has been working on for years at practice. Here is an anecdote that illustrates this mindset. In 2006, I was at Wimbledon observing the players on the practice courts. And there, I witnessed something incredible. On two neighboring courts, John Mc Enroe was playing a practice match against a junior American player and Roger Federer was having a training session with Tony Roche, his coach at the time. The young American – maybe influenced by his glorious elder – was setting off in anger after each point lost (and he was losing a lot!). Meanwhile, on the other court, the Swiss was practicing hitting cross-court passing shots at a very short angle. He had missed six or seven shots in a row with wood shots and balls either landing into the net or way off the court. After each new failure, he was serenely turning back and calmly repositioning himself to prepare his next shot. Finally, on the eighth attempt, he hit a magical passing shot, at an incredible angle. Instead of turning back, he stopped and stared at Tony Roche, as if to mark the shot as a reference in his mind. He then went on to hit a series of twelve perfect passing shots, all identical to the one he had just hit.

The intelligence to choose the right people

In the long run, the people that surround you on a daily basis will have an incredible influence over you, whether you want it or not. In this respect, Federer’s choices of coaches have been extremely judicious so far. Where other players lost several years, hampering their learning curve and undermining their chances of success due to bad choices, the Swiss always had the intelligence to surround himself with positive influences. For instance, Peter Carter, one of his first coaches, took it upon himself to mold young Federer’s character and the Swiss credits him with shaping his technique and attitude. “Work ethic was very important for Australians, so I think I took a lot from that and early on for me Peter Carter was a very important man just overall for my character. He taught me respect for each person. It doesn’t matter if that person is famous or not famous. He just taught me the right values.” Then, after turning pro, he picked former Swedish player Peter Lundgren who had a very positive effect on him. He was a jovial, fun-loving sort of person who always had a smile on his face. Lungdren had a knack for maximizing talent thanks to his unique style of coaching based on enjoyment and positive energy. The special chemistry between Lundgren and Federer led the up-and-coming champ to his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003.

The intelligence to avoid conflicts

Roger Federer has another form of intelligence: relational intelligence. The capacity to get along with people and defuse potential conflicts has been key to his success on the tour, both on and off the courts. The latest notable instance of his communication skills can be traced back to 2014, where he managed to solve a potentially toxic situation during the Davis Cup Final. In this international team event, Federer had to play a decisive doubles game with fellow countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, with whom he had clashed the week prior over an incident involving the attitude of the Swiss’s wife during a previous match. Thanks to his keen sense of diplomacy and appeasement, he found the way to settle the feud and both men went on to play an epic doubles match. The end result was a historic Davis Cup victory for Switzerland.

The intelligence to take a step back

Federer is also a model of tactical lucidity. After his win against Andre Agassi at the 2005 US Open, a journalist asked him: “How do you manage to always come up with the right tactical solution when you’re under pressure?” Federer answered: “I love to analyze my game in the course of the match. It’s as if my double was watching me play…” This mental capacity to analyze from outside the situation even during the match and to adopt the view point of an external observer might well account for his success in turning around so many desperate situations. From a more general perspective, Federer seems to handle his seasonal goals just as effectively. Indeed, the most common mistake when dealing with multiple targets is to get stressed and lose focus. Throughout his career, Federer has been able to fine-tune the subtle balance between motivation and concentration by playing each event, each match and each point one at a time without looking prematurely ahead to the next one.

Federer has this rare ability not to let circumstances alter his belief in victory and to only focus on what he has control over. This is what helped him win so many titles and what will probably allow him to break his own records in the future!

As we have just seen, the success of the Swiss champion, far from being the product of chance, rests on his ability to make the right choices at the right times. So, in closing, here are six ideas for transforming Federer’s multiple intelligences into business intelligence:

  1. Learn to take a step back from your emotions. Choose those that are useful to you and decide not to feed those that limit you.
  2. Make a habit of memorizing your successes rather than your failures.
  3. Look for positive and constructive relationships and avoid toxic ones.
  4. In potentially conflicting situations, take responsibility for your decisions while seeking appeasement rather than adding fuel to the flame.
  5. When faced with a problem, you have the choice between remaining the victim of the situation by complaining and persisting in your errors or taking a step back to find new solutions for solving the problem.
  6. When stakes are high, avoid taking off in all directions and putting pressure on yourself with goals that are beyond your control. Get into the habit of focusing on one goal at a time and on what depends only on you.

Antoni Girod



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