February 26, 2020

Lessons from a tennis champion or what I learned from Rafael Nadal on his journey to greatness


I managed to pick up a copy of Rafael Nadal’s book Rafa recently. I had no idea that I was interested in these kinds of books, but I secretly have a love for tennis champions biographies. I really liked Open by Andre Agassi and am now really enjoying Rafa on Rafael Nadal’s life. I have no idea how they remember so much detail about the particular feelings and thoughts they had on shots (maybe they journal or record their thoughts in anticipation of writing a biography) and honestly, those aren’t my favourite parts of the novel. What I really like is understanding all the training and what they endured to get to be the champions.

I found that there were a lot of parallels as well with Open and so drawing from two books, I’ll share what I have learned:

The importance of a coach

In both Andre Agassi’s life and Rafael Nadal’s life, their early lives were characterized by a strong father-like figure (in Andre’s case, it was his Dad and Rafa’s case, it was his Uncle Toni) that essentially had the vision for Andre and Rafa to be come the tennis champions that they became. Uncle Toni recognized the talent that Rafa had (although early on, he was very good at soccer, but was fortunate to be forced to make a decision on one sport to focus his time and energy on) and knew that with the right coaching and training, Rafa would become a force in tennis.

I think about this a lot, not coaching someone in tennis, but trying to pass along my knowledge and experience to others that may be starting out in management consulting. I can see that some consultants are naturally gifted to be consultants and others work hard at it, but when I have coffees with young staff or university graduates, I like to provide them with a vision for how things could be if they worked hard.

Developing mental toughness

In Agassi’s case, it was being able to continually adapt to his father setting up the tennis machine at higher and higher speeds and settings. In Nadal’s case, it was about training longer and harder than other kids his age and learning to grin and bear it even if he didn’t like it (and most of the time, he didn’t enjoy it). As kids, you often do not see the impact that your parents have on you until much later on, and for Nadal, he now sees that his Uncle Toni was making him do extra chores or train extra hard to develop his mental toughness.

Mental toughness is something that I am reading about in another book Mark Divine’s Unbeatable Mind. It’s also a topic that I learned about in Jesse Itzler’s book Living with a Seal. In many cases, when doing anything, it is your mind that makes you give up. If you can learn to control and make your mind unbeatable, you will find that you can do more than you thought capable of.

Staying humble

Staying humble is not just about being modest about your abilities. Uncle Toni often looked past Nadal’s significant achievements to the next milestone. He was like the Tiger Mom who saw that their daughter got all A’s and one B and then focused on why she got one B instead of focusing on the fact that she got mostly A’s. This has made Nadal humble and down to earth when he could have easily turned out the other way. And this also has made Nadal constantly look to improve his game, as he knows that he is not as naturally gifted as someone like Federer or others.

This is why Ryan Holiday wrote a book called “Ego is the Enemy”. When you climb or you are at the top, your ego often gets in the way of you getting even better. And make no mistake, we all have room to grow, no matter where you are on the totem pole.

Giving back

Once you reach a certain level of fame and success, many, many successful athletes, entrepreneurs, business leaders, etc. think about giving back in some way. I suppose if you think about a video game, that’s the ‘next level’ when you have achieved everything that you want in life. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I wonder if it is those successful individual’s way of leaving a legacy or with doing more things in their life after accomplishing all that they want in their business and personal lives.


Again, I really enjoy biographies and find that I learn a lot from other people’s lives and how they lived them. If you love biographies too, I would also recommend the following:

  • Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Open by Andre Agassi
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
  • Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

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