Arising from the ashes: WHAT CAN THE MAJOR SPORTS ACTORS (ATHLETES, COACHES, GOVERNANCE) LEARN FROM NADAL’S COME BACK TO HIS HIGHEST LEVEL
[Once a month, ACTIVrep publishes an article with a focus on management and the best practices that can be applied by athletes, coaches, managers, presidents, and any other important actors of the sports environment. This month, we are looking at the return of Spanish player Rafael Nadal as an allegory of a business enterprise. We analyze the practices applied by the latter and his team to come back to his highest level.]
Article written by David Ramos, published, traduced and adapted from the Spanish magazine Emprendedores n243 of the month of December p.58-62.
When everybody was predicting the end of his career, Rafa Nadal came back and conquered two Grand Slams, reaching number one of the world rankings. […] What were the keys of ‘Nadal & Co.” to arise from the ashes?
After two years scattered with difficulties during which the tennis player had to work around conflicts such as the separation of his parents and a wrist injury, he absorbed all the consequences and entered the circuit though the front door. Thus, and despite the fact that he had to withdraw from the ATP Masters due to a tendinitis, he won Roland Garros and the US Open (in 2017), two new Grand Slam tournaments to be added to his list of achievements that already sums up 16 major tournaments. But what did he do wrong before this triumphant return? What were the reasons, both internal and external?
TO A PROBLEM, A SOLUTION
According to Alberto Gimeno, professor from ESADE’s executive management and strategic department, “the internal reasons are the cause of a inefficient and disorganized management. To give yourself a chance to come back, you have to solve these internal issues.”
Nadal has has to deal with as many internal as external reasons. In 2015, he seemed intimately affected by the separation of his parents. This emotional imbalance impacted his behavior on court. Also his wrist injury was an external factor that conditioned his performance in 2016. In addition, tennis has changed a lot since he started his career. Nowadays, the players are taller, they serve at over 200 km/h and get to the net to play volley. Their game depends on the power rather than on strategy and technique, as it happened in tennis before.
However, the Spanish sportsman has taken advantages of his abilities and introduced changes that led him to enjoy again. By analyzing the case of Nadal, we can transfer some of the keys of his success to ‘Nadal & Co.’, a transcription of the example of the athlete in business.
Nadal benefits from a bunch of qualities that led him to the top. Those skills, linked to other innovations he introduced in his own management, have contributed to his return to the height of tennis.
1. THERE IS NO SMALL RIVAL
Nadal pursued his career in humility and respect for all his opponents. It never bothered him whether it was a more or less important tournament. He always gave it all. “He never underestimates an opponent. He even values them. He does not even have any modesty to do so and to speak about the strengths of his opponents. Nadal does not see the competition as a threat but rather as an opportunity to keep growing”, says Maite Palomo. One must not underestimate the competition, or rest on their laurels when things are on the rise. One must always stay alert, see what others are doing and analyze their qualities to be able to respond. Competition helps to improve and be stronger. Humility too is essential. “The arrogance of an organization is the cause of many issues. When we are successful, humility helps us to give credit faster is something goes well,” warned Alberto Gimeno.
Rafa is the face of Nadal & Co., although there is behind him an entire team that has been essential to his career, with his uncle Toni as a coach and Joan Forcades as a trainer. “He’s good at managing people. Although we only see him on court, he works with a big team,” says the ESIC professor. Also, Rafael Barrilero, partner at Mercer Consulting, considers that “it’s someone who has naturally followed the instructions of his coach, Toni Nadal. He has always maintained a culture of respect for decisions.” A good team grants all its talent and various points of view to face the problems; it is essential to take its opinions into account when making important decisions. And you have to be disciplined when it comes to carry them out. “The unity is important. And the fact that everybody looks in the same direction”. says Gimeno.
3. TOWARDS SUCCESS AND THE STATE-OF-MIND FOR EFFORT
The orientation towards success of duo Rafa – Toni Nadal has guided the entire career of the tennis player. For example, Rafa is right-handed, but he learned to play with his left hand as it suited him better when facing his opponents. The orientation towards success within the company is essential to achieve the objectives set. But you have to train very hard to succeed. “Nadal and his team have a culture of effort and continuous progress,” says Barrilero. Manuel Bermejo, IE business management professor, explains that “in the enterprise, ‘coaching’ means educating and investing in training. Even the owner of a company must maintain this humility to continue to train”, he comments. Moreover, Nadal never gives up a point, a game, a set or a match. And he applied this to his entire career. He was eventually withdrawn from the the highest positions, but did admit defeat. “He knows how to adapt to the context, although it is unfavorable. And he became number 1 when nobody expected it. But he did. He has great faith and self-confidence”, says the expert from ESIC. Although the short-term results are slow to come, if one has a good product or service, that the business plan is well established and executed in adequacy, you must believe in it.
4. EXCELLENT IMAGE
Have you ever heard anybody talk badly about Nadal? He is a respected and admired player by both his opponents and the public in general. And despite the huge rivalry with Roger Federer, this head-to-head could not be more elegant. “He shows great social intelligence. Nobody talks badly about him because he communicates very well and transmits his emotions. For example, when Federer ended up crying after being beaten at the US Open 2009, the first thing Nadal did was to cheer him up and praise his great qualities and what he has learned from him. It transmits emotions”, says Palomo. It may not be this good image that makes him win more games, but it has consequences on the tennis player’s professional activity, as a big part his income comes from the sale of his image rights for advertising purposes.
THE NEW NADAL
NADAL HAS MULTIPLE QUALITIES TO BE A CHAMPION, HOWEVER, ALL OF THESE QUALITIES HAVE NOT PREVENTED HIM FROM COMING ACROSS A GAME AND RESULT CRISIS. THE PLAYER AND HIS TEAM REALIZED THEY HAD TO INNOVATE TO RETURN. “RESISTING MEANS TO ENDURE WHILE DOING THE SAME THING. IN THE BUSINESS WORLD, IT IS DIFFICULT TO COME BACK STRONG WITHOUT MAKING ANY CHANGES. IF YOU TURNED OUT BAD, THERE IS A REASON. AND IF YOU HAVE TO GET BACK ON YOUR FEET, YOU WILL HAVE DIFFICULTIES ACHIEVING IT BY DOING THINGS THE SAME WAY”, STATES THE ESADE TEACHER. IT IS ABOUT MAKING AN ADAPTIVE INNOVATION. LET US SEE WHAT HE DID TO COME BACK TO THE TOP.
1. STOP AND THINK
This was the first and probably most important step. After accelerating his wrist recovery in order to take part in the Rio Olympic Games, the Manacori (Manacor, municipality of the island of Mallorca) made things worse and realized he should “stop the machine” and rethink the future. It’s like the company that sees its sales fall of and that goes ahead by sticking bandages to those who struggle to keep their head out of the water. In the long run, it is not feasible. Rafa Nadal took the time necessary for his wrist to heal. He did not want to return to a court dragging a discomfort or a pain that would affect his performance as he had done before. In addition, he took this opportunity to rethink some aspects of his game. Nadal was lucky to have a rapid decline. It is easier to realize things that way than when it is a slow decline”, commented Gimeno. “To stop playing for a while is a reflection of destructive creation. To create, you have to destroy some things that do work. Companies may have to give up some projects for a while to rethink their business”, he adds.
2. CHANGE OF COACH
Rafa had his uncle as a coach throughout his entire career. When the results stopped coming along, some pointed out his uncle, blaming him for not knowing how to adapt the appropriate strategies to beat his opponents. Maybe Toni could not give him more in his development, and the ‘family business’ Nadal & Co. decided to ‘professionalize’ his management, integrating Carlos Moya to the technical team. In fact, it was a rather small traumatic change because the former tennis player has always been around the family and has known Rafa since he was a child. Moya brings an external talent but he is also a trustworthy man in tune with the philosophy of the company. In addition to a new way of doing things, the new coach has been able to bring more hope to the project. Incorporating external talent can bring novelty, enthusiasm and new ideas.
3. THE GAME REDEFINITION
The arrival of the new coach involved substantial changed to Nadal’s game. “By integrating Moya, the strategy to include new techniques continues. Not only from a sporting point of view, but also to face a new season with a new strategy, which gives rise to new ways of doing things tactically speaking, such as changes in service and backhand, and a physical training that gave Nadal a phenomenal physical condition”, says Mercer’s partner. In the same way that Nadal has improved his service – especially the second service – the backhand, and added more speed to his drive, any company that wished to reinvent itself must look for new ways to face its business: renovating its products or services, optimizing its sales force, improve its distribution network, bet on new distribution channels and seek new markets.
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Next month, we will focus on athlete branding, or how a top athlete can develop his own brand around his image, and this through social media.