A Grand Slam of Good Advice

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Let me be the last person on the Internet to recap Roger Federer’s brilliant commencement address at Dartmouth College. Maybe, however, I can be the first to swing at it through the goggle lens of ski racing.  

I’m a pathetic tennis player, but I have always loved watching the game at its highest level. The mental toughness of players who have to keep their wits and composure about them for hours of nail-biting points, often in oppressive heat, is almost inconceivable.; yet they do it in full view, with cameras zoomed in on every movement, reaction and facial expression. It’s a remarkable flayed-open view of human spirit.

As for Federer, I’ve been all in on him ever since reading about how he grew up playing multiple sports under the guidance of seemingly sane parents looking out, first and foremost, for his overall well-being. I was excited at the choice of speakers, and expecting the superstar to be personable and charming, but not brilliant. THAT was a bonus.

First, let’s note that everyone in the Class of 2024 deserved an epic college grad. Those of them who went directly to college graduated high school in 2020, meaning their graduations ranged from lame and remote, to non-existent. Regardless of when they graduated from high school, the Class of 2024’s first year, in the fall of 2020, was a paltry excuse for a college experience. So, you earned a good one, and you got it!

RETIRING THE TERM RETIREMENT

In creating his initial connection, Federer recast “retirement” from a pro sports career as “graduation.”  In doing so he claimed the latter term which is much more positive and accurate than the former. Retirement sounds final, even terminal. As Federer put it:

“The word is awful. You wouldn’t say you retired from college, right? Sounds terrible. Like you, I’ve finished one big thing and I’m moving on to the next. Like you, I’m figuring out what that is.”

Graduation is a significant, celebrated point on a continuum. It denotes a sense of evolution, of moving towards the next thing vs lamenting or slinking away from the last thing.

He went on to serve up advice in the form of “tennis lessons,” starting with:

EFFORTLESS IS A MYTH

We constantly remind athletes, or are reminded by them, that ski racing is (insert large number here 80? 90? 95?) % mental. Whatever the number, tennis—where grueling matches can stretch for hours, and momentum can turn at any stage—is at least that.

Not surprisingly, this is a weakness Federer confronted early in his career.

“I spent years whining… swearing… throwing my racket… before I learned to keep my cool. The wake-up call came early in my career, when an opponent at the Italian Open publicly questioned my mental discipline. He said, ‘Roger will be the favorite for the first two hours, and then I’ll be the favorite after that.’”

In other words, raw talent only takes you so far. Federer ended up being grateful to that opponent, and to those close to him who had called him out early in his career, because they broadened his perception of what “talent” is.

“I didn’t get where I got on pure talent alone. I got there by trying to outwork my opponents. I believed in myself. But BELIEF in yourself has to be earned.”

Federer then ticked off a few things, beyond athletic moves, that are also talent: discipline, patience, trusting yourself, embracing and loving the process, managing your life—these are elements of grit and tenacity that are ultimately the gatekeepers of success. He learned that you have to work very hard at something to make it look easy, to outwork the competition when people aren’t looking, in order to make it look “effortless” on game day. Rather than being frustrated when people described his play as effortless, he learned to take pride in it. He realized:

“Winning effortlessly is the ultimate achievement.”

In the context of ski racing. this reminded me of how much time and effort go into preparing mind, body, equipment, technique and tactics for each glorious 60-second run with wind in your face. Wherever you stop the clock becomes a snapshot of your “talent,” a recorded time that offers no context of where you’ve been or where you’re going. The better measure of talent is what happens when you go back to toiling at all the unremarkable, boring, often frustrating, sometimes painful details that go into that next run for glory.

Federer described how another pivotal point in his maturation came when he found the confidence to go after opponents’ strengths rather than exploiting their weaknesses. There’s not a direct correlation in an individual sport; but, consider how many times you wish for a course set or hill or weather window or snow condition that plays to your favor. True confidence comes from feeling more prepared than anyone else, for whatever gets thrown your way. That move to a proactive stance doesn’t happen in the rush of endorphins after a victory. It happens in the largely unrecorded grunt work in the trenches, where there are no awards yet effort quietly accrues.

IT’S ONLY A POINT

The next lesson starts with a truth we all understand: Perfection is impossible, even for the GOATs in sport. Federer pointed out that he won almost 80 percent of the 1,526 singles matches in his career, but only 54 percent of the points; meaning, on a point-by-point basis, record-breaking top-ranked tennis players still lose nearly as many points as they win. That seems downright rosy by ski racing standards. Mikaela Shiffrin, in her epic 2023 campaign where she amassed 2,206 points, won 16 of the 42 races (38%) she started that season. The odds for the rest of ski racing’s mortal competitors fall precipitously from that.

His point? Winners, in sport and in life learn not to dwell on those regular, unavoidable losses.

“When you’re playing a point, it is the most important thing in the world. But when it’s behind you, it’s behind you… This mindset is really crucial, because it frees you to fully commit to the next point… and the next one after that… with intensity, clarity and focus.”

How many times do we have to remind our kids and ourselves to concentrate on the process (the 2-3 gates ahead) rather than the failure (the turn just blown) or the outcome (the race result)?

“The best in the world are not the best because they win every point…it’s because they know they’ll lose again and again…and have learned to deal with it. You accept it. Cry it out if you need to…then force a smile.”

Oh, the many, many finish line scenes this brings to mind!

His final lesson is one every athlete at every stage in every sport can benefit from:

LIFE IS BIGGER THAN THE COURT

You have to win your last point to win the match, and Federer did.

“I knew that tennis could show me the world…but tennis could never be the world.”

And that, my friends, is the perspective, the thing we tell ourselves as parents and coaches that we are trying to give our kids through sports. It’s not about the trophies and titles and momentary glory we might be lucky to get here and there. It’s about the work and the struggles it takes to improve; the friendships and relationships built with competitors and teammates; the self-awareness, humility and empathy built from leaving it all on the court, or the field, or the mountain every day.  

To illustrate this final point, Federer pointed to the wisdom of Dartmouth’s legendary football coach Buddy Teevens:

“He used to recruit players by telling their parents: ‘Your son will be a great football player when it’s football time, a great student when it’s academic time, and a great person all the time.’”

His parting words to the Class of 2024 can’t really be improved upon so here they are:

“Whatever game you choose, give it your best. Go for your shots. Play free. Try everything. And most of all, be kind to one another… and have fun out there.”

Want to see the whole address? Check it out here:

4 thoughts on “A Grand Slam of Good Advice”

  1. Edie — as usual, your writing is insightful, very thoughtful, and interesting. Judy and I attended that Graduation just to see and hear the speech. Roger made a huge impact on many folks, Despite the cold rain, the crowds, and those RUDE demonstrators, listening to Roger was one of 2024’s highlights for me. Keep up the great work Edie!
    Best to Chan !

    Reply
    • Glad you saw it and braved the rain. It seemed like nobody’s spirits were to dampened. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Happy summer!

      Reply
    • Thank you Pat! I am glad you liked it, and that one more analysis didn’t put you to sleep! A lot of great stuff in that speech.

      Reply

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