Everything I know about managing people I learned from captaining my tennis team

Published · 2 min read

Anyone who’s ever captained an adult amateur sports team knows it’s a thankless job. Of course, there’s glory in taking home that highly coveted pewter plate for an undefeated season or even a plastic bag tag for a division win but those victories are rare. And lucky. And, that luck is mostly of the variety of no one being called into work or someone’s kid being sick and not having to change the lineup at the last minute; luck of getting 10 adult women with high pressure jobs as mothers, doctors, nurses, marketers, photographers, to think about nothing but tennis for as long as it takes to win best out of three sets on a sunny Sunday afternoon with Smoky Robinson blaring in the background from the family reunion at the park across the street.

After years of captaining, the parallels to work scenarios are endless – recruiting = interviewing and hiring; creating lineups = strategy and agility; cajoling unavailable players to be available for critical matches = creating something out of something and in that situation – winning = revenue.

But what about the people behind those situations? Knowing what makes the individuals that make up your team tick is really the secret to being successful, on the court and in the office.

The different ways adults learn has been a most eye-opening experience as a people manager and captain and this goes for team processes, not just learning new skills. What works for one person may or may not work for the next and it’s critical as a leader of people to learn what works best with your whole team and how you can best get the response you need from each individual team member on a consistent basis. Setting expectations for yourself as a manager that each new team member will learn differently from you and other members of your team is a simple yet highly critical skill for you to master.

If your team is highly dependent on process, take the time to learn how your team members respond individually to documentation you’re providing and if it needs to be tailored to improve their responses.

Colleague A might like the official employee handbook but colleague B just needs the occasional reminder email. How will you respond to each to achieve the best overall team effort?

Within a team environment, it’s also crucial for managers to know how team members work together – which pairings can bring you a city championship and which are like oil and water. Follow a practice of gathering feedback after a match or project to find out what worked well and what maybe didn’t work at all. Did one team member consistently set up their partner to take the blame for late deliverables – or did they work together as a team and overcome a 2-5 deficit to win the third set and come out the heroes? In my experience, the ones who figure out how to win after facing adversity continue to win and can be strategic long term.

As a people manager, your listening skills are always going to be in high demand. And in a team environment, often what you’re listening for isn’t said explicitly, but missing the message can be the difference between that pewter plate and second place with nothing to show for it.

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