By Jonathan London on 3rd July 2015

What can tennis teach you about freelancing?

It’s the first week of July, the sun is shining, the sunblock is coming out and you’re starting to see the hairy, exposed legs of men in shorts walking down England’s streets. For sports fans, that can mean only one thing – it’s time for Wimbledon!

Held every year at the All England Club since 1877, the Championships at Wimbledon represent perhaps the most important date on the annual tennis calendar, being the oldest tennis tournament in the world and the only major played on grass courts. This year’s competition got underway on June 29th and has already served up some thrilling matches and stunning shock results.

Freelancers will be particularly well-placed to keep track of all the action, as their flexible schedules and frequently home-based working patterns allow them to plan around the big matches and stay tuned in for those dramatic high-pressure moments, while their salaried counterparts slave away in stuffy offices.

Events such as Wimbledon should be seen as more than simply an occasion for smugness, though –  you may not immediately realise it, but there are quite a few good lessons that self-employed people can learn from tennis stars like Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams, which can benefit your business long after the racquets, nets, strawberries and cream have been packed away.

Learn to work as a one-man team
If you think about it, tennis players are in many ways the ultimate freelancers. Just like the world of work, the sports world is dominated by salarymen, with footballers and cricketers signing lucrative contracts and receiving regular paycheques, with the occasional performance-related bonus.

Tennis stars, on the other hand, embody the self-employed mentality; in the absence of a traditional salary, they need to put in the hours to earn their keep, whether it be through prize money, appearance fees or lucrative sponsorship deals.

Your freelance career might not earn you as as much as, say, Roger Federer, but you ought to be approaching it with much the same mindset – one based on hard work, an active pursuit of ambitious goals and an ability to fight your own corner and look after the interests of yourself and your business.

Work on your serve
A powerful serve is one of the cornerstones of a good tennis game; indeed, players who can deliver that first ball with speed and accuracy have often done most of the work they’ll need to do to win that point.

What can freelancers learn from this? The value of a good first impression, and the advantage of taking the initiative in a situation. When you’re self-employed, there won’t be much that’s handed to you on a silver platter; you need to make your own opportunities and get the ball out of your own court as quickly as possible.

As such, it’s vital to publicise yourself well, be proactive in pursuing potential clients for work and do your utmost to convey a professional, trustworthy image. Just like with a good serve, doing this initial legwork the right way can win you the point with a minimum of effort.

Control the flow of the game
While it’s not always the best idea to think of your clients as opponents, anyone who’s been working freelance for a while will be able to think of a few contracts where the relationship has turned at least a bit adversarial.

A good working relationship ought to be like an evenly-matched tennis rally, with each participant able to reach the ball without being run ragged and constantly wrongfooted by unpredictable returns.

If you feel like you’re wheezing across court every time you deal with an email request, it could be that you’re not controlling your workflow the right way. This is a problem that can be solved through better planning and anticipation, setting out clearer processes, and doing more to manage your client’s expectations.

As any tennis player will tell you, once you lose control of the flow, you’re headed for defeat.

Eliminate unforced errors
Unforced errors are the bane of tennis players and freelancers alike. In any pursuit, some mistakes and setbacks are going to be inevitable, but it’s the ones that you later realise were wholly your own fault that you’ll really beat yourself up over.

Once again, the key to eliminating these needless mistakes is preparation and attention to detail. Naturally, this means getting organised and stopping laziness or corner-cutting from creeping into your way of doing things – but it also means not overworking yourself by chasing down lost causes and squandering your efforts, as this will only lead to burnout and further mistakes.

You’ll never have a 100 per cent success rate – but then, nor did Pete Sampras or Steffi Graf, and that never stopped them, did it?

Develop an understanding with your doubles partner
A lot of attention gets paid to the singles game in tennis, but doubles is an equally important part of the sport, and one that requires its own set of skills and techniques. Being a great singles player doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to adjust to the team game and understand how to work well with a partner.

Similarly, most people think of freelance working as an inherently solitary discipline, but there will be plenty of times you need to work directly with a client or a collaborator. What’s more, there won’t be a manager around to assign you specific tasks and develop a collaborative workflow – you and your partner will need to figure out an effective way of working together and complementing each other, rather than chasing after the same balls and getting in the other person’s way.

Game, set & match
Of course, you’re probably not going to be thinking about all of these parallels too hard when you’re wrapped up in the exciting on-court action that’s still to come at Wimbledon, but it’s nevertheless something freelancers might do well to consider once the Championships come to a close on July 12th.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you want to be thought of as a Tim Henman – a hard worker who never quite delivered on the biggest stage – or if you’re willing to do what it takes to be like Andy Murray and turn your freelance business into a Grand Slam success.

Jonathan London Written by Jonathan London

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