The Lean Tennis Player? A look at the lessons that Start-ups can serve us.


Ever found yourself thinking about tennis even when what you are doing has nothing to do with tennis?  Tennis lessons can be taken from all manner of places and one of these places is start-up businesses.  Doesn’t quite sounds right? Stick with me.  Building a business from the ground up and dev

Learning how to develop a ‘Lean Startup’ can help you to grow as a tennis player and comparisons can easily be drawn – reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries may just make you consider what you are doing on the tennis court in a different light.  It might be the best non-tennis book for tennis players and it at least offers some intriguing insights to thought processes. See the key take aways from the book below.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – the first building block for a lean startup is to develop a MVP.  This enables you to test a leap of faith assumption about a product and determine what is essential and what is not when building towards a sustainable business.  A MVP allows the startup to test a part product that it thinks customers need without the requirement for a huge budget.  Through testing, it provides you with a high level of Validated Learning (See below) before the product is finalised. This way you can quickly see what your product needs and what it does not.  Now think of your tennis shots as Minimum Viable Products.

It would be great to spend hours on the court hitting balls, building a 100mph serve.  But if your opponents can’t return an 80mph serve, all that time you spend on that extra 20mph could have been spent developing another aspect of your game (which could be more valuable).  Understanding the importance of a MVP could be a useful coaching technique.  It would help players focus on the shot or aspect of the shot that actually won them the point rather than spending valuable time on an impressive stroke that does not translate into winning games.

You will have already been incorporating this thinking to your practise without realising.  You will have put more time in on your ground strokes than perfecting that killer dropshop because a solid ground stroke is essential to any tennis arsenal, whereas an amazing drop shot is a bit of a luxury.  In this sense you have already used the MVP/ Validated Learning cycle during a warm up for matches by spending  an amount of time on each shot which is relative to its value – the majority of time is spent on ground strokes, then some volleys, a few smashes and then a good number of serves.

I hit more second serves than first serves in practise (even though I know in a match it is a shot I will use less) because I know that a second serve is more valuable. I may win a point with a good first serve but I know I’ll lose it if I can’t hit a second serve.

The idea of an MVP does have relevance for tennis and is a useful way to analyse the minimum level required to win a point – thinking about MVPs may save you some time on the practise court (but I should point out that reading about them won’t replace the time required).

Validated Learning – This section of the book suggests that the way to take value from all the experiments that you run (shots that you hit) is to learn from them. Fail and fail fast is a mantra, but it is most important to make sure that you are measuring the right metric, that way you know the correct path to go down.

Rather than keeping to a rigid structure in the hope that it will work out, the validated learning loop let’s you adjust your product by retaining known essential elements and discarding unnecessary parts. A tennis point requires the same level of assessment. Look at why you won or lost the point, take that learning and adjust your game plan accordingly. We will come on to how you make that assessment below, but before we do, ask yourself what you think about after a point.

Some people I play with say that they immediately move onto the next point but there must be some degree of reflection so that the same mistake is not made again or to ensure that the actual reason for winning the point is understood.  Did your opponent make a mistake or did you force them into that mistake?

A Lean player would start with a leap of faith assumption – eg if I serve down the middle to my opponents backhand, they will hit a weaker shot (and I will be able to hit a ‘set-up’ shot to get on the front foot). The next step is to A/B test this hypothesis – hit the serve and see what you opponents does.  If they hit a weaker shot great, the hypothesis is proven if they hit a winner then you have still gained that validated learning point and know that you have to hit a different serve.  Startups use the same methodology for product development.

5 Whys – one of my favourite sections of the book was the process used to to determine the route cause of something that went wrong. The answer is to keep asking the question why.  The application of this to tennis is useful and the scoring in tennis (and other racket sports) gives each player an opportunity to reflect on the reason for the outcome.

Say you lose a point, ask why – my shot went in the net, why did it go in the net – it didn’t have enough power, why – my shot didn’t have enough power because I was not in my standard hitting position, why – my footwork recovery from the shot before was delayed, why – I’m not used to playing points at such high intensity.

From this conclusion you now know that there is a need to work on your footwork (which isn’t much help during the game I know).  If a lot of your shots are going in the net, you will need to keep asking why, because the reason may not be to do with the weight of your racket or your string tension, there could be a deeper underlying reason.

So you never know, what you are reading at the moment could have applications for your next tennis match.  If nothing else, the Lean Startup is certainly thought provoking and an interesting read.  It offers a particular way to build a startup and when looked at through the hawk-eye lens of a tennis player it makes you consider how you are playing the game.

Please remember that reading this book will not replace the hours on court you need to spend practising.

This post was encouraged by Box & Bow – a letterbox gift company which has used the Lean Startup methodology.  You can see their lovingly created boxes on offer at

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