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What Rafael Nadal taught me about Project Management 
Mark Pratt

Picture the scene. 

You’re 2 sets to love down, in a ‘first to 3 sets’ match. 

It’s 3 games-all, on-serve and your opponent, the highest ranked player in the competition is at 0-40, having held his last 2 service games to love. 

For the non-tennis fans, that means if your opponent wins any of the next 3 points, it’s almost certainly game over. 

You’re short of match practice and have not long overcome foot surgery. 

Your opponent is 10 years younger than you. 

The last time you came back from this position was 15 years ago, against a much, much lower ranked opponent. 

Yet, despite this seemingly impossible position, you come back, hold your serve, win the set and go on to win the next 2 sets to boot, claiming the Australian Open title, the 21st “Grand Slam” of your career – the most any man has ever won in the history of Tennis. 

Now, imagine what would go through your mind if you found yourself in this sort of a position on a project. 

If you’ve worked in Projects long enough, you’ve probably already been there. 

What went through your mind? What went through the team’s mind? How was morale? What did the Sponsor think? 

If your mindset is “it’s impossible, the project will fail / be late / go over budget”, then you’re already there. 

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right” 

As a Project Manager, it’s your job to “be more Nadal” and concentrate on the here and now. 

To stretch the tennis analogy, focus on this point. Aka this “task” – the one right in front of you. The one you can “win” today, this afternoon, this hour. 

Because when you land that one right, you’ve got a chance to deliver the “game” – the deliverable that will come when you complete the series of tasks. 

From there, you’ve got a fighting chance to win the “set” – the major milestone in the Project that once complete, you can pause briefly, celebrate a job well done, then get your head down to concentrate on the rest. 

And when you do this, you’ll win the “match” – deliver the Project, on-time, on-budget and to the delight of your Sponsor. 

A bit like in sport there will be some bumps along the way. It’s unrealistic and setting yourself up for stress and disaster if you think otherwise. 

But also like in sport, everyone tends to remember the results and not the pain along the way. 

Of course, you should still start every “match” aka Project with a plan, and stick to that plan where you can. 

But when it veers off course, as it will, invoke the spirit of Rafa: dig deep and just win the next point. 

You’ll be glad you did. 

Until next time, amigos 

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