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Leadership

Tennis GOAT Roger Federer delivered a masterclass in founder mindset to US uni students

- June 12, 2024 4 MIN READ
Roger Federer addresses Darmouth University. Photo: Dartmouth University.
As commencement speeches go, tennis great Roger Federer had a strait sets victory at Dartmouth College on the weekend.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion confessed it was just the second time he’d visited a university campus and one of the reasons why he was there was because his longtime agent and business partner Tony Godsick’s daughter Isabella was part of the class of 2024.

He was also awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters by the Ivy League college in New Hampshire.

“I just came here to give a speech, but I get to go home as ‘Dr. Roger.’  That’s a pretty nice bonus,” Federer said.

It was an address that delivered jokes with the same power as his aces, riffing that “I’ll try my best not to choke” and talking about how he felt a little awkward in the uni robes because “I’ve worn shorts almost every day for the last 35 years”.

Federer didn’t finish high school. By 17 he was on the Swiss national tennis team.

He joked about beer pong and how Dartmouth invented it.

“Dartmouth is the Wimbledon of pong. I’m glad I got to work on my shots with some of you. I’m actually thinking about turning pro,” he grinned.

Federer compared the end of his professional tennis career, in 2022, to graduation, saying the word retire “is awful” and he’d “graduated” from tennis, but isn’t sure what’s next, reassuring the students that it’s okay not to know.

“In truth, I’m loving the life of a tennis graduate. I graduated tennis in 2022, and you are graduating college in 2024. So I have a head start in answering the question of what’s next.”

And then Federer went to the core of a winning mindset, talking about myths, perseverance, discipline incremental achievements, focus and the bigger picture.

It’s a “tennis lesson” for the ages.

The myth of effortlessness

The eight-time Wimbledon winner began by talking about the how ‘effortless’ is a myth.

“The truth is, I had to work very hard to make it look easy. I spent years whining… swearing… throwing my racket… before I learned to keep my cool,” Federer said.

A rival player explained it to him and anyone who’s watched a champion down two sets in a marathon match has witnessed it – a grit that comes from years of effort.

“I realised what he was trying to say. Everybody can play well the first two hours. You’re fit, you’re fast, you’re clear… and after two hours, your legs get wobbly, your mind starts wandering, and your discipline starts to fade,” he said

“So I started training harder. A lot harder. But then I realised: winning effortlessly is the ultimate achievement.”

He seemed so relaxed at tournament warm-ups because “I had been working hard, before the tournament, when nobody was watching.”

“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 said.

“Then there are days when you just feel broken. Your back hurts, your knee hurts. Maybe you’re a little sick or scared. But you still find a way to win. And those are the victories we can be most proud of. Because they prove that you can win not just when you are at your best, but especially when you aren’t..

“But in tennis, like in life, discipline is also a talent. And so is patience. Trusting yourself is a talent. Embracing the process, loving the process, is a talent. Managing your life, managing yourself,  these can be talents, too. Some people are born with them. Everybody has to work at them.”

One point at a time

Federer’s second lesson was: “it’s only a point” and he dropped a mind-blowing stat.

He won 80% of the 1,526 singles matches he played, but amazingly only 54% of the points he played.

“When you lose every second point, on average, you learn not to dwell on every shot. You teach yourself to think: OK, I double-faulted. It’s only a point. OK, I came to the net and I got passed again. It’s only a point. Even a great shot, an overhead backhand smash that ends up on ESPN’s Top Ten Plays: that, too, is just a point,” Federer said.

When you’re playing a point, it is the most important thing in the world, the tennis great continued, but after that it’s behind you and doesn’t matter.

“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. The truth is, whatever game you play in life, sometimes you’re going to lose. A point, a match, a season, a job… it’s a roller coaster, with many ups and downs,” he said

“And it’s natural, when you’re down, to doubt yourself. To feel sorry for yourself. And by the way, your opponents have self-doubt, too. Don’t ever forget that. But negative energy is wasted energy. You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments. That to me is the sign of a champion.

“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 how to deal with it. You accept it. Cry it out if you need to… then force a smile.

“You move on. Be relentless. Adapt and grow. Work harder. Work smarter. Remember: work smarter.”

A bigger life

Federer’s final lesson is that “life is bigger than the court”.

He talked about travelling the world, philanthropy and quoted Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens who’d tell 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.”

“Tennis, like life, is a team sport. Yes, you stand alone on your side of the net. But your success depends on your team,” Federer said, adding that his business with Tony Godsick is called TEAM8, a play on teammate.

“All the work we do together reflects that team spirit: the strong bond we have with each other and our colleagues, with the athletes we represent, and with partners and sponsors. These personal relationships matter most,” he said

The champion who brought joy and wonder to tennis fans for more than 20 years finished with advice everyone should keep close at hand: “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.”

You can watch Roger Federer’s Dartmouth commencement address below.

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