Martina Navratilova

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Is tennis the best sport metaphor for life? It has immediate feedback. It’s mostly individual but with some coaching. It’s mostly skill with sprinkles of luck. It’s a game where effort yields rewards.

We’ve touched on the game before. Brad Gilbert coached us to play games within the game we could win. Andre Agassi wrote about the two games of tennis. Timothy Gallwey encouraged us to let go of judgments but do not ignore our errors.

Let’s ‘play another.’ These notes are from Martina Navratilova’s conversation with Tyler Cowen.

Copy and paste what works. wrote that Navratilova “seemed to hit bottom” in 1981. After a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Chris Evert, Navratilova was introduced to Nancy Lieberman, and she told Cowen, “I thought I worked hard enough, but then she introduced me to running suicides on the basketball court.”

Lieberman taught Navratilova to play basketball, not tennis. Martina liked basketball enough they played most days after lunch.

Tony Hsieh saw that selling shoes without trying them on was already working – via catalogs. Ted Sarandos saw that comic book shows and movies were already working – via Hollywood. Carl Turner Jr.’s father saw that dollar sales worked.

Navratilova couldn’t do exactly what other tennis or basketball players were doing, but she could do her own version of it.

Focus. About writing in a journal each day Navratilova said, ” It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have.”

Journaling for Navratilova also allows her to keep track. “It’s always good to keep track, whether you’re playing points — keeping track that way — or just measure your progress or maybe regress some days.”

Counting and marking improvements is something Jocko Willink advises in his Field Manual. Dan Ariely said that we needed reminded of goals. It’s too easy to get stuck in your inbox, and “Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else.”

Finish line fallacy. Sometimes literal, in the case of Amelia Boone. Sometimes more metaphorical in the case of tennis rankings. Navratilova never got sucked into this fallacy. ” If you tried your best and your best ranking ever was number 10, then the other nine players were better. But if the other nine people weren’t alive, you’d be number one.”

Besides a focus from journaling, Navratilova focused on excellence rather than perfection. “It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.”

Scott Malpass has the same mindset. “At the end of the day we don’t really care much about what other people are doing. We’ve got our own risk tolerance, our own mission. We are going to do what we need to do for Norte Dame.”

**Conditions matter.** “The one thing growing up in a communist country, perhaps the only good thing about it, was that it was OK to be a female athlete, or anything, really.”


Tennis as an individual rather than team sport helped too. “I was lucky that I could come out (as gay) because I knew I could still play tennis no matter what happened. Endorsements, I didn’t care. I lost a lot of money, but I just wanted to play tennis and be true to myself. I knew I could still play no matter what. The ranking is this — you get to play.”

Alice Waters‘s life is different if she never goes to Berkley. Andy Weir‘s life is different without the internet comments section.

Fortunately, conditions can be designed. Landscapes help eliminate drug gangs. Landscapes help us run faster. Landscapes help us be more creative.

Don’t guard the line. Asked about doubles advice Navratilova advised:

“Well, the biggest thing in doubles is cover the middle. People cover the line too much, and you may get passed once or twice down the line, but you will get 15 balls go through the middle…But if it’s down your line, everybody’s embarrassed because it’s my line. So people guard the line with their life, and they leave the middle too open in regular doubles.”

Some things look bad and some things are bad. Conventional wisdom (and the base rates) in doubles tennis tell players to not guard the lines as much as they do. Yet players do because they look bad.

This is a major issue in professional sports and the application of analytics. During the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates the players were apprehensive (at best) about shifting in the field. Like tennis, it was easy to see the balls that went where the players used to be. Much harder was seeing the plays that worked because of where the players were.


Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.