A lesson from Roger Federer: Four ways to handle setbacks

Someone on the Unclutterer team is an avid tennis fan (that would be me) and though she isn’t a player herself, she does enjoy watching well fought battles on the court, especially when one of the players is Roger Federer. Unfortunately, Federer was ousted a few days ago in the quaterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open. Since he went into that event as the defending champion, there was high expectations for him to perform well. As the result was less than desired, Federer offered some insights on how he planned to deal with this setback — a lesson that even non-tennis players would do well to pay close attention to.

Look for things that worked

In his post-match interview, Federer reflected on the things that went well during the tournament. Though he acknowledged that he would have liked to have played differently, he also talked about specific things he did well (like fighting from behind to ultimately win one of his matches and serving well). 

When faced with a disappointing situation, finding things you’re proud of is probably not the easiest thing to do. But, give a try anyway. Doing this may help you feel better and lift any negative feelings you may have. Take some time to think about (and perhaps write down) the specific things that worked in your favor. Remember what you need to continue doing when faced with similar situations and build your confidence.

Focus on long-term plans

Federer often talks about his plans over the long-term when he loses a match (stay on tour for several years, stay healthy, win tournaments), and that was a consistent message in his last presser. That’s not to say that he ignores short-term improvements (like how to better deal with balls sent high to his backhand), but he realizes that he can’t get so consumed by the emotions of a disappointing perfomance that he loses sight of his ultimate plans.

Looking at the big picture and your long-term goals will give you the chance to channel your disappointment in a constructive way. By keeping your eye on the ultimate prize, you take your mind off how you’re currently feeling so you can forge ahead and make strategic adjustments to your plans. Remember that your goals give structure to your planning and remind you why you embarked on the journey in the first place. 

Manage your schedule well

One of Federer’s main goals is to stay injury free, which means he needs to be very particluar about which events he plays. As he mentioned a few days ago, a packed schedule will simply increase the opportunities for injuries to happen and decrease available time for training and recovery. In preparation for the clay court season, he will spend more time training aggressively before his next event in May.

What does this mean for you? If your schedule is always full and there are no straegically placed breaks (or time for refining your plans), you’ll quickly find yourself running on empty and not performing at your best. Before saying “yes,” to the next project that comes your way or adding more voluntary items to your task list, be certain that you will have the time to complete them. And, you should also consider whether or not any new opportunities align with your long-term plans.

Surround yourself with a good team

For a long while, Federer played without a coach but now he has added a coach to his team with positve results. In fact, Federer has acheived success (like reclaiming the number-one ranking and winnning Wimbledon in 2012) that is not typcial for most 31-year old tennis players. I suspect having a coach has also helped him to manage the sting of losses in a more constructive way.

Whether you have large goals or incremental changes you’d like to make, you may need help. Working with a planning partner, coach, or colleague can help you see different perspectives, refine your direction, and maintain a positive attitude. Carefully select someone whose personality and workstyle complement yours, and set up regularly scheduled meetings to assess your progress.

Setbacks are inevitable and happen to everyone, even popular tennis players like Roger Federer. And, like Federer, you can take specific action steps to manage them well. Begin by tuning out negative talk (from yourself and others) and incorporate some of the suggested strategies so you can stay focused on your larger goals.

11 Comments for “A lesson from Roger Federer: Four ways to handle setbacks”

  1. posted by jakers19 on

    This is a great formula for putting things into perspective. Plus, I have a new-found respect for Roger Federer – not that I had a negative feeling for the guy – I had just never followed tennis beyond the fact that it was one sport I was not very good at! I mean, any respectable athlete at that level of game is worth dissecting – I just liked the way you did things, Deb. I gives me a new way to catch myself when I get caught up in a setback. Thank you!

  2. posted by [email protected] on

    This is an awesome post! Every point was really applicable but I especially liked the first one. Rarely does something fail in every way so analyzing what went right is helpful.

  3. posted by JC on

    Federer also has a reputation for retaining focus on the racquet as he hits the ball. Watch his head as he hits the ball and see what he is looking at after the ball leaves the racquet. A lot of players are looking down the court to see where the ball lands. Federer keeps his head down longer looking at where his racquet hit the ball as he follows through with his stroke. Which means he spends a little more mental focus on every stroke. Which translates into being more focused on the present.

  4. posted by Swaps on

    This is an awesome post! I love tennis and Roger Federer is a great player. This post gives a wonderful insight and is very thought provoking, thank you Deb.

  5. posted by Pam on

    Fantastic post, Deb. I think it might be your best since joining the unclutterer team. I really like how you translated Federer’s thoughts on tennis to a wider audience – good application to dealing with setbacks generally.

    Is there any chance you can provide a link to the original interview?

  6. posted by Babs on

    Very useful post!

  7. posted by Deb Lee on

    Hi Pam –

    Glad you liked the post. =) I’ve searched high and low and cannot find the original post-match interview I watched. ATPWorldTour.com has a 30 second clip but it’s not the meat and potatoes of what Federer said. Sorry!


  8. posted by tuhin on


  9. posted by Jess on

    Great post. It is can be tough to find things that worked when you’re right in the thick of things, but that is definitely a great things to be able to do after the fact. I also really like the importance of surrounding yourself with a good team. It definitely helps to be able to ask questions and bounce ideas off of like minded folks and the whole group does better as a result.

  10. posted by Corrie on

    Here is a link to the transcript:


  11. posted by Aaron Silverberg on

    Hi Deb,

    Great article. I am a practicing life coach and found this quite compelling. I shared this with several past clients and future ones. Roger has had an extraordinary effect on so many, like Mandela, Ghandi and others.

    Thank you,

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