The most important thing for an athlete is to have that vision or goal. It’s easier said than done to create your vision. It usually doesn’t happen. When we are children, sometimes our parents trying create that vision but it really comes down to the person. What are you trying to achieve. If you are clear on your vision then you will work harder to go and make that vision a reality.
As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Cluskey.
James is a former professional tennis player turned executive coach and private tennis coach to Sir Richard Branson.
James’ achievements on the tennis court led to him representing Ireland in the Davis Cup from 2006–2015. As a tennis pro, James won 15 professional titles and was ranked 145 in the world. In 2018, James and 3 others undertook the physically and mentally gruelling challenge of attempting to break the Guinness World Record for the longest doubles tennis match — over 60 hours. Despite physical fatigue, James’s sheer determination and winning mindset ensured that he succeeded in achieving his long-standing goal.
Since leaving professional tennis James founded HC Collective and engages with individuals and organizations around high performance. HC Collective work one to one with people, both in person and remotely, who are looking to reach the next level, and with corporate teams looking to work together more effectively. James also gives keynotes on the topics of high performance, networking and career transition and has worked with high profile and leading corporations including Airbnb, CTI Global, and Voxpro.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thanks. I started playing tennis at 6 years old in the Parks Tennis program. It’s a summer public tennis program in local clubs. I played in that and was hooked and then joined the club and squad after and it went from there. I played domestic Irish tournaments in the summer and was always near the top. When I was 15 a facility with 7 indoor courts and a great coach opened and that was a big moment for me. I started training more professionally and got a scholarship to play college tennis at Louisiana State University.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?
My coach and my mom were probably my two biggest influences. Larry Jurovich who was my coach from 15 had a big influence. He got me in the mindset to train professionally and he really helped me believe in myself and my tennis. My parents are both amazing but my mom has been my biggest supporter and was always in my corner pushing me on and staying positive.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Larry really changed my belief system. He is Canadian and came to Ireland with his family. He introduced me to reading and had me reading books from top athletes from several sports and also reading business books. Historically when I went to international junior tournaments as a kid I would say if I won a match or two it was a good result. Larry had me going with the intention to win. There was a shift in mindset and it was all about raising your standards.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I think sports is all about belief. My career-high ranking was 145 in the world and given the fact I came from a non-tennis country I feel for the most part I fulfilled my potential. In tennis the tour is based off ATP, ATP Challengers and Futures events. I started in the futures and worked my way up. When I played in futures I got comfortable at that level and won several events. I remember first going to challengers and not knowing many players and not being sure if I belonged there. Then I gradually got good in challengers and started doing well and winning some. I got into one or two ATP events but went through the same experience. I didn’t feel like I belonged and never got over that. It’s one of my regrets because I know was good enough but probably didn’t back myself in that situation enough. This is one of the few regrets I have from the tour.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?
The transition was interesting. I feel as a tennis player you look at the mountain and it’s all about climbing that mountain and moving your ranking higher and higher. I was so focused on that mountain. When you stop playing professionally it’s hard to recognize where that next mountain is and what you want to climb. It takes time to figure that out and not to rush things. I always read books about performance and love meeting people. When I coached Sir Richard on Necker I was able to sit in on some group events there on the island. It gave me the idea to start hosting my own events in Dublin. I tapped into the tennis network of great business people and built a community of like minded people. I hosted events where C-suite executives could come and talk about topics such as leadership, culture, work life balance etc. I built my business off the fact then that they started bringing me into their organization then.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects new you are working on now?
With Covid and the challenges we are facing I’ve pivoted the business. I’ve created an online learning and development platform. I have experts from executive coaching, counseling, sleep experts, nutritionists, and several other areas. Businesses can assign their employees a certain number of credits and with those credits they can work with one of the experts including myself via zoom, or join a webinar class like yoga or something else. I had the idea last year but Covid has given me the kick to do it. I’m incredibly excited about it and feel people should be given some level of autonomy to spend on their own development.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?
I do think professional tennis has helped me prepare for life as an entrepreneur. I do feel I’ve learned a lot from tennis. I think of something like resilience as an example. In tennis unless you are someone like Roger Federer you’re losing pretty much every week. Tennis teaches you how to bounce back from tough days and weeks and be stronger for it. You must be incredibly positive to rise through the ranks in tennis because you get so many knock backs along the way.
Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.
The most important thing for an athlete is to have that vision or goal. It’s easier said than done to create your vision. It usually doesn’t happen. When we are children, sometimes our parents trying create that vision but it really comes down to the person. What are you trying to achieve. If you are clear on your vision then you will work harder to go and make that vision a reality. If you met me at an social event and said James what’s the plan? I knew exactly what my next few months looked like and where I wanted to get to.
Athletes have an incredible ability to bounce back from tough situations. The world is watching when you under perform. Athletes learn about the ability to recover from tough situations where everyone is watching. I remember losing a Davis Cup match for Ireland where we were the strong favourites. When you screw up in work I’m pretty sure you don’t have your family and friends standing there watching you. We can learn a lot from the resilience of athletes.
I had my goals set out points wise to move up the rankings. However, I would go a few steps further and decide on what I needed to do on a daily basis to achieve my goal. How many practice serves did I need to hit? How many returns did I need to hit? How many times did I need to go to the jump. Plan, plan, plan it’s the key to success and achieving your goals.
Smart working is key to success. As a professional athlete you need to work incredibly hard to be successful. I know from meeting entrepreneurs that they are also already working incredibly hard. All that being said you need to look after yourself and listen to your mind and body. You need to be fresh so you can strive for success. That’s one thing I picked up from Richard Branson. Richard works incredibly hard, but he also plays tennis twice a day pretty much every day for fun. It’s non-negotiable, it’s in his dairy. Take care of yourself and work smart.
As you move up the rankings you might move from having no coach to having a coach and fitness trainer. It’s incredibly important to work hard but it’s also equally important that the team around you are working with you in a positive way to achieve your vision. It’s hard to do things alone. You need to work with people to achieve that vision. Your team in professional sport and business will spot those mistakes your making and encourage you along the way. Surround yourself with good people.
What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
Decide on your vision and then go after achieving it. The big thing about your vision is it can’t be someone else’s and has to be your own. If you have dreams, then go after them. Get good people around you and life is short!
You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe in business being a force for good and from spending time with Richard Branson that’s a lesson I learned from him. In college I won the LSU athlete volunteer of the year for my charity work. I’ve also used my tennis for social good. I broke a Guinness World Record in 2018 where we raised money for a Tennis Ireland program called “Enjoy Tennis” which creates tennis programmers for kids and adults with special needs.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I really believe entrepreneurship should be taught more in school. Academically I wasn’t amazing but I do love business and feel in Ireland where I’m from our education system doesn’t foster entrepreneurship enough.
The other thing I believe is that kids should learn how to present in schools. I read a study that peoples’ number 2 fear in life is death and number 1 is public speaking! It’s a skill we should be taught in school.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I love the quote “Surround yourself with the people you want to become” from Robin Sharma. I read his book “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” years ago and always loved the lessons in it. My philosophy has always been to put yourself around good people and learn from them. Take those learnings and implement them into your life with what suits your personality.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Well my favourite book in recent years is Ray Dalio “Principles” so if you’re reading this Ray.. Let’s have breakfast and a game of tennis!