Friday, June 7, 2013

Checking Out Early - The FedEx Story.

Checking Out Early - The FedEx Story.

I was watching the French Open tennis tournament 2013 last Sunday, a match involving Switzerland Roger Federer and Frances Giles Simon. It was a fantastic match and by now I wouldn't be revealing any spoilers if i told you that Federer won the match in 5 sets.  But what the score line wouldn’t show you was at one point in the match Federer was down and out, for Giles Simon was leading with one set and three games up (in the fourth set). Federer not only managed to win that set to equalize at two sets apiece, he also won the crucial fifth set to win the match. Now we all know that Federer is a great player and he can turn it on at will and then no one can match him. But that was not the case on Sunday. As it was a Sunday night match and I was at home and totally free, I watched the entire match right from the beginning and I could see that Roger Federer was below par that day, he was struggling and he had not brought his A-game to the match.  

But what really transpired that day was that Giles Simon spectacularly self combusted losing the match. From the fourth set on, his returns down the line regularly found the net and his volleys were feeble compared to the second and third set where he had been near invincible. The post match expert commentators had an interesting theory on why. They said that Simon had simply chocked, when he had realized that he was leading the great Roger Federer by a set and games in the prestigious French open. As long as he felt that he was the underdog in the match-up he had been okay but once he realized he was actually on the verge of victory over Federer he coudnt handle the extra pressure and had simply self imploded. 

One of the commentators went on to talk about how people with low self confidence literally sabotage their own chances of winning right at the verge of victory. Which kind of makes sense doesnt it? Giles Simon woke up from his trance sometime in the middle of the fourth set, looked at the score board and thought "hold on, I am leading Federer? holy cockamolly" and promptly gave up his spirit and lost. Or maybe he thought "Hold on, this is the French Open and we can’t have someone like Federer out so early in a major grand slam, who will people watch?" and so he gave up his ghost.

Interesting as these theories are, they do have a grain of truth in them as applicable to regular life. Some of us are so obsessed with our goals or with winning that we sometimes forget to plan for the morning after winning. The reason for it is that these people in their heart of hearts dont believe they will win.  As they secretly believe that they are going to lose, they are unprepared for the contingency of winning and are a total loss to deal with it, if by some miracle they win.

When i was in college, I had seen this situation again and again in the case of guys who went out to propose to girls who were a cut above them- the classy girls, the A-listers. The guys were totally sure the girl would reject them flat, they were only pretending to propose to raise their profile among the other guys, as the guy who had walked up to so-and-so bravely and proposed. But sometimes cruel fate intervened and the girls through some momentary lapse of concentration or quirky whim actually accepted. And then these guys would be in an absolute panic and would go around asking others for advice on how to break up fast. For such things never lasted or became a success as long as the guy felt that the girl was a cut above him and hence felt he didn’t deserve a hottie like her. It was not meant to be, as they say.

Well to return to the match, that explanation by the experts perfectly covers the reason why Giles Simon lost from a winning position - he chocked. But i have an alternative explanation to offer. I may not be a tennis expert or a retired tennis great, but i do know a little bit about human psychology and what i saw on television that day convinced me that Giles Simon didn’t choke on the contrary he had mentally checked out early in the certainty of coasting to a win from that point on, so he mentally relaxed and gave up his grip on the match.

For the first three sets Simon had played a regular serve and volley game and had rarely rushed to the net. From the fourth set onwards he tried to match Federer's flair with drop shots and backspins. Federer being Federer can play those shots and make them look easy. But Giles Simon shouldn’t have attempted to. If only he had stuck to his strengths he might have won the match however ugly his shots were to look at. To play as elegant as Roger Federer and still win, takes a, well a Roger Federer. And Simon Giles is not a Roger Federer even on an off-day for Federer. A back court serve and volley player does not suddenly turn into a rush the net player in the middle of a crucial match, especially a match in which he is well ahead and winning. Roger himself would have been surprised to watch Simon Giles suddenly abandon his original style of play and try all those fancy shots. But like all great players, Federer wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth and thankfully accepting the gift, he closed out the match to progress to the quarter finals. In the end, it was Giles Simon who defeated Giles Simon and not Federer. Who just hung around long enough to accept the result handed to him on a platter.

Where Giles went wrong was in celebrating too early. He decided that he had the match wrapped up and mentally relaxed. Which was just the point at which things started going wrong for him. It always happens that way, even in normal life when you forget the present and start living in the future. I have had a personal experience of this from my early days of practice. As you know, surgery, any surgery is fraught with risk however the talent of the surgeon and the minimization of the risk with adequate precautions. The human body can react in absolutely different and unique ways for each individual that we can never predict that this is how this person will react to this surgery. Every surgery is a new one and anything can go wrong anytime. That is why surgeons are trained not only to anticipate everything which can go wrong but also to think on their feet, to manage whatever surprises are thrown up halfway through a surgery.

A few years ago, I had the peculiar experience of facing surgical complications regularly on my Saturday evening cases- ruining the rest of my weekend. As I am a great believer in learning from reviews, I collected all the data on why every Saturday I ended up with a complicated case and spent some off time analyzing the data. What I learnt from the data was surprising. Almost all the complicated cases i had seen were the last case on a Saturday night. I probed further and further and at one point i realized that the cases themselves were at the usual level of difficulty but what had happened was that i had relaxed mentally and made some minor error like tying off the knot in the suture thread too tightly, thereby breaking the thread and again having to do re-do the entire suture from the beginning and things like that.. What had happened was that sometime (or halfway) through the surgery I had subconsciously realized that this was the last case on Saturday night and after this I had the whole weekend (just Sunday is the entire weekend for us) to look forward to, plans to make and things to do and I had shifted to the weekend mode even before I had finished the surgery. Hence the tight hands and broken knots.

Once i realized my error, i made two changes to my routine. The first was to completely stop doing any surgeries on Saturday evenings and sticking to only consultations - just conversations you know? You can’t make any major errors that way, however mentally distracted you become about weekend plans. That decision not only reduced a major stress in my life and made my weekends more mentally relaxing; it also made me a better surgeon on Saturday mornings for now i knew that my greatest care and mental alertness was required especially for the last surgery of the day around noon. My second change was to make sure that I took extreme care that I was at the top of my game, brought my A-game to the last surgery of the day, every day, to prevent any mental relaxation like i had done previously. To give every surgery the respect due, whether it is the first one on a fresh Monday morning or the last one on a tired Saturday afternoon. That made me a better surgeon and gave me fantastic results too.

And coincidentally, these are the things which no one teaches you at college. Things which you learn by yourself from life. To postpone celebrating till you have actually crossed the rope. And not to relax till it is all over, completely, and the credits have rolled across the screen.. For things can change in a jiffy, as Simon found out in last Sundays match.

So what do you think? Of all the above explanations for Simon's defeat, which do you think was the most probable one? Care to share your thoughts?

[P.S. By the time I finished writing this Roger Federer was out of the French Open 2013 tournament defeated by Jo Wilfred Tsonga]

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