Life’s Work: An Interview with Andre Agassi by Alison Beard, Harvard Business Review

Andre Agassi started his tennis career “in diapers” and ended it at age 36, having won eight Grand Slam titles. Married (to fellow champion Steffi Graf) with two kids, he now oversees a foundation and a charter school in Las Vegas where accountability is the mantra. No courts on campus, though. “The idea that I succeed at your demise doesn’t fit the culture,” he explains.

HBR: In your autobiography, you confessed that you hate tennis. Why did you play for so long?

Agassi: At first it was a lack of alternatives. As a child, I knew nothing but success would be accepted. Or, if I didn’t succeed, it would take a toll on our family. So I put my head down and did the best I could. Then, being sent away to an academy at 13, the only way out was to succeed. You don’t know what else you’re going to do, and fear is one hell of a motivator. After that it becomes your life, and you have some success, and the world tells you that you should be thrilled. So you keep living the Groundhog Day, the hamster wheel. I thought that getting to number one was going to be the moment I made sense of my life. But it left me a little empty, and I spiraled down until something had to change.

Then you executed a legendary comeback. You’d had enough success, and earned enough money, to retire happily to Las Vegas at that point, so why keep at it?

It wouldn’t have been retiring happily. It would have been quitting miserably. I was at a critical point where if I made one more misstep, I wouldn’t get a chance to be on the court again, and the climb back would have been truly impossible. So I made a commitment to take ownership of my life. I started to get more connected, and then I just kept going with tangible daily goals. It wasn’t about a destination. Getting back to number one was something I was pretty convinced I’d never achieve. But that journey from rock bottom to the summit a second time was a great accomplishment for me. Without it I don’t know if I would believe in myself as much as I do when I face other challenges now.

You had epic match comebacks too. How did you develop that resilience?

It’s about recognizing that regardless of what the score is, the most important point is that next point. If you can get yourself into that state of mind, you just are who you are. People give you more credit for coming back than they do for blowing somebody out, but both require the same skill set. After a blowout, nobody says, “Wow, how strong and focused you are.” But you really are.

What distinguishes the best tennis players from the rest?

You need an arsenal of tools that give you an advantage over the field. It helps to have two or three possible game plans, especially in those matches when you’ve got to figure out a way to win. When you get on the court, it’s all about what you’ve done leading up to that day—whether you’ve done your homework, prepared right, trained hard enough, put enough fluids in your body. You have to do all those things a little bit better than the person you’ll be measured against. It’s really perfectionism.

Are there skills that your wife had as a competitor that you wish you’d had?

She had an athleticism over her peers that was quite a luxury. When she was in full form, she was just a horse that wasn’t going to be caught. For me, it wasn’t like that. I couldn’t just steamroll past people because I was such an athlete or talented in all these different ways. I had a couple of strengths, but I had to out-think everybody and implement my strategies one piece at a time, like a puzzle. That’s more exhausting, and you don’t get the results as consistently.

How did you learn to manage your emotions when you played?
I don’t know that I did. I’ve seen people use emotion, positive or negative, as a tool, and it works for them. But typically, the more you can remove emotion, the more efficient you’ll be. You can be an inch from winning but still miles away if you allow emotion to interfere with the last step. So you have to accept: the weather, heat, rain, stops and starts, the line calls, whatever your opponent is giving you, however tired or injured you are. There are so many things that can distract you from taking care of business. The only thing you can control is your engagement.

How did your rivalries help or hurt you?

A great rival is like a mirror. You have to look at yourself, acknowledge where you fall short, make adjustments, and nurture the areas where you overachieve. There were times my rivals brought out the best in me; there were times they brought out the worst. They probably helped me win things I never would have otherwise; they also cost me titles. I don’t know how you quantify what it would have been like without a rival like Pete Sampras. I would have won more. But I think I would have been worse without him.

You completely remade your image over the course of your career. Tell me about that process.

I would challenge any adult to look at their teenaged self and tell me what they recognize. I went through some heavy transitions, discovering and learning myself along the way. But it was all authentic.

How did you approach retirement?

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through emotionally. Think about it: You’ve done this thing since you were in diapers. You don’t remember life without it. It’s really the only thing you do. Then one day it comes to an end, and you have no idea what’s on the other side because you don’t even know yourself without it. It’s like planning for death: Let’s see, in the afterlife I want to do this and do that. It just doesn’t compute. I couldn’t process how, moving forward, I would never have to do the things I’d always had to do. But you start with what you can control: What will I do today? And then every day was a discovery, and it was a nice feeling. I felt empowered.

At the C2 Montreal conference earlier this year, you said a typical day for you now involves working in the morning but finishing by 2:30 in the afternoon to pick up your kids in the carpool line.

I have the luxury of tweaking the balance now, of never missing a baseball game or a dance competition. If I’m feeling like I need a business outlet, I plan work. But yes, I engage much harder with my kids because they grow up fast. By the time you’re qualified for the job, you’re unemployed.

What do you regard as your biggest career mistake?

I wish I had taken ownership of the business side of my career years ago instead of trusting certain people. Nobody cares more, or represents you better, than you do yourself.

How do you pick employees and business partners now?

I’m a big fan of people who do more than they say. People who enjoy puffing their chest out and acting as if they’re really smart and can handle everything always disappoint you.
Who are the mentors you’ve learned the most from, on and off the court?

A father’s relationship with his son is formative—for better or worse. You learn what you want to be and what you don’t. Gil, my trainer, helped me feel worth being cared about, which was a big deal in my world. On the court he pushed me physically in ways that allowed me to get around some inherent liabilities with my body and to get better as I got older. I didn’t always train harder—I trained smarter, and that was because of him. Then I would say my wife, who inspires me in a lot of ways. I’m more efficient in everything I do because of how she chooses to be. There are things she clearly cares about and things she doesn’t. She just doesn’t have energy for stuff that isn’t contributing to her engagement. And that clarity is a jewel. I’d throw in Nick Bolliteri. The impact he had on me was both good and bad, personally and professionally, but I don’t think I could have achieved as much without having been in his environment. Brad Gilbert was the one to really teach me how to play tennis, how to think for myself from a strategic standpoint when I was out there. Then Darren [Cahill] gave me some of the great years that I never would have had without him—those years when I was old enough to really appreciate everything.

What distinguishes the best coaches from the rest?

Coaching is not what you know. It’s what your student learns. And for your student to learn, you have to learn him. I think the greats spend a lot of time understanding where the player is. The day they stop learning is the day they should stop teaching.

That’s a nice segue into your foundation and school. What do you think is wrong with the way kids are educated today, and how are you trying to fix it?

As long as we’re making education about the adults and not the children, that’s a problem. There are a lot of agendas being pursued at a cost to our kids, and resources are irrelevant if there’s no accountability as to how they’re used. What I think we really need is a children’s union. My own mission is to focus on impact. I’m not one to sit in a boardroom and talk about something. I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get in the trenches. Clark County in Las Vegas is the fifth largest school district in America, and we’re 50th as measured by the kids we put into college—so what a great testing laboratory.

What sets your school apart?

One difference is time on task. There are no shortcuts. We have longer school days—eight hours versus six. If you add that up, it’s 16 years of education versus 12 for district peers. There’s also an emphasis on accountability, which starts with the kids themselves. They know this is a privilege: There are 1,000 kids on the waiting list. So they take ownership. The teachers have annual contracts; there’s no business in the world that could succeed if employees who worked for three years got a job for life. The parents are accountable too. They need to acknowledge, accept, and embrace the objectives set for their children. They come in, they volunteer time, they sign off on homework assignments. You have to cover all the bases.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue (p.136) of Harvard Business Review.
Source: Alison Beard is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Photo: MAKI GALIMBERTI/REDUX

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