The Champion's Playbook: Life Lessons from Roger Federer

Roger Federer is considered by many the greatest tennis player of all time. He ranked No. 1 in men's singles for 237 consecutive weeks, 310 weeks in total. He won 103 ATP Tour single titles and 20 Grand Slam singles, including eight Wimbledon titles. Maybe less known, Federer is also an entrepreneur and philanthropist.

In June 2024, Dartmouth awarded Federer the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Later that day, he gave Dartmouth's 2024 Commencement address. Starting from his professional experience, he shared three lessons worth considering.

Lesson 1. Effortless is a myth.

Early in his career, Federer was recognized as a talented tennis player, but he was also known for whining, swearing, and throwing rackets when a match didn't go as planned.

For Federer, the realization that he had so much work ahead of him came during a competition in Italy. He realized that while anyone can play well for the first two hours of a match, after two hours, your legs get wobbly, your mind starts wandering, and your discipline starts to fade. You need to work really hard, up to a point that winning is seemingly effortless.

In fact, from that point on, Federer worked so hard that he became known for winning with little effort.

People would say my play was effortless. Most of the time, they meant it as a compliment, but it used to frustrate me when they would say, "He barely broke a sweat," or, "Is he even trying?”

The truth is I had to work very hard to make it look easy. (…) So I started to train harder, a lot harder actually. But then I realized winning effortlessly is the ultimate achievement. I got that reputation, because my warmups at the tournaments were so casual that people didn't think I've been training hard, but I had been working hard before the tournament when nobody was watching.

Yes, Federer was a talented player. But what really made the difference for him, and allowed him to be ranked No. 1 in singles by the ATP was combining his talent with the grit to control his temper, develop the necessary physical strength, refine his technique, and face matches with a cold head and patience.

Yes, talent matters. I'm not going to stand here, and tell you it doesn't. But talent has a broad definition. Most of the time, it's not about having a gift, it's about having grit. In tennis, a great forehand with sick racket head speed can be called a talent. But in tennis, like in life, discipline is also a talent, and so is patience. Trusting yourself is a talent. Embracing the process. Loving the process is a talent. Managing your life, managing yourself. These can be talents, too. Some people are born with them. Everybody has to work at them.

Then there are days when you just feel broken, your back hurts, your knee hurts, have that a lot. Maybe you're a little sick or scared, but you still find a way to win. And those are the victories we can be most proud of, because they prove that you can win, not just when you're at your best, but especially when you aren't.

Lesson 2. You can work harder than you thought possible and still lose.

You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments.

During his career, Federer played 1,526 single matches winning 80% of the time. However, he won those matches by winning little more than half of the points.

Nobody likes to lose a point. But to be successful in the long term, you need to make peace with the fact that there will be failures and mistakes. To win the match you need to be able to leave behind what's already done and commit fully to the task at hand.

When you're playing a point, it has to be the most important thing in the world and it is. But when it's behind you, it's behind you. This mindset is really crucial, because it frees you to fully commit to the next point and the next point after that with intensity, clarity, and focus.


The truth is, whatever game you play in life, sometimes, you're going to lose a point, a match, a season, a job. It's a rollercoaster with many ups and downs, and it's natural when you're down to doubt yourself and to feel sorry for yourself. And by the way, your opponents have self-doubt, too. Don't ever forget that. But negative energy is wasted energy. You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments.

In 2008, Federer was playing for his sixth consecutive title against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, the cathedral of tennis. Nadal won the first two sets. Federer recovered by winning the next two sets and forcing a fifth. Despite his effort, Federer finally lost the last set to Nadal in what is considered one of the greatest tennis matches in history. This defeat also cost Federer his #1 ranking.

Many wondered if it was time for a change of guard. However, Federer knew what he had to do. He kept working hard and competing, achieving in 2019 his 100th career singles title. He finally retired in 2022.

That is, to me, the sign of a champion. The best in the world are not the best because they win every point. It's because they know they'll lose again and again, and have learned how to deal with it. You accept it, cry it out if you need to, and then force a smile. You move on, be relentless, adapt, and grow. Work harder, work smarter. Remember, work smarter.

Lesson 3. Life is bigger than the court.

Federer worked very hard and knew that tennis could show him the world, but he knew that life was bigger than that and that his world could not be reduced to his tennis career.

Even when I was in the top five, it was important to me to have a life, a rewarding life full of travel, culture, friendships, and especially family.

He also realized early that we all have a lot to give back. At 22, he started a foundation to empower Sub-Saharan African children through education. He started the foundation before he thought he was ready. At the time, he thought he was not ready for anything other than tennis, but “sometimes, you've got to take a chance, and then figure out.”

Philanthropy can mean a lot of things. It can mean starting a non-profit or donating money, but it can also mean contributing your ideas, your time, your energy to a mission that is larger than yourself. All of you have so much to give, and I hope you will find your own unique ways to make a difference because life really is much bigger than the court.

One thing Federer learned from his parents is that lIfe, like tennis, is a team sport.

I learned this way of thinking from the best, my parents, of course. They've always supported me, always encouraged me, and always understood what I most wanted and needed to be.

A family is a team. I feel so very lucky that my incredible wife, Mirka, who makes every joy in my life, even brighter, and our four amazing children, Myla, Charlene, Leo, and Lenny are here with me today. And more importantly, that we are here for each other every day.

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Federer's commencement address is a reflection on life and its many facets. His lessons—debunking the myth of effortless success, embracing resilience in the face of failure, and understanding that life extends far beyond professional achievements—resonate deeply with anyone striving for excellence.

You can watch the full address below:

Dartmouth, Roger Federer, resilience, effortless success, teamwork

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