Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Top Dog?

“The mark of great sportsmen is not how good they are at their best, but how good they are at their worst.”

– Martina Navratilova

Everybody loves an underdog. We admire the perseverance and tenacity they show when the odds are against them. We root for them to win, especially in sports. From Olympic arenas to high school stadiums, we find inspiration in unheralded teams taking down Goliaths.

But what about the top dog? A top dog, whether in sports or business, has put in countless hours of hard work, risen through the ranks, and has a proven track record of success. Top dogs don’t always win, but they are used to winning. And yet, even champions lose from time to time. What can we learn from these stories?
This year’s U.S. Open Tennis Championship had no shortage of compelling moments where top dogs were put to the test. For Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 seed and top men’s player in the world, the competition ended with another dramatic victory over his great rival Roger Federer. For Serena Williams, the No. 1 seed and top women’s player in the world, her semi-final match resulted in one of the most surprising defeats of the year to unseeded (and largely unknown) Roberta Vinci.

It’s easy to see how Williams lost. She came out flat, stopped moving her feet, and tightened up as the match progressed. Williams scored more points than her opponent, but made errors at the worst times. By the end of the third set, Williams was visibly despondent while Vinci, a 300-1 longshot, was relaxed and focused. We understand how she lost but the deeper question is why?  Williams denied she let the pressure of winning a calendar grand slam for the first time since Steffi Graf 27 years ago get to her, but her coach confessed that Williams had “lost her way mentally.”

In the men’s final, Djokovic played crowd favorite Roger Federer. In the first set, Djokovic took a nasty fall and proceeded to lose the next 8 points. But Djokovic’s athleticism, determination, and steely nerves ultimately prevailed over his formidable opponent. Djokovic secured his 10th major title and is now taking aim to best Federer’s record of 17 grand slam singles titles over the next few years.

One crucial takeaway from Djokovic’s victory is that hard work and preparation pay off. Djokovic is one of the most diligent, best prepared players competing today. He surrounds himself with coaches, trainers, nutritionist, masseurs, and others who help him achieve peak performance. More recently he hired Grand Slam Champion Boris Becker to receive coaching from a person who knows how to handle the pressure of winning on the biggest stages in tennis. When Djokovic faced rough patches in the finals against Federer, he remained focused, relying on his training and mental strength to carry him through.

Serena Williams is also a great champion—arguably the greatest female player in the history of the game. She has demonstrated mental fortitude to prevail time after time and win difficult matches. So what’s the difference between the two? Unlike Williams, Djokovic remained steady at the most important times of the match. During the darkest moments of the match, he always fought to regain his advantage. He said later in the press conference, he did this by pretending the crowd was actually cheering for him instead of Federer. He also told BBC Sport, “You do have some ups and downs in concentration. It’s important to go back to basics and remember why you are there and what you need to do.” In short, he did what all top dogs do: he maintained grace under pressure.

Grace under pressure means staying calm and level-headed when facing extreme adversity. Djokovic showed this in his match; Williams sadly did not. It’s hard not to speculate why Williams cracked during this particular match. Why was Djokovic able to rise to the challenge of a formidable opponent while Williams let her mistakes overwhelm her?
The answer to that question, no doubt, is personal. We all have good days and bad days. Even top dogs succumb to pressure, but Djokovic’s training with Boris Becker on how to handle extreme pressure of a big match might have given him an extra edge.

Have you also prepared yourself to face the inevitable pressures in your own life? Every one of us has faced challenges in the past, so what keeps you going when times are hard? What are your distractions? How do you re-focus when making tough decisions, whether in business or in life? Take some time now to examine your own responses to stress. Think of it as training for your next big match.

In business as in tennis, maintaining grace under pressure correlates to high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ). Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage your own emotions and recognize the emotions of others. According to a CareerBuilder Survey, employees with high EQ can keep their emotions in check, take criticism well, and show grace under pressure. Those skills also aid in resolving conflict and making more thoughtful business decisions. Another survey revealed that 90% of top earners have high EQ.

The good news is EQ can be increased through increased awareness and exercises. You’ve already increased your own self-awareness by reading this post. Congratulations! Even top dogs can learn new tricks! According to the Harvard Business Review, targeted coaching can help increase your EQ by an impressive 25–50%. Cultivating these skills will help you navigate the setbacks you face and remain successful no matter what lies ahead.

Are you facing tough times in your business? The Cecond Opinion team is happy to speak with you. To learn more, visit us at