Insights from James Cluskey, Tennis Pro Turned Entrepreneur

Reading Time: 17 Minutes

In this episode, James Cluskey shares how to gain an edge in both your personal and professional life.

Takeaways We Learned from James…

Work-life integration.

Making sure that you’re looking after yourself and recharging” is crucial for effective leadership. By creating a separation between work and life and prioritizing self-care, you can increase productivity and success.

Rest and recovery.

Rest and recovery are so important.” Great leaders and entrepreneurs make time for well-being and self-care. Taking breaks, recharging, and enjoying life contribute to overall success and productivity.

Support and community.

The biggest lesson I learned was how important the support you have is. Surrounding yourself with positive people who encourage and push you can make a significant difference in achieving goals. Whether it’s a coach, mentor, or spouse, having positive multipliers in your life is valuable.

Overcoming challenges.

When someone’s down, other people are encouraging them, and you’re fighting hard together. Facing challenges as a group, with people who motivate and uplift one another, can lead to greater success. Having a support system helps navigate difficult situations.

Positive influence.

Having those positive people around you, those positive multipliers, are helpful. Surrounding yourself with positive influences, whether they are mentors or coaches, can have a significant impact on your personal and professional growth.

Embracing pressure.

In elite sport and business, you can feel pressure in dealing with pressure and tight situations.” Challenging yourself in high-pressure situations, such as attempting a world record, can help build resilience and develop valuable skills for handling pressure in other aspects of life and business.

Learning from others.

Success leaves clues. Actively seeking lessons from successful individuals, whether through books, podcasts, or personal connections, can provide valuable insights and guidance for your own journey.

Seek advice from a diverse group.

James emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with people from different backgrounds, industries, and walks of life. These individuals can challenge your thinking, provide valuable insights, and offer a realistic perspective on your ideas and goals.

Controlling the controllables.

In both tennis and business, James emphasizes the importance of focusing on the things you can control. While there are many external factors that may be out of your control, such as weather conditions or market fluctuations, directing your energy and efforts toward the aspects within your control can instill confidence and set you up for success.

About James Cluskey

Meet James Cluskey, former professional tennis player turned entrepreneur and private tennis coach to none other than Sir Richard Branson himself! 🎾

James Cluskey brings his expertise from the world of professional sports and his passion for high performance to help companies win and retain their best talent. Join him as he shares his inspiring journey and valuable insights on connecting people, achieving goals, and creating successful teams.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive business coach Allison Dunn. Our guest today is James Cluskey. He is the A former professional tennis player ranked 140/5 in the world, and Irish Davis Cup player, a Guinness Book of World Records holder and private tennis coach to the Sir Richard Branson. He is an author and founder of Give Learn, which is an E learning company that offers both live and on demand classes with global experts around soft skills. James, thanks so much for joining us today.

James: You’re very welcome. Great to be here.

Allison: My pleasure. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. So what would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners today?

James: Number one leadership tip. I would say I would veer on that work life integration.

So making sure that you’re looking after yourself and recharging.

Allison: Fantastic. I’m curious, have you managed to have that for you yourself?

James: Yeah, really interesting. I think in the early days, my business, probably not but and still I’m in I’m guilty of overworking from time to time. But I do think the great leaders and entrepreneurs and business people that I’ve been around, one of the things that I’ve noticed is they actually do make time in their day for, you know, well being recharging, looking after themselves. And I think that’s a evolution in terms of them. You know, it used to be around workers that work 24 hours a day and that kind of mentality.

I think that rest and recovery is so important. Because if you look after yourself, then you’re going to be more productive and more successful and more all those types of things.

So for me, it’s, yeah, creating that separation with work and life and trying to enjoy life as well.

Allison: Yeah. Thank you. That’s a great tip. In your bio, there’s two things I just want to I mean, I know my listeners are going to be super curious. So the first one is, I didn’t mention it in your bio. But what did you do to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records?

James: So we broke the record for the longest tennis doubles match. So we played for 60 hours, continuous tennis, we broke the record for charity. It was the rules where you had a five minute break per hour. And how it came about was after my tennis career, I just, you know, some people run a marathon or an Ironman or climb a mountain. And I just was chatting one day to a couple of friends. And a couple of years ago, a couple of players had attempted the record and not made it and I was like, this might be a good thing to do. And we decided to kind of give it a go and try and try and break for charity. And we managed to do it and raise some money for charity along the way. So it was it was a great experience. I don’t know if I’d be doing it again. It was pretty hard. But I’m happy. We were at the other side.

Allison: That’s fantastic. That does like want me to lean it. So 60 hours your doubles match making it into the Guinness Book of World Records. What would you say would be the leadership tip you to take away from a challenge of that size?

James: Yeah, I think the big thing that I learned was how important is the support that you have, so the community of people, whether it be the players on the court that we had, the volunteers and the people that kind of, you know, were with us through the record attempt. And I think the biggest lesson from that is, you know, if I attempted that record, on my own with no one around me, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. But I think the idea that when you’re in that group of people that when someone’s down, other people are encouraging them and you’re pushing each other along and you’re, you know, you’re fighting hard together. I think sometimes in business, if you’re on your own it’s a lot you know, it’s hard, right? So I’m not saying you have to have loads of people with you, but I think having those positive people around you that encourage you whether it’s coach, mentor, spouse, whatever it is those positive multipliers are helpful people. I think that’s the biggest takeaway.

Allison: Yeah, I just want to confirm you said 60 hours so the longest running doubles match 60 hours. That’s almost that’s almost three days of playing. Straight.

James: Yes. Yeah, no, I’m going to break every hour. a five minute break per hour. Yeah. So the record previously was 57. So we broke about three hours. And yeah, the other actually interesting thing that happened was in the lead up, we had a guy who ran 40 marathons in 40 days, a friend of mine who came in and spoke to us. And he said, like, look, the sun will come up on the Sunday morning, the question is, whether you guys will still be standing there. And that’s something that kind of stayed with me a little bit. And actually, like, I like hiking and stuff, but I’m not like a huge mountain climber, nature person by any stretch. But it’s amazing when the sun, like, you know, through the night was very difficult. But and we were like, really struggling, but actually, when the sun came, and we had, you know, once we got through that we got through the wall, and actually the last 10 hours was actually not that hard, because you’d people, you know, cheering you on us. We, we felt like we were on the home straight. So yeah, I think there’s a lot a lot of lessons in there in terms of business and life.

Allison: I’m curious, so you cut it off at the 60 hour mark, which would have been three hours passed, you know, the other one was 60, the call at the time, like we’re going to play to this moment, or was there something that defined that for you? Or like, what?

James: Yeah, we actually, to be fair, we probably could have like, we could have gone a little bit longer if we wanted, but it was kind of the natural. It was like coming to the end of that evening, and there was people kind of waiting for us to finish and we’d, so it was yeah, it was kind of honest. Now, like, I was struggling a little bit with my feet, like my feet were, like, very tired and very sore. I was happy enough to stop to be honest. But like, it’s funny, like in on the Sunday morning, about 30 something areas, it was like God and all we can do this, you know this? This is the mental side of it. And then actually, at the end of the year, kind of because you knew you were about to be finished. It’s amazing. Like, I’ve never ran a marathon, but I know when people talk about, you know, getting through the running through the wall and all that stuff. But once Yeah, so that it was just a natural kind of time that we stopped.

Allison: Okay. I mean, obviously, you’re an elite athlete.

Allison: What was that the most challenging thing you’ve done as an athlete?

James: Yeah, I’d say so. Yeah, I played a couple of Davis Cup matches, which were five, six hours. Best to five sets, and obviously physically, there were a lot like, it was just, it’s just different. It’s just a different kind of, it’s a different feel. I think, tennis wise, I think elite sport, you can have any business as well as sometimes you can feel more pressure like, you know, in terms of like dealing with pressure and tight situation. Whereas in the record attempt, it isn’t actually it made me felt pressure to finish, but it was a different type of pressure. So long way of saying, yeah, it was probably the one of the most difficult things. If not the most difficult things.

Allison: Okay. Well, very cool. Um, how long have you held the title in the Guinness Book?

James: It’s been, we did, like, three, three years now. Or maybe actually longer five, four or five years, I was getting mixed up with like, the COVID years where it seems like a bit of a blur, you know, so it’s before. It’s like someone said, Something is BC it’s BC, it’s before COVID. So it was something BC.

Allison: And then the second thing I just shared in your bio, is that you, you coach, I assume tennis coach, but maybe I’m wrong.

James: Definitely tennis coach. Yeah, I’ve been very lucky since 2015. I’ve been going out to neck to neck with him and spending a bit of time with him and then also in London and been to a couple other places with them as well. So yeah, very, very British to do it. And like you know, as an aspiring entrepreneur to be able to spend time with, you know, an icon of entrepreneurship and meet obviously some incredible people through him as well. Very privileged to do that. And I think sport is a great.

My tennis has kind of opened a lot of doors for me. So I’m very, very grateful for it.

Allison: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Well, very cool. I’ve met him twice. And he’s just lovely.

James: So where did you meet him?

Allison: I met him at actually two conferences throughout the US, just on a on occasion. So it was fun. It was a very brief conversation. Yeah. You are the author of advantage lessons in sports in business to achieve your goals. Who did you write it for? And what would be your favorites? Gem or gold that you would like to share? That makes hooks people to want to go get it?

James: Who did I write it for? I I’ve been, again, I keep saying the word lucky. But I’ve been very lucky that the people that I’ve met through my career through tennis, and then through business, as well, and through all these types of things. And so I wrote it. I think, like Richard always says, everyone has a book in them. And you know, I think it’s something that I wanted to share the lessons that I learned from people and I would journal a lot. So when I’m on Necker, the people I need to take down to kind of nuggets of information, so and so I kind of wrote it in that and I wrote it in COVID, as well. And like the first lockdown in Ireland, which are locked down was quite severe, like in terms of you couldn’t basically go anywhere outside your house. And so it gave me the opportunity to do that. In terms of nuggets in it. I think people probably in terms of Richard saw for people like this is a great person I met actually, Dr. Betty Europas, her name, and she was the president of California bank. And it’s kind of back maybe to a previous person and said, but she’s she said, in terms of who’s on your internal board, was the concept that she introduced me to? And I said to her, what’s an internal board? And she said, you know, companies have their non execs and their directors and Chairman’s and chairpersons and all those types of things. But actually, James Cluskey Inc, who’s on your board, who are the people that you can go to and ask for advice, and asked for mentorship and coaching and all those types of things. And I think, again, sometimes we try and do things are on our own. And that quote from I think it’s Tony Robbins that success leaves clues. And, you know, you should listen to podcasts like this and go and you know, listen to read books, and all those types of things and try and take the lessons from that. And I think that’s one of the things that stood out for me in terms of my lessons from from Betty specifically.

Allison: Okay, fantastic. I’m curious how many people are James’s board.

James: Or all I’ve, I’ve a good number of people. And I had a call yesterday with a friend who I met through NACA, as well, and through Richard, and is a successful entrepreneur who’s scaled the number of businesses. And I was I talked to him once a month. And I asked him for his advice. And I, he challenges me on my on my thinking. And so I think I’ve people in different areas, different industries, different walks of life, there’s a great book called the Mom Test, where what the guy says is that, you know, if you have a business idea, you go until someone really close to you, and what do they do?

They say, Oh, your ideas, amazing, it’s great, you know, so but you actually need people to challenge you on it and people to, yes, encourage you, but also that kind of realism. And so I have a number of people that I will go to and ask for advice.

And I think my lessons from  different types of people, I think, from spending time with Richard is, he’s so positive about and so encouraging about believing in what you’re doing and going out, you know, and seeing something and going after something. But there’s also it’s not like pie in the sky. It’s also like you have to act right? You have to you have to do you have to work hard and all those types of things. But so yeah, so I’ve lots of different people that I go annoy, for advice, and I’m really grateful to them for it. And I think on the follow up on that, because one or two people I’ve worked with, they’d say, Well, like what do they get out of it? Like what do they? And I think, you know, for me in tennis, when a young tennis aspiring tennis player comes to me and says, Hey, I look to get your advice on tennis. but I actually really enjoy supporting them and imparting knowledge and trying to help them as much as I can. So I think there it is a reciprocal arrangement I think people do. I believe in, I innately believe in the good of people. And I believe in people, people that support others, you know.

Allison: I would concur. I think occasionally, someone says, Why would I ask someone to guide me on this or help me or become a mentor or be an advisor to me, but what do they get from it? And I’m like, the opportunity to do it. Right.

James: And I agree. Completely. And I think a lot of people are scared to ask or, you know, they feel remorse. Maybe it’s a maybe it’s a when I finished playing professional tennis, and I first went into business. And I worked in a recruitment agency for almost, probably a year and a half as my first job after tennis. And I remember one of the young recruiters who was my age, but one of the guys said, I’m going to meet a partner at this law firm. And he was incredibly nervous about meeting this partner. I was like, Why are you so nervous is like, because he’s a partner. And I get it from his standpoint.

But I also, I think, it’s the ability just to be curious, and people are people and to actually, you know, treat everyone the same, and all those types of things.

And again, I probably picked up, you know, I probably learned from Richard Lawler and that sort of stuff. And but I think yet people are people and don’t kind of be so overawed by someone’s title or, or what they’ve done. And, you know, they like they’re there. Yeah, they want to help as well, you know.

Allison: And, in your book, you talk about the controlling the uncontrollables. Can you talk through that?

Allison: Controlling the controllables are controlling the controllables. I just want to clarify, it was controlling the controllables. Okay,I said it wrong. The first time I pumped.

James: I think it’s a very common saying, in tennis specifically, were, like, look, there’s a lot of things that are out of our control, you know, and there’s a lot of things in our control. So as a tennis player, you know, the way I prepare for when I played professionally, the way I prepare for a tournament, the way I prepare for a match, a swing of tournaments, and so on, I can control you know, my gym, I can control my practice, there’s a lot of things that are in my control. But then there’s also things out of my control, right, I can’t control if it’s, if it’s really windy, I can’t control. If there’s, you know, bad line calls I can catch, there’s a lot of things that are out of my control.

So I think focusing on the controllables is gives you confidence to take care of what you can control, and then being a little bit okay, that things are things are going to happen, things are going to go wrong.

And I think you know, for me in terms of that transition in business, controlling the controllables, again, you know, there’s a lot of things I can, I can control in terms of my daily life. But then there’s certain things we can’t control like an alcove, it’s probably the simplest example, or a biggest example of weed, no control over that. But it’s how you actually how you show up on a daily basis, and how you how you deal with that. And for me, to follow on from that, I think in terms of mindset and performance. I think consistency is key. And I think, you know, showing up, and you know that saying of half the battle is showing up and showing up and doing your best and controlling what you can control. You’re setting yourself up to be quote unquote, successful.

Allison: And I apologize for stating it in. What, what, what was the trigger for your transition from tennis into business? And I guess really? What made you choose the path you’re on?

James: Yeah, so the trend so I guess, as you said in the introduction, I got to 145 in the world, in tennis, what I felt what I you know, I came to a kind of a natural end where I was at, where I felt I could get to I maybe lost a bit of the fire of the travel and the playing. And I think in sport and in business and different things. Sometimes we stick him up there’s a lot of people that are almost institutionalized by the sport and they Keep, they keep going for the sake of it. And I had really, you know, when I played tennis, I always was reading a lot of entrepreneur books, business books, other sports people books. So, I just felt like the time was right, I find it hard to describe what it was like, the time is the time was right. It was like a moment I lost this match, I’d been on a tough enough run, I came back to my room. And I was like, That’s it. I’m done. And, and it was hard like it, you know, it was a hard decision to make. But I think it was the right decision to make.

And then again, the ambitions around business and so on. And then the transition was there was a CEO of a company, again, asking for advice, the CEO of a company that was really into, he wasn’t, he was a CEO of a big company in Europe. He was a business coach, and he works with lots of, and he’s still a business coach. And he’s still my coach. And he works with a lot of people. And he was really into tennis. So I asked him to have a coffee and play some tennis. And then we had this relationship where I would coach him tennis, and he would coach me business, and we’d have conversations, and where the conversations led in terms of values.

And what I wanted to do was I always, I kept coming back to this, you know, purpose around people and being at your best and mindset and performance. And so I kept kind of coming back to that space. And then initially, as I said, I went, I did a little bit in recruitment, because I thought, Oh, I love I love people. I love connecting people, I’ll really like recruitment. But then I wasn’t like, I’m not sure if this is actually for me. And again, working with him. I came back to that kind of executive coaching, leadership mindset, high performance space. So that’s kind of how it evolved along the track, essentially.

Allison: Okay, fantastic. Let’s see, what do you think is the most important thing? When you say you’re focusing around helping people, what are you focusing on inside of your business? To help them have the right impact?

James: So give learn is a, it’s an online learning solution for particularly small businesses. So we have a full calendar of classes, all around soft skill development. So you know, leadership, presentation, skills, communications, and so on. We have our course leaders or people from we have astronauts, rocket scientists, entrepreneurs, and so on. So really interesting people. And what we focus on is really inspiring employees focusing on building employee engagement, through that by companies giving give learn to their employees, really valuing their employees. So we have a full solution around that.

And then for me, my vision was always to link learning to doing good in the world.

And so what we do is we reward our users, so users earn points for attending our classes. And then they can use those points to donate to different social causes. So the vision was that the user will invest in their personal professional development. They’re doing good for themselves, but then they’re doing good for someone else somewhere else. And that’s really what we’re focused on building ash. So I can’t remember what the full part of the question was. I’m not sure if I answered that.

Allison: You have answered that on how on how you do that. And I just want to like synergistically point out. And I know that maybe some of our listeners might not know what we’re talking about. But we are also be one G one member. So business for good that you are, as well. And making that connection of you know, when you do business, you’re doing business for good. And I just, you know, that speaks to my heart. And obviously, it speaks to yours as well. So listeners, if you don’t know what b one G one is, I encourage you to ask me, ask James or reach out to me and I’ll connect you with B one G one so amazing.

James: Just to say on that actually. So my, my business actually. So when I was on Necker, one of the one of the times I was there, and one of the they had these events where they bring in different speakers and different things and, you know, Richard on climate change and solving all the world’s problems and so on. So I kind of started the business when I came back from there because it was really inspired around it. But one of the people I met on Necker was Masami, who’s the founder of B one G one.

Allison: Were not related Paul Dunn. He also has come to speak in Boise, and we’re not related, although he might admit we are, but we’re not.

James: Okay, great. Well, I just thought it’s amazing. I think it’s amazing what they what they do. And I love the concept. And what we did was initially with Gibbler. And was we picked a social cause every month, but now our users can pick a social cause from B1G1 that they can donate to. And so and it’s all, as I said, linking that learning. So you’re investing in yourself, but then you’re doing good for someone else somewhere else. So yeah, really excited about what we’re doing and building it. Yeah.

Allison: Wonderful. So I love that synergy. James, I just want to make sure as we wrap up, what is the best way for people to connect with you and where to find your book?

James: Yes. So the best way to connect with me is through LinkedIn, so James Cluskey it’s CLUSKEY or my email is Ja**********@Gi*****.net. If you want to connect with me, and then if you want to have a look at our website and platform and so on, so it’s gibbler.net. And that’s give learn learn.net Although Irish people say differently to Americans.

Allison: Well James, thank you very much for joining us today. I appreciate you joining me from the evening where you are located. It’s been a pleasure.

James: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

Allison: Thank you.

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