When No One is Looking

There's a saying: the true test of a man's character is what he does when no one's looking.

Coincidentally, I've always been fascinated by athletes' behavior when the camera lights aren't on.

For example, sometimes if you watch replays of tennis matches, you can see what players do as they walk on the court. Or you can see them during breaks when TV is at a commercial. Or you can watch them walk off and interact with fans. 

Or even during live matches, you can watch how they treat the ball kids or the umpires or the fans nearby. 

It's quite revealing.

It's one thing to smile and give an interview when the world is watching. It's another thing to needlessly bark at a teenage ball kid to bring you five waters on a non-televised changover.

Whether they like it or not, athletes are role models. We're all looking to emulate success, and athletes are an easy examples to follow. If we're like them, consciously or subconsciously, we think we'll be better versions of ourselves. 

That's why character matters. It matters how you treat the "little" people. When arrogant depots are in charge, the culture around them mirrors their example. If the ruler is evil, then so is the kingdom.

On the other hand, if the ruler is benevolent, everyone prospers. If everyone is treated with respect, if respect is given even when the lights aren't on, then kindness will radiate outward like waves from a pebble in a pond.

For example, men's tennis is in a glorious era right now. The camaraderie between players is at an all time high, the integrity of the game is at an all time high, and fan support is through the roof. 

Is it a coincidence that all this has happened while Roger Federer has been on top?

There are unending reports of Federer's kindness. From player stories to anecdotes on Quora to eyewitness stories of people who've met him. Those stories are everywhere.

But if you're the cynical type and think those stories aren't real, an easy way to find out the truth about someone is to watch them in those quiet moments when nobody else is watching.

A story no one talks about is how Federer treats ball kids. Playing pro tennis is extraordinarily hard. It's physically taxing at the highest level and mentally debilitating because you're all alone. It's like a boxing match every day.

So it's easy for a person to lose it and want to explode. And who is close by to explode at? The ball kids.

A lot of pros do all sorts of things to ball kids. Some yell at them, some roll their eyes at them, some are sarcastically belittling and impatient. No one calls the players out for this because TV can't insult their stars but also because usually no one is paying attention.

But I always watch that sort of thing.

And Federer never snaps.

He's always nice, no matter what. And he always does this thing where he directs any random ball perfectly to where the ball kids are sitting. If he misses a serve and his opponent returns it back, Federer will lightly pop the ball to the kid at the net so that the kid doesn't have to move a muscle. Watch for it; he does it all the time. It's just a little kindness that is important to him that nobody else even notices.

Except this past week at the World Championships,

It looked like Federer finally snapped. He was cranky and in a tight match and his opponent had hit the ball back after a missed serve. 

Instead of popping the ball to the ball kid like he's done a million times, Federer pounded the ball straight down in frustration so that the ball went high into the air.

Had he lost it? Was his anger getting the best of him? 

Nope. 

As it turns out, right before he was about to hit a crucial second serve in a big match, Federer took a second to glance sideways to make sure his high bouncing ball had reached the ball kid okay. 

He was frustrated. He was angry. But he still wanted to make sure that his temper tantrum had directed the ball safely to the ball kid, causing the kid no trouble. 

He never treats the little people poorly.

Not surprisingly, last week Federer was chosen at the Fans' Favorite Player for the 15th year in a row.

The leader creates the culture. The culture in men's tennis is the best it's ever been. It's not a coincidence.

And it all starts with the little things.

The lesson? If you want to change the world, treat everyone you meet with kindness.

Even when no one is looking.

My latest book is The Inevitability of Becoming Rich, and you can find that here.