“It was definitely something I’d wanted to do for a while. I read a lot of business books and a lot of sports books. It was something I always had there.”
James Cluskey’s transition from professional tennis player to business coach and motivational speaker, understandably lends itself to some interesting tales.
So does being Richard Branson’s personal tennis coach. As you can imagine.
With lockdown imposed across Ireland, Cluskey took the time to finish his new book ‘Advantage’ in which he regales stories of what he’s learned from sport, business and working alongside a man like Branson.
“Basically I gave a talk in Luxembourg last year for this company and a person approached me and was like, ‘You should write a book, I can introduce you to a publisher in the UK,’ so that kind of gave me the push,” Cluskey tells Pundit Arena.
“It also came from the fact that I’ve got all these stories from playing and my own personal stories, my journey grinding away but also a lot of the players that I’ve played with and against are doing extremely well now so I’ve got some good perspective on sport and obviously I got into business and through the Necker (Richard Branson’s private island) connection and tennis, I’ve met some incredible business people so it was about putting it all together.
“I started pre-lockdown, I’d done a decent amount of it but I don’t know when it would have been out to be honest but basically when lockdown happened I was at home and didn’t have too much else to do so I made this decision that I was going to write and bash it out.”
Cluskey’s career in tennis saw many successes. He earned a scholarship to Louisiana State University, represented Ireland in the Davis Cup, won 15 titles in a five year pro-career and was one ranking spot away from Wimbledon.
He also holds a unique Guinness World Record.
“Longest doubles match. We played for 16 hours continually!”
A life in the sport however was tough, even as a doubles competitor he admitted the lifestyle can be lonely. It did, he admits, help him gain valuable life experience, in more ways than one.
“Sport teaches you a lot. In tennis terms you’re losing most week, you’re in far away places, it is a lonely sport. I played doubles so I’m trying to get the best out of my teammate and he’s trying to get the best out of me.
“I learned more from travelling and playing tennis than any qualification or course.”
One man he has learned so much from is Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whom Cluskey coaches in tennis and has grown close to.
But how does one get to become the personal tennis coach for one of the world’s most famous billionaires? For Cluskey, it all began with a cold call.
“I played an ATP event in Sweden and my doubles partner was a guy, Andreas Siljeström in this event and Andy knew Trevor who was the organiser of The Necker Cup so I was able to use that link. It was pretty much a cold call really.
“My pitch to Trevor was, ‘Look I’ll be on the court all day so I can deal with anything when all the really famous players are off.”
Cluskey admits that he always had an interest in business even during his tennis career and working closely with Branson and getting to pick the brains of so many who visit Necker Island only escalated that interest.
“From a life standpoint, his physical fitness,” says Cluskey of the practical things he’s learned from Branson.
“He’s more productive if he’s physically fit so he’s very fit. The way he treats people, he treats people very well he’s very kind and fun to be around. He’s a really nice person.”
Cluskey recalls one story from ‘Advantage’ that sums up the respect Branson treats people with.
“There was a story in the book, he asked me what type of rackets I should be using and I said, ‘Look I’m not sure what type of racket you should be using but I have a friend who owns a tennis shop, it’s called Martyn Evans Sports in Dublin, I’ll ask him.’
“So Will sent over some rackets for Richard to use and he said two things; ‘Make sure he sends me the bill I don’t want them for free’ and the second thing was, ‘Send me his email.’
“Two days letter I get a message from Will and its a picture of an email from Richard saying, ‘Dear Will thanks a million for the rackets, going forward you will be my racket consultant.’ He’s very people focussed.
For Cluskey his passion for business has supplemented his passion for tennis in retirement but he knows in a way he is lucky.
Many sportspeople struggle after stepping away from the life they chased and perfected from an early age. Cluskey believes that having other interests outside of the game is a key factor to dealing with life after it.
“You have to be interested in other things I think. The transition from sport is easier if you’re passionate about other things or if you study other things and are into other things. When athletes struggle I think its because their identity is so wrapped up in the sport that it gets harder to move away from the sport.
“It’s important that you have other outlets so that you can discuss and be knowledgeable on other areas of life, not just your sport. Obviously that’s completely fine if you want to stay in your sport for your whole life, a lot of people do it.”
Cluskey continues outlining that he believes sportspeople can have a distinct advantage in pursuing a new career although admitted that the transition is very tough.
“There’s also the idea that sports people have a good opportunity in terms of the network and the people they know. People respect sportspeople so the door will be open for you. Transition from sport can be hard though, there’s a lot of scary stats around bankruptcy and that.
“I suppose I’m lucky in that I didn’t have enough money to lose! But there are a lot of issues, addiction too. I know a lot of organisations are doing better in terms of working with athletes and their transition but there’s a lot to do.”
For Cluskey, so much of his life has been about opportunity and seizing it. He was offered the opportunity early to do work experience at LinkedIn and although he had to sacrifice to make it work, in the end it helped him get to where he is today.
Being friends with Richard Branson and coaching on Necker Island does lead itself to networking with some of the world’s most unique people.
You’ll have to read ‘Advantage’ to uncover most of them but before he concludes, Cluskey gives an example of one of his favourite encounters.
“Roger Taylor the drummer for Queen, playing tennis with him was good fun. I went to see Queen last year in Marley Park thanks to him.”
But was he any good?
“No comment,” laughs Cluskey. “He plays tennis like he plays the drums.”
James Cluskey’s book ‘Advantage – The lessons that elite sport can teach for business and life’ is available to buy on https://hccollective.co