For two weeks, as a spectator and player, I was wowed by the special moments of play that were demonstrated by Dimitrov, Wawrinka, Ivanovic, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Cibulkova, Li Na and so many others. The shots they can hit, the level of consistency of their play, and the coverage around the court so complete that it is hard to relate for the rest of us who play.
As a performance coach, the finals fell into a different category. The finals were less about shots and strategy and more about the mental side of the game. There were lessons to which each of us can relate.. You don’t need to be a tennis player to gain from their match. The mental challenges they faced exist in many day to day activities: work, parenting, relationships, sport.
The back story: Rafa Nadal is one of the greatest of all time, a 14 time Grand Slam champion in his 20th final. Stan Wawrinka, playing the best tennis of his career, was in his first ever Slam final. He was 0-12 against Nadal, losing all 26 sets they have played. Wawrinka was faced with the often difficult experience of being on that big stage for the first time, where many have lost their game to the thoughts of what might be.
What happened? Wawrinka started off playing off the charts, winning the first set as if he was the player to beat. He was the more relaxed and confident player. He was pushing Nadal all over the court, fearlessly going for the point ender whereas Nadal was scrambling, defending and missing. Stan had the look of a winner: calm, focused, intense without tension and present. Nadal looked concerned, glancing at his player box, out of sorts. His expression was one of confusion and doubt.
But this is Nadal, the athlete who never, ever quits on a shot. He continued to fight for each point. But Wawrinka stayed solid and took the lead in the second set. If he could maintain, this would be one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history.
Then the drama begin. On one shot, at 0-2 in the second set, Nadal grabbed his back. It had seized up on him. His serve dropped from 120 to 90 mph. He could barely cover the court.Unless he was able to loosen up there seemed to be no way that he would be able to finish.
Wawrinka was on the doorstep of victory. If he could just keep his head in the right place.
Lesson 1: Practice Focus
On the 3-0 changeover of sides, Nadal, took an injury timeout and headed to the locker room. Wawrinka, while waiting, lost his focus. He started to complain, arguing with the umpire, demanding an explanation of why Nadal had left the court. “Stan,” we all thought, “what are you doing? You are in control. You have a wounded opponent. Just stay within yourself. Get out of the chair and do some stretches. Stay in the present.” But, as with many of us in new or difficult situations, the old voice of doubt pops up. The memory of matches lost, the history of what was. He couldn’t get control his mind and at that moment, the new Stan, the player he had become left, as the former Stan took over. The voice of I can’t. “I can’t beat this guy. I have been so close and now he and the tournament officials are going to take it away from me…” Or something like that. And that voice led him out the zone in which he had been playing. He is human. Many of us have been humbled in these big moments. We forget what we need to do to stay present. I am sure Wawrinka is extraordinarily focused and mentally tough, as he is one of the best players. But he just couldn’t quite stay focused.
And that few moments of him getting caught up almost cost him the match because Rafa, barely able to serve or move, won 8 of the next 14 games. It might even be that Wawrinka lost those games. He fell into the way things used to be in relation to Nadal.
Warwrinka escaped with the win. Nadal just couldn’t quite bring it enough, but it was closer than the score. If there had been a 5th set, Nadal, not running, would have been the favorite.
So the lesson isn’t to stay focused. The lesson is to practice focus. A lot.
Daily. In small ways. In big ways. Looking for chances all the time for to go to battle with the part of us that is a worrier, a victim, negative, fearful, judgmental, accusing and reactive with the part of us that is calm, focused and present.
Practice, whenever the opportunity is there, to be non-reactive. To put space in between what we want to do and what we do. This strengthens our focus.
You never know when the moment will come that will require the many hours of practice.
Lesson 2: If You Practice Enough, You Become What You Practice
The other lesson is delivered to us by Rafa Nadal. He is truly a master of never quitting, even in the most trying moments. Throughout the second set and beginning of the third, he could not be the player he usually is. He was limited and likely in pain.
It appeared that he was struggling with whether to retire or to continue. He would start walking toward the net after a game and then he would steer away from it. But he has practiced, for years, being someone who never quits. Never quits on a shot, a point, a game or a match. For 1000’s and 1000’s of points, he practiced it over and over again. 800 matches on tour and only 3 retirements. This from a guy who has been hurt a lot. Remember, he was out for 6 1/2 months last year and fought his way back to #1.
The beauty of his work of never quitting helped him continue playing when others might have stopped.
In his post match interview he said, “I could not retire. I cannot stop.”
You see, if you practice hard at something, in time it becomes part of you. You no longer have to try. It is who you are. Nadal keeps on fighting.
So, when you are working on a new story of a better version of who you are, stay in the game. Keep practicing. In time you will be that person.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Mahatma Gandhi
True for happiness and true for performance.