Tennis fans were treated to a special Men’s Singles Finals at the 2022 Australian Open between Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev; we all witnessed an incredible comeback. Nadal was down two sets and faced triple breakpoint at 2-3 in the third set. Nadal was clearly being pushed around by Medvedev. However, the Spaniard then began serving better, his forehands began to increase in weight, and Medvedev began feeling some pressure and missed a bit more. We all know what happened next: Nadal completed what he considers to be one of the greatest comebacks in his career, and attained his 21st Slam title, putting him one in front of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic
What has always stood out when watching Nadal compete is his resiliency. He is one of the greatest competitors in all of sports, let alone tennis. Part of his greatness is his consistent ability to bounce back, never give up, stay the course, and play each point like it’s his last. After the Australian Open final, many people described Nadal’s comeback with accolades such as amazing, incredible, unparalleled, and other worldly. Tennis commentator John McEnroe lamented with his national television audience that it would be great to package this mentality for junior players. What if we could? What if young players could develop the Rafa mentality? Or what I call, “Rafa Resilience.”
Rafa Resilience actually highlights more than just his incredible mental strength. It is the foundation for Rafa to be focused, balanced, and competitive even under great pressure. Developing Rafa Resilience is not a one-and-done mental skills program like rituals, goal setting, or imagery all of which are important, but they are just tools. Rather, they are a well-blended collection of characteristics developed over years, both on the court and equally off the court from his family and environment.
Admittedly, the characteristics are intangible and, unless you’re willing to take a step back, may not be entirely obvious at first glance.
The following are three key characteristics which make up the foundation of “Rafa Resilience”.
Please note that there are others, however, for the scope of this article we will highlight three.
►Humility: When observing Rafa, it is clear that he is extremely humble. He is never trash talking or belittling an opponent. Before a match, when Rafa is asked whether he will win, he always responds with something along the lines of, and this is not a direct quote, “I don’t know, so and so is a good player, I will have to play my game, play my best.” His attitude ensures that his focus is on his game, what’s important for him, and what he can control. In a Financial Times article from 2014, John Carlin writes that humility is not an affection for Nadal, rather it is a strategy. In the article, Nadal shared, “The acclaim, the success that I am as good as people seem to think, or as the numbers say I am...the moment I believe that it would be all over. I’d be finished.”
Nadal is referring to the idea that he would lose his edge, be distracted, and no longer focus on what’s important in the moment and drift to expectations and outcome. Further he states, “...never do I think I am going to go out and win because I am better than the other player, I’ve never felt that.”
►Equanimity: Often times, we don’t think of equanimity as being part of sports and competition. Sometimes the word has a “soft” connotation. However, let’s explore the meaning from the Oxford on-line dictionary. It lists mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. Certainly, these would be good characteristics for any player in any match to possess. Further, the dictionary’s example of equanimity is, "she accepted both the good and the bad with equanimity."
From my perspective, while Rafa certainly didn’t like being behind and on the brink of losing, only by working though that moment was he able to let go, strategize, and move forward in order to come from behind. No matter the scoreline, we saw Rafa taking his time, sticking to his routines, and building one point at a time. Nathan Healy, former Australian professional player and now coach of Max Purcell, shared his thoughts with me about Nadal and a message Rafa often shares:
“Rafa is willing to suffer, every day. He understands suffering changes and there is power in that. Just being with it, rather than fighting it. Stressful thoughts can create suffering, his willingness (ability) to stick with the thoughts and situations, rather than pushing them away, sweeping them under the rug, and not dealing with them, when you do that the same or similar situation arises just in a different way.”
Certainly, one can see how this mindset can free Rafa up to play with equanimity no matter the situation.
►Heart: Nadal’s heart is on display every time he takes the court. Even the most casual fan can feel his passion, his intensity, and his never give up attitude. There is not a ball that Rafa doesn’t run for, always making his opponent win the point many times before the point actually ends. This is exhausting for opponents, knowing that they have to hit three or four “winners” before the point is really over. In the book, The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer, author Christopher Clarey highlights a quote from Rafa where he says, “I love the competition...maybe I like more fighting to win than to win.”
This statement illustrates his passion, love of the battle, and straight from his heart.
Rafa brings who he is to what he does. He is a whole human athlete bringing his heart, energy and spirit to matches and life. He plays with humility, equanimity and heart. These characteristics are the foundation of “Rafa Resilience”. They set the stage for his mental strength and allow him to let go, play free, and play in the moment.
All competitive players wanting to compete like Nadal should ask themselves, how can they develop and bring these characteristics to competition? What would it look like for them when they are faced with adversity? And lastly, what other character characteristics that are unique to them? And how can they bring them to competition?
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.