Many of us reading this article witnessed Rafael Nadal defeat Dominic Thiem to win his 17th Grand Slam in the 2018 French Open finals. He further established his dominance as the greatest clay court player ever with 11 French Open titles.
The real question is: What is the story behind the score? How did he do it? What is it that Nadal brings to the court, whether he wins or loses, which makes him so difficult to play? Many of us would agree that in addition to his immense talent, it’s the mental component.
Nadal is a true warrior. I often refer to the mental game as the glue that holds everything together. So what is this glue? And how can you get some? I call it, Rafa’s “More.” He brings who he is as a person to what he does as an athlete, then “More” happens. In fact, with Rafa and all the greats, the mental side and talent/skill side are intertwined like a braid. The tennis player and the person are inseparable from each other, just like the hardware and software. You could say similarly how Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same.
In this article, I will touch on key attributes that make up Rafa’s “More.” In my upcoming book, More Than an Athlete: The Story Behind the Score, I will delve deeper into this topic. Today, we will explore the intangible elements that he brings to the court, which make him so feared and difficult to compete against. Those things that are actually tangible, specific to him, as well as what makes him tick.
This is what I call Rafa’s “More.”
Playing with spirit is when a player plays because he is passionate about the game and being the best he/she can be. In a well-known Rafa quote, he says, “The glory is being happy … not winning here or there. The glory is enjoying practicing, enjoying each day, enjoying to work hard, trying to be a better player than before.” Rafa brings a tremendous amount of spirit to the court. By this, I am referring to the endless energy he exudes. Anyone watching him play can see and “feel” the energy of his game that starts from the beginning of the match … when he bounces around like a boxer getting ready for a championship bout. Further into the match, his boundless energy and intensity is seen with his resilience and ability to adapt and adjust to whatever the situation and score.
How a player handles his or her personal story is key to playing at the top of your ability. Personal crisis, injuries, wins, losses and the like can inexorably impact a player’s game. Life on and off the court is like riding a wave, each player has a unique journey and process. While many remember Nadal as always being the top, he has had many ups and downs both on and off the court. Back in 2009, he spoke about how his parent’s divorce had an impact on his game. Think back to when he slumped in 2016 and many thought he would never come back. He has had injury issues, most recently, defaulting in the quarterfinals of the 2018 Australian Open. These issues are specific to Rafa, they make up his roots. He had to work through them in order to come back strong. Ultimately, all issues contributed to his ability to manage adversity and garner what seems like an unending range of resiliency. The fruits are a result of the roots
Being grounded in the authentic self is extremely important to performance. When we are not trying to be someone else, move like someone else, score like someone else or win like someone else, we can play from a grounded place of strength and flow. No one can argue that Rafa is trying to be someone else on the court. He looks comfortable in his own skin, no matter what he is doing. Many point to how he pulls the fabric of his shorts before every point, or his ritualistic placing of his drinks on the sidelines. Some say OCD, call them what you may, but I believe they are ritualistic releases that make Rafa, Rafa. Further, he has a slow pace, another way for him to stay relaxed and in his zone.
The soul of a player is that ineffable quality that brings solidity to the game. Rafa almost seems to have a Sixth Sense, knowing what is necessary during a certain situation in a match. He has a tremendous amount of trust in his game and self and doesn’t over- try. He stays very much within himself and what he can do, rarely ever going for something too early or outside of his game. Additionally, he has been coached by his Uncle Toni Nadal since he was a child (now Carlos Moya, a childhood mentor), this stability and strong support system has empowered him throughout the years to perform his best, both on and off the court.
Rafa’s unique spirit, story, self and soul are the key ingredients that make him so good. Rafa knows he is trying to be the best version of himself while he is playing his game. From this place, win or lose, he is free to continue to improve and strive to be his best. He is a student of his own “More.”
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.