The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

Rafa Tough

Legendary mental toughness may not be what you think.

Rafael Nadal absolutely dominated the 2013 tennis hard court season—an undefeated season where he beat tennis’s titans and wanna-bees, culminating in a United States Open victory over Novak Djokovic.  This was a truly amazing feat considering how to the untrained eye he appears to be a clay court specialist.  Adding to this is he entered 2013 severely injured and off the courts.  There is no doubt that Nadal has mastered “mental toughness” and he has done so in a manner more subtle than his heavy RPM ladened topspin game.  Color commentators and fans alike praise his relentless competitiveness as the foundation of his mental game.  Such observations overlook his ultimate sign of mental mastery achieved.

Achieving excellence on the playing field is a herculean matter in itself… now consider what it takes to repeat the most elite accomplishments tournament after tournament and year after year.  While the path to excellence is popular water cooler talk and lines the shelves of the bookstore business section, the sport sciences are examining factors necessary for sustaining greatness in the face of age, exhaustion, and hungry competitors (a nice starting point to learn more on this is Dr. Sean Horton and his colleagues work on expertise over the lifespan).  Rafa Nadal is 27 years old and has far surpassed the 10 years/10,000 hours rule for achieving excellence.  He has beat his body up on the courts and opponents have trained specifically to take him down… yet he was unbeatable this past summer (on arguably his worst surface).  He has not only maintained excellence, but found a whole new level of it.  This is mental toughness… more specifically his willingness to continue to learn.

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To go from dominance on the slow terre battue of the French Open to equal dominance on the quicker hard courts of North America is no small feat.  There must be a willingness to fully embrace new strategy and modified strokes.  Ashley Fetters highlight’s this effort of Nadal in The Atlantic article “Rafael Nadal Is the Leonardo da Vinci of Tennis.”  When expertise is achieved it is challenging for a player to change his game, even subtlely.  Also it would not be surprising if it were not a bit scary - as significant successes have been achieved with the technique and tactics in hand.  Few want to mess with a good thing.  Rafa Nadael did and it highlights what makes him mentally tough.

Learning is about confidence.  A willingness to learn even when it appears one knows it all takes the humility that deep rooted confidence is built on.  It has been highlighted many times in many ways that one must be willing to “look bad” in order to learn.  Having a robust self-efficacy can certainly inoculate against the terribly human fear of looking bad in the eyes of others… willingness to learn is confident.  Social psychologist Carol Dweck would consider this a growth oriented mindset… whatever the label, it is the mind of a champion.

Mental toughness is so often labeled after a quick visual inspection of bravado and determination.  A closer look spies the confidence that feeds an inquisitiveness and willingness to learn.  Nadal is not alone—Andy Murray sought out Ivan Lendl’s mentoring to find Grand Slam toughness, Novak Djokovic learned a fitness level that is awe inspiring, Roger Federer has shown the humility to consider abandoning his tried and true racket.  Mental toughness is the humbleness to learn.  The athlete that stops learning is closer to the end of his career than the pinnacle.

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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