Clean slate: Coping strategies the building blocks for Nadal’s success

Last weekend in Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal won his 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires at the French Open, writes Dr Ed Couhglan.

It is unlikely that anyone predicted back in 2005, when he won his first title, that he would dominate in the manner that he has since. 

Yet, characteristics that were apparent back then were still on show in Paris last week in his three-set demolition of Austria’s Dominic Thiem.

Apart from his obvious physical characteristics and shot-making ability that has afforded him success on all surfaces, his capacity to remain neutral or more impressively, return to neutral, emotionally, over the course of a match is arguably his most enduring and incomparable quality.

Last Sunday, the first set of the final was going with serve after each player had his service broken once. Nadal led 5-4 when Thiem came out to serve to make it 5-5. 

To everyone watching the action on Court Philippe Chatrier, the obvious assumption was that the first set was heading towards a tiebreak.

Thiem had finally settled into the match and his impressive ability to build a point was coming to the fore. 

With a comprehensive straight-sets win in May over Nadal on clay at the Madrid 1000 Masters tournament to embolden his challenge, he began to shake off any first-time jitters of playing in a Grand Slam final.

However, when he dumped a rudimentary volley into the net on the first point of the 10th game, proceedings appeared to take a turn for the worse. 

Almost within a blink of an eye the game was over, Nadal had won the game to love, and with it the first set 6-4.

It was not until the beginning of the second set when Nadal came out to serve that it became obvious that there was only ever going to be one winner of this coveted title. 

When frustration from an overhit shot resulted in an outburst from Thiem, the difference in class was apparent for all to hear. Thiem’s outburst mentioned the missed volley from the last game of the previous set, a point that had ended almost five minutes earlier. 

In fact, the commentator remarked how if the same missed shot had happened to Nadal; he would have wiped the slate clean before he would have even returned to the baseline for the next serve.

It cannot be overestimated the importance of such a quality for anyone with any aspirations of becoming a consistent contender in their sport. Nadal has always had a scowling, prowling intensity to his game-day demeanour. 

Every shot of every point is played with an explosive energy and laser-like attention as if it were his last play ever and yet as soon as the point is over, he dismisses it as if it meant nothing. The slate is metaphorically and literally, wiped clean.

Over the years, he has enthralled audiences with his skill on the court but also he has bemused his fans with his many idiosyncrasies around the court. 

The careful cleaning of the baseline with his foot on clay courts after every change of end. The infinitesimal positioning of his two drinks bottles at his courtside chair. 

Rafael Nadal celebrating his individual 11 French Open titles at Roland Garros: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2018. Pic: Getty

The elongated step to avoid standing on certain lines of the court to and from his chair. The ungainly fixing of his tennis shorts as he prepares to serve; the list goes on.

To the outside eye, they look like superstitious ticks, but to Nadal, they are merely part of his process to inoculate him from distractions and enable him to reset after every point.

In fact, during his match against Czech player Lukas Rosol in Wimbledon 2014, when Rosol intentionally knocked over one of his finely placed bottles, he laughed it off with amusement in his post-matching winning press conference.

There is no doubt that there is a lot to be learned from Nadal’s physical prowess, movement skills and tactical awareness since he burst onto the world’s tennis scene with his three-quarter length shorts and sleeveless tops all those years ago.

But whatever your interest is, sport or otherwise, the capacity to live the cliché of being in the moment, regardless of what has just happened or what is about to happen, will often separate the good from the great, the winners from the also-rans.

It is for this reason that adversity in training and practice throughout the development of young athletes is critical. The capacity to cope with disappointment in the middle of a game is the bedrock of performance. 

This needs to be experienced in training where the coach can identify the coping strategies employed, if any, by the athletes. 

The mental fortitude of an individual athlete and even more so in the complex space of a team will often determine the outcome a lot more than any other contributing factor, such as physical fitness.

The old adage, the same boiling water that hardens an egg, softens a potato is well suited to sport. 

Players often experience the exact same conditions as their opponents, but their reactions and responses to similar scenarios are often very different. 

It takes a cool head and a calm temperament to fight the urge to settle into thinking that today is not my day.

Overcoming adversity is a great addition to any athlete’s tool kit. Practising overcoming adversity is often a missed opportunity by coaches. 

There are some blatantly obvious times to create a space of frustration for an athlete to have to work through their emotions within the practice environment.

Traditionally, we encourage players to finish their practice on a successful execution of their skill, be that a kick, a strike, a serve, whatever. 

In fact, athletes will often interpret this direction as somewhat of a penance, where a simple target of 10 in a row turns into a three-hour session where a failed execution on trial number nine means they have to go back to the start all over again.

Thereby, creating a culture of perfection selling the outcome as the most important part of the process. Whereas the process is the most important part of the process.

Think of how challenging it would be to limit an athlete to a set number of trials. 

Then whether they miss any of them or, in their eyes, catastrophically, miss the last attempt, they have to walk away from the task leaving them with the even greater challenge of coping with it and not having it affect the next task they do.

As the summer of sport unfolds before you, look out for those athletes, and even more impressively, those teams that appear to have the capacity to move on from adversity such as a missed opportunity to score or a bad decision from a referee with little or no impact on their performance.

If you coach, work hard on identifying opportunities to create adversity at training and even harder at providing the players with coping strategies when they respond with petulance and impatience. 

Their ability to reset the gauge quickly is the first step towards consistent performances and peace of mind, regardless of the result.


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