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When Nadal forgot to Clear the Trash

The absorbing game of tennis between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at this year’s Wimbledon made me ponder about how a player, who instilled the fear of failure (My earlier blog on the topic) among the very best in the business, could himself fall prey to this fear? How could a man, known to reserve his best for the key points in a match, suddenly start missing those very points?

Experts of all hues on television kept rattling off coaching explanations while fans came up with arguments of their own to bolster their favorites. So, we had Djokovic fans highlighting the Serb’s consistency in 2011 while supporters of ‘Rafa’ harped on the Spaniard’s injured run through the year and focussed on his wins despite the wounds.

Amidst all this din and bustle, it was Nadal’s press conference at Wimbledon (read full interview) that threw up some intriguing answers to the man’s state of mind. In his analysis of the defeat against Djokovic – his fifth since the dawn of 2011 – Nadal said memories the his previous defeats against Djoker came flooding back during crucial points.

“I started the match without thinking of that (defeats). But, it is true that when I was serving down 4-5 in the first set, those moments affected me a bit. That’s what happened and that’s why,” he says while noting the severe interference that made him play below potential during crucial points.

This reminds me of an intriguing scene from the 2003 Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Last Samurai’ where American soldier Nathan Algren is taking Samurai lessons and keeps biting the dust. His guide Ujio provides a simple solution to the problem. He tells the soldier that he was having ‘too many minds’ working simultaneously within. (Watch the clip).

Nadal’s situation was probably no different when he went into this match. Despite having a bagful of Grand Slam titles, he felt the pressure of facing up to the only man who had beaten him comprehensively in an entire year… not once, not twice, but four times in as many meetings. He probably also felt anxious about a knee injury he sustained during an earlier match.

In fact, the champion subtly admits to losing the game in the mind. “Probably the mental part is a little bit dangerous for me, because when I reach 4-5, I play a bad game after being up 30-0 on the crucial game. I do the same in the fourth set,” Nadal told the interviewer indicating that it was probably the fear of defeat more than anything that cost him the match.

He goes on to recollect similar instances from earlier matches at Indian Wells and Miami and closes by sugesting that he needs to be “a bit less nervous” during key points and play his usual aggressive game and be “confident of myself”. To a coach, this clearly shows that Nadal’s mind was concerned about far too many things to focus on the task at hand. “Too many minds”.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb which says: “Be master of the mind rather than mastered by mind.” In simple terms it means the present is all that matters as one cannot change the past and the future is dependent on what we do in the present.

Nadal, who caused similar sentiments in arch rival Roger Federer’s mind by winning six of the eight Grand Slam matches, showed that his mind too needed to clear the trash – a term popularized by Nick Nolte in the Hollywood drama “The Peaceful Warrior”. Nolte, who plays an old man who knows the protagonist Dan Millman’s mind more than Dan himself, defines trash as “anything that is keeping you from the only thing that matters… this moment… here…now”. (Watch select scenes).

The old man, whom Dan nicknames ‘Socrates’ goes on to add: “The time is now, the place is here. Stay in the present. You can do nothing to change the past, and the future will never come exactly as you plan or hope for.”

We spend most of our lives being away from the present. The past haunts us while the future worries us. This is where many of our ancient texts underscored the importance of ‘silencing the mind’. Legendary Zen teacher Alan Watts describes it as the art of temporarily silencing the mind or stopping the chatter within the skull. (Listen to audio).

So, does Nadal’s loss mean that he would continue to succumb to Djokovic in the future? Only time will tell, but what we can decipher from the post-match phase of Nadal’s mind is that he analyzed his problems and did not blame everything on his lack of peak fitness. Maybe, there is still hope for the Spaniard and for Roger Federer too!

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  • K Balakumar

    Good analysis with the right examples. Killing the demons of the mind is the key to success in any field. If only we knew how to pull this off …well, well, well

  • Saurav Mohanty

    Neat. Great connect and apt. Thanks for this good read.

  • Raj

    @balakumar… killing demons requires effort… like the Bhagavad Gita says… seek excellence in action… forget about the results.

    @Saurav: Thanks mate…happy that you liked the post.

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  • Jayakrishnan

    Brilliant! The best analysis of a sporting event I have read in a while. That eternal Q. How to control, if not conquer, that twisting & turning beast called – The Mind.

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  • Christy

    Nice approach. We really need to focus when we want something.