Nadal’s Mental Toughness: Know Who You Are

Tennis Psychology

Do You Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself?

I love the psychology of tennis during big tournaments.

The momentum shifts of a final match, such as Federer and Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open, are so fun to watch. Most tennis fans see the shots and strategy, but don’t pick up the psychology of the match – at least as much as I do.

As a tennis psychology expert, I could see Federer tighten up in the fifth set and make more mental errors causing more physical errors. Federer had 14 unforced errors in the set to Nadal’s two unforced errors.

Did Federer feel the pressure to win and thus tighten up or did he mysteriously lose his ground strokes in the final set?

Yes, the psychology of tennis usually determines the winner of the match.

Nadal didn’t have to say a lot after the final match, but I was able to catch a couple tennis psychology gems from his post-match interview…

He was asked if winning the match made him a better person, a crazy question, but a good answer from Nadal. I loved this quote from Nadal about not changing as a person:

“I just won an important title for my career. But I’m no better five hours before than now, no? When you win an important match. But you have to know before the match who you are and after the match you have to know who you are, too. You are the same, no?”
~Rafael Nadal

You have to know who you are. Great stuff from Nadal!

What does he mean?

From a psychology of tennis perspective, this concept may have helped Nadal win the tournament. I’ll tell you why. Many athletes define themselves through their achievement or lack of success. They allow their performance to dictate how they feel about themselves as a person. This is a problem for me in my work with athletes.

Maybe Federer put too much pressure on himself to win because he wanted to regain the #1 spot in the world… Maybe he wanted it so badly so he could feel better about himself whereas Nadal didn’t care how it affected him as the person… This is common in my work, but I can only speculate.

Your tennis psychology tip for today

Know who you are on the inside – the person – before you play. That way, your success or failure in the match will not change how you feel about yourself as a person and you can leave the court happy with yourself no matter what.

Your comments are welcome. Please post them below.

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7 thoughts on “Nadal’s Mental Toughness: Know Who You Are”

  1. Understood….but, how do you avoid complacency…even assuming one tried one’s best, is a tough balance betwenn your tip (which I certainly agree with), and becoming complacent….any thoughts?…thanks

  2. As a tennis coach and an athlete, I could felt the momentum of the match.

    Federer was overwhelmed with his emotions. He was tense from the first, serving only 56% of his serve. He was really tight….

    The reason is not getting back is title, the reason is getting that 14th. grand slam win. He knows that was is biggest chance, because it was on hard court, Nadal was ”tired”, if he ever was….

    He knew inside of himself that to beat Sampras achievement had to be done that day… was a bigger stress than just winning the Australian open or to be no. 1.

    Nadal had nothing to loose….he had all the excuses of playing for over 5 hours and never be good on hard court. He is 5 years younger and has times to become a legend.

    For Federer the times is running…..

    So we have watch that emotions when they are not very well control can be worst than physical or mental fatigue.

    A big lesson for all of us. A life times experience….

  3. That’s very important, something I’m currently working on.

    I believe that the largest cause for why most people tighten up during matches is the belief that you have to win and that something bad will happen if you lose. If you go up and play loose knowing that the results of the match will not change how you think about yourself, that helps a lot. Also knowing that nothing bad will happen when you lose is very important (such as coming out of it with a positive viewpoint and happy, rather then angry or sad).

    This is why most people probably play better in practice, they are having “fun” as opposed to caring about the results.

    Although playing professional tennis on center stage in a grand slam final is something incomprehensible to me.

    My favorite example of this is some qualifier named Ryler who played Nadal in the first round of what was probably the 2008 US Open. The guy is playing a night match in the gigantic arena with the #1 player in the world. The first set he was very tight and was tentative. Then when he got to the second set he loosened up and started enjoying himself and the moment. After doing this he went for his shots and went up a break against Nadal.

    Granted he lost in three sets, but he went out smiling.


  4. Patrick,
    Great article. I must say it was a tale of two Federers in that match. You would think a man who had won 13 grandslams would be highly confident going into a fifth set, striving to tie one of the greats Pete Sampras for the most ever! Unfortunatley over the past couple years there has been a road block in his way. That road block is Mr. Rafael Nadal. He is the only one on tour, in my opinion that can rattle Federer. As many saw in the interview after the match he finally let go emotionally. As a competitive player myself and a coach, I know that emotion had been building for a while now. Does Federer truly believe, anymore in crunch time, he can play like a true champion of 13 grandslams? Or will he continue to look too far ahead, distract himself from the moment, and allow the fear of failure in pressure moments to continually dismantle his performance against Nadal? I guess time will only tell.
    These to guys are a step up above anyone else on tour, and I know we will see these two greats many more times, but.. until Roger (In Crunch Time) truly believes he can execute his shots, remains composed, can trust in his abilities, and commit to what only he can control, he is going to have a tough time!
    This is exactly what Nadal has been doing in the CRUNCH! No Fear, Commitment to his plan! Nadal has a game unlike no other. It is the only game that has momentarily stopped the swiss machine from the highest honor. Without downplaying the French Open, we all know Wimbledon will be right around the corner. I have a feeling we will see the true Roger this time around!

  5. Tim:

    Thanks for the comments about the article. Only time will tell who will prevail in head to head. Although, I think Nadal is leading this stat.

    Patrick Cohn

  6. Hello Patrick,

    Thanks for the article. It’s very interesting.
    In my opinion, is very favourable have a ‘positive thinking’ for the sport and for our life. 🙂



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