Why Rafael Nadal is the Best Tennis Player in the World

Last night, I watched Rafael Nadal’s incredible performance against Novak Djokovic to win the U.S. Open, making him the 7th man in history to win all four grand slam tournaments in his career (and he is only 24 years old!)  Although Nadal won 3 sets to 1 (this was the only set that Nadal lost the entire tournament,) Djokovic also put in a phenomenal showing at the U.S. Open, defeating Roger Federer in a five set battle on Saturday night.  After the match, Djokovic graciously congratulated his opponent, saying, “Right now he’s the best player in the world, and he absolutely deserves the title.”

Naturally, Nadal did a lot of things right to earn his career grand slam, but there was one skill that Nadal showed last night that impressed me more than any other: he ran after every ball.  Without a moment of hesitation or doubt, he ran after every ball, even if it was clearly impossible (at least from my perspective) to get to.  And Djokovic made him run.  He had an uncanny ability to drive Nadal deep into the corner with a hard cross court shot and then change the pace suddenly, following it up with a short drop shot that would dribble over the net on the opposite side of the court.  But Nadal would run it down, and sometimes he wouldn’t get to it, but sometimes he would. 

Nadal is a supreme physical athlete, but he also showed us the psychological strength of “self-efficacy,” by having the belief in his own ability to succeed.  There have been a lot of criticisms against optimism lately, fueled by concerns that optimism is behind the economic problems of the past couple of years.  But Nadal showed us last night, at least in certain situations, how a relentless sense of optimism can lead to amazing successes.

It would be a perfectly reasonable strategy to not be so optimistic on the tennis court–to not go chasing after every ball that your opponent manages to kill.  One could easily assess the difficult shots and decide, “I probably can’t get it, so I’m going to conserve my energy for the next one.  I’m not going to waste my effort.”  This is a logical way of approaching challenges, and one that most of us take every day. 

But Nadal knows that we develop habitual patterns of thinking.  If he begins to stop chasing the difficult balls down, he would develop the habit of giving up, of stopping short, of letting points go.  Like all habits, the more he does this, the easier it would become.  Sure, there would be times when he would save more energy because he wouldn’t have gone barreling after a ball he couldn’t possibly get.  But there will also be times when he will let a ball go when maybe, just maybe, he could have gotten it.

While there are times when one can have too much optimism, or too much self-efficacy, we often experience the reverse.  We talk ourselves out of opportunities we could have taken, we convince ourselves we aren’t good enough to take on the big challenges, and we stop short rather than launching ourselves forward and risking failure.  Self-efficacy is based on the idea that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” (attributed to Wayne Gretzky.)  Developing a habit of expecting the best and pushing yourself towards it almost guarantees that you will experience more spectacular failures.  But it also guarantees some spectacular successes.  Congratulations Nadal!

References and recommended reading:

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishers.

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13 Responses to Why Rafael Nadal is the Best Tennis Player in the World

  1. Louis September 14, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    Wow! SO true, Jeremy. Thanks for the post!

  2. Adrienne Keane September 14, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Jeremy…Another insightful post and perfect timing for me. Starting any new venture whether it be a tennis game, a new job, a new relationship or a new career can bring out the self-doubt in us. Thanks for the reminder of the power of optimism and self efficacy in keeping us moving forward.

  3. Edward Whiting September 15, 2010 at 12:25 am #

    Very insightful and something we should all take into consideration…Thanks Jeremy!

  4. Kirstin Rinaldi September 16, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    Successful folks aren’t born that way.They become successful by establishing the routine of performing things unsuccessful folks don’t like to do

  5. Jessica Durivage September 16, 2010 at 10:47 am #

    You know I have been waiting to read this for days! 🙂
    I love it! Confidence and willingness come up for me when I read this post! I have recently committed myself to several months of semi-private advanced asana yoga practices. We are attempting postures that I could easily talk myself out of – believing I was not strong enough, or not flexible enough. My attitude has been once of entering into each posture (or situation off the mat) with confidence and willingness – then you always succeed!

    What a negative thinking pattern to associate optimism with our current economic state! We must stay optimistic during these times of change – and be willing to open ourselves up to different kinds of successes –

    Thanks Jeremy!
    Jessica
    http://www.beautyatanyageisbeauty.com

  6. Jessica Durivage September 16, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    Jeremy!
    I have been waiting patiently this busy week to read your new blog post. I love this very much. Being a yoga teacher – I often teach about having “confidence and willingness” in every situation – and this post really speaks to that. Keep sharing!

  7. Jeremy McCarthy September 16, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    Louis, Adrienne, and Edward, Thank you so much for writing and commenting! I so appreciate it!

  8. Jeremy McCarthy September 16, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    Kristin, good point. People always think about their “bad habits.” But I like the idea of positive habits–those things that people do as a matter of routine that lead to their flourishing, success, growth, etc.

  9. Jeremy McCarthy September 16, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    Jessica, thanks for getting to the blog and leaving your comment. I can even see how the concept of self-efficacy could make a big difference in someone’s yoga practice. How you approach the postures, and what you ask of yourself in the practice, is largely predetermined by what you believe you are capable of. Namaste, J

  10. Val Kleban September 19, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Almost all people can do unusual things if they possess the self-confidence or take the challenges.

  11. Patrick Van Pée September 21, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Ok, good article, and all true. Nothing worse than watching a ball go by that you know afterward you could have gotten. It is a bad habit which does seem to get worse. But what if, by chasing every ball, he was then too tired to win the match? Same article? (and yes I realize your meaning goes beyond tennis)

  12. Jeremy McCarthy September 22, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    Thanks Patrick. That is a very good question and one I thought about while watching the match. I probably would have written a very different article, one that cautions against having too much optimism and shares examples of when optimism and positive thinking get you into too much trouble. Eventually I’ll be writing an article on this blog about psychological flexibility–the idea that it’s not so much about optimism over pessimism or positive thinking over negative thinking. It’s more about having the wisdom and self-knowledge to know your different modes of thinking and when is the best situation to use both.

    That being said, Nadal’s game confirms (at least in my mind) that on the court, the benefits of chasing down every ball (and doing it habitually) far outweigh the potential energy expenditure! Of course, if you do employ this strategy, you’d better be in damn good shape!

    Thanks amigo!, J

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