What Rafa Nadal Can Teach About Positive Psychology in Sports

by Ana Scherer





I love to play tennis.  I also love to watch the best players being masters of their domain, chief among them is Rafael Nadal.  Not only his level of mastery of the physical game of tennis is almost unrivalled, his mental and emotional mastery of the game is equally outstanding.  Since starting my Masters in Positive Psychology this past January, I decided to watch tennis through the lenses of Positive Psychology and make the whole thing an interesting research experience.  The latest edition of the Australian Open was my first adventure into this.  During the matches, I observed the players and analysed their behaviours in light of the theories I had just learned in class to see how they play out in real life.  Rafael Nadal’s matches were the ones I watched with much attention.  Not just because he is my favourite player, but also because I think he exemplifies a lot of the Positive Psychology theories I’ve been studying.  So, what Rafa Nadal can teach about Positive Psychology in sports?  Below, I will describe a few elements from Positive Psychology that are present every time Rafael Nadal displays his unimaginable talents on the tennis court.

The first thing that came to mind while watching Nadal in action was the relationship between Self-Determination Theory and athletes.  An athlete is self governed, their behaviour is volitional, intentional and self-caused or self-initiated, a.k.a. intrinsically motivated.  In accordance to Self-Determination theory, an athlete has her/his goals completely connected with her/his values.  As a former world class athlete myself, I cannot think of a situation where our basic needs of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness are more present than when one is involved in practicing one’s chosen sport. Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness are related to: The ability to chose one’s course of action; to be effective in one’s environment and to feel the reflect of one’s actions; and to have positive relations with other people who matter to oneself and to experience that one matters to them.  These are the characteristics of the three basic needs mentioned above and that are so crucial for one’s well-being.  Observing Nadal, and many other athletes perform, it is clear to see the way that sports promote a healthy way of fulfilling these three basic needs.  As a result, the athletes’ well-being and performance are supported.

Self-regulation of emotions is a very well developed trait in world class athletes, or at least it should be a major focus for athletes to develop, specially when it comes to an individual sport.  Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behaviour in accordance with the demands of the situation.  It requires a great deal of focus, self knowledge and the use of tools which come in handy in a high pressure situation such as the Australian Open final.  In an individual sport, as opposed to a group sport, there is no one else with whom to share the energies that are involved in the game/match/race.  In this isolated highway of nerves, athletes need to learn how to manage their energy and regulate their emotions.  This is a major component of any successful performance.  Managing one’s emotions not only makes a difference in the emotional and mental component of the sport, but also on the physical side for the emotions will eventually trigger some physical responses that might disrupt or aid performance.  The way in which the pendulum will swing depends precisely how one deals with one’s emotions.  Watching Nadal while he played the excruciating Australian Open final against Daniil Medvedev, was a major lesson on self regulation of emotions.  At age 35, playing against the 26 year old Medvedev, Nadal’s mindset was filled with the desire to capture his 21st Grand Slam title.  As much as he is one of the greatest competitors out there, he would have been forgiven for thinking his chance of winning the match dissipated after not serving out the second at 5-3 – with a set point, too!  Instead, he regrouped and came back from two sets down.  And what might have helped Nadal come back from the two sets down to win the match?

Forgiving himself and not dwelling on mistakes made was crucial for Nadal to come back, continue to fight and ultimately win the five hour match that gave him the victory at the Australian Open.  The clear choice not to dwell on the mistakes made is the only way to bounce back and continue to be a contender at the match.  As I observed Nadal’s body language during the match, and especially after losing a point, I could see very clearly how he chose to deal with that moment of despair; he would acknowledge the situation, shake off his frustration and focus on the next step.  He faced situations that seemed unfair, points that could have been disputed, and yet, he kept his focus on the match.  He did this, over and over, with an amazing capability.  In the current international tennis circuit there are very few players who show such ability to forgive themselves and use their energy much more productively.  Behaviours such as breaking their rackets, getting into arguments with the empires, reacting negatively to the fans, negative self talk, are some of the most common ones that show not just the lack of self forgiveness, but also the lack of self regulation that could be useful for producing a much more victorious outcome.

The use of rituals is a very effective tool that can help with the focus of an athlete’s energy.  It is dismissed by many as unnecessary or even as a heavy burden to be endured, but this cannot be further from the truth.  Rituals help focus and manage one’s energy and function as a very effective centering tool.  Being conscious of how rituals help their perfomance is a distinct feature of high caliber athletes.  Besides being a fierce competitor and having absolutely clarity on what he wants the outcome of the match to be, Rafael Nadal takes full advantage of rituals in order to center himself during a match.  His routine before he serves, how he organizes his bottles on the ground, how he enters and leaves the court, amongst others, could be perceived as displays of OCDisms, but they help him keep his focus on the task at hand and even to shut down the self talk that might be going on inside of his head at that moment and that might even be detrimental instead of helpful.

Finally, Nadal has a very healthy perspective of the game itself; his participation in the game and his experience are linked to something bigger; the game itself.  Participating in and contributing to something bigger than himself fills his life with a higher meaning.  Meaning is multifaceted; cognitive, motivational and emotional; and it helps him keep a healthy perspective that reaches beyond the actual experience and that is constantly linked with a higher one.  He knows that winning is important and that losing is also a possible outcome, however, the most important thing is his participation and contribution to help the sport grow and develop.  His contribution to the sport is the most valuable outcome he can possibly expect as it is clear whenever he speaks after a match.

It was a very interesting experience to watch the match with some of the Positive Psychology theories behind me.  It was also highly encouraging and motivating for me to witness how much Positive Psychology can add to sports, an arena that I am so passionate about and that has been and still is,  such a huge part of my life.


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