Novak Djokovic has always been a good tennis player. He has always served and returned well. Preferring the baseline, he has always been a tactically sound and intelligent tennis player. But it is hard to dispute that he seems to have reached a whole new level of excellence since the end of 2010. In fact, it is clear in 2011 that he has gone from good to great. I am curious about the psychology of this transformation.
There is no doubt in my mind that Djokovic’s transformation is largely psychological. Always a good tennis player, he has now become a threat, a source of intimidation belied by his slender frame. How did he get here?
Practice of course. That is the physical part of the journey. Becoming great involves sacrifice. Whereas other players can be seen clubbing and enjoying the financial spoils of their success, the great ones sacrifice all of this and more to the demon of practice. I have a friend who so badly wanted to be a successful hockey player that at age 15 he left his family in the US, moved to Canada, and lived with a Canadian family, all so that he could get picked for a junior team in a location where hockey rules.
The best tennis players all have similar stories of sacrifice. Federer moved away from his parents at age 13 to train in Switzerland. Marat Safin left Moscow at age 14 to move to Spain for training – not knowing a word of Spanish. Many South and Central American tennis players move to Argentina for coaching. Agassi moved away from his family and into the Bolletieri academy as a pre-teen. Indeed, in the US, South Florida has become the location of choice for tennis factories in which students from all over the world manage to get a rudimentary education while spending their days and evenings playing tennis and more tennis.
The NY Times recently ran an article about 12 year old Ingrid Neel of Minnesota who had spent some time working with John McEnroe at his new academy in NYC. The article beautifully documented the mother’s struggle over wanting to encourage her daughter’s tennis talent while making sure she continued to have a balanced life.
But in truth, the great ones will tell you that there was little balance. The ones who succeed are the ones who truly love tennis and who have their own dreams of greatness – as opposed to just living out a parent’s imposed desire. This is my worry for players like Aravane Rezai. When a parent’s dream is harshly imposed onto a child, there is always the possibility of flaming out. When the dream truly belongs to the child, making the sacrifice of excessive practice becomes a much easier task.
But the payoff of that excessive amount of early sacrifice and practice is that when you get to the court, you don’t have to think about what you are doing. The tracks of muscle memory become so well laid down, so intrinsically defined, that your mind and body work in perfect harmony to produce the exact shot at the right time.
So there is no doubt in my mind that Djokovic has sacrificed a lot over the past several years. He has so clearly put in the punishing physical work towards greatness. There is, as they say, no short cut to success. It’s also not an overnight achievement.
But greatness is also a mental journey. And psychologists who work in the field of performance enhancement believe that this journey involves four steps: goal-setting, mental visualization, self-talk, and arousal control. I will discuss each of these in turn. And while I am not privy to Djokovic’s training arsenal, I will unhesitatingly bet on his inclusion of all of the following in his preparation for greatness.
(Part 1 of 3)