Thursday, May 30, 2013

Li Na and the difficulties with change

There is no question that Li Na’s game has already changed under the guidance of Carlos Rodriguez. Already she has added way more spin to both her forehand and backhand. Already her fitness and movement are visibly improved. Already her forehand is no longer a liability but has become a weapon. Already she has cut out the business of losing focus in the middle of a match while she looks up to the stands to cuss out her long-suffering husband.

Clearly Li Na’s tactical game has improved. The remaining problems are all mental.

Change is hard, Li Na can tell you. In her cheerfully blunt fashion, she has been open about the difficulties of enduring the painful boot camp that Rodriguez put her through. Henin is probably the only person who can empathize with her pain. Carlos uniquely seems to understand how to take a woman of small stature and turn her into a force to be reckoned with. He did so with Henin, not just physically but also mentally.

Henin was a mentally ferocious woman. She never doubted her ability to win, no matter what the circumstances, no matter whom her opponent. My favorite Henin story involved the brevity of her honeymoon to that fey-looking dude. Blink and you mighta missed it. JuJu had to be back on court, sexual consummation be damned.

The problem with change is how quickly it can unravel under the right set of circumstances. Put enough pressure on a human being and she might relapse to old habits, old ways of playing and coping. Apply enough pressure on an individual in the middle of changing and she just might reverse course and fall back into old habits.

This I believe is what happened today with Li Na in her match against an unexpectedly confident Mattek-Sands. Who knew that Bethanie had decided to stop wearing silly tennis ball dresses? Who knew that she had removed the silly under-eye markings? Who knew that she had gone on the Djokovic diet and was the healthier and better for it? In other words, Bethanie has also changed.

Two psychologists named Prochaska and DiClemiente were among the first to articulate how people change and why change is so darn hard to maintain. They noted that a lot of people don’t even realize that there are things about themselves that they need to change. Others around them might realize that they suck, but they themselves honestly don’t. They are truly blind to their issues.

A good example of this (for far too long) was Gael Monfils who seemed blissfully unaware that all of his stupid antics, all of his showmanship, all of his pointless dancing and clowning were actually hurting his game. He enjoyed the role of court jester so much that he never once realized that it was keeping him stunted.

And then Monfils changed. We saw it especially in the match against Berdych two days ago. Sure Monfils sometimes played the crowd, but he never played to the crowd. There is a difference. Monfils was more serious, more focused, more self-contained. And he beat a player ranked way higher than him.

According to the model of change put forth by Prochaska and DiClemiente, at some point Monfils would have become aware that he needed to change. That stage is called contemplation. In the contemplation phase, the person becomes aware that there is a problem and that they need to fix it. But that awareness, that contemplation of change, is only part of the process.

(Part 1 of 2)

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