Thursday, July 4, 2013

Breakthroughs, flukes, and the fear of success

I can’t remember another event when so many of the heavy favorites found themselves dismantled and dismissed along the way, as a bunch of relative newbies stepped up and forced us to take notice. I almost don’t care any longer who wins Wimbledon on either the men or women’s side. I’m just thrilled at the sheer number of breakthroughs.

And this of course inspired me not only to contemplate the psychology of breaking through but to finally write that long promised article on the fear of success. Because have no doubt that breaking through is very much a psychological experience, which, when mismanaged can end up looking like a fluke event, never to be repeated. When managed well however, a breakthrough can turn out to be a stepping-stone toward further success.

I’m thinking of Darcis and his win against Nadal. I admired Nadal’s insistence on not detracting from Darcis’ victory by refusing to answer questions about his knee. Nadal was willing to graciously concede the breakthrough. Darcis celebrated like he had won Wimbledon and needed to work no further. He did interview after interview after interview, talked incessantly about how he was going to celebrate by drinking Belgian beer – and then called in sick the next day.

Sometimes success scares people. Sometimes a breakthrough turns out to be more than a player is psychologically ready to handle. I don’t know that this is true for Darcis, but I do know that the way he coped with his moment of success turned out to be very telling. I won’t at all be surprised if he turns out to be another Mark Keil or George Bastl.

I felt similarly about Dustin Brown’s victory over Hewitt. Yes I was proud of my Caribbean brother. But it struck me how much Brown focused in his interviews on his limited past. He talked only about his past struggles, his poverty, his having to string rackets at cut costs to make ends meet, his living in a camper. And I saw someone so defined and limited by his history of failure, so enshrined in the bleakness of his past that he was unable to articulate any kind of successful future.

People who succeed learn from the past but they never set up camp there. Their past motivates them to push forward but always their momentum is toward. People who succeed remember their history but they also know how to let it go. History becomes the force that motivates them to keep moving away from, but it never comes to define or limit them.

Successful people also know how to honor those positive components of their past that contributed to their present success – like Djokovic’ plans to honor the memory of his past female coach. But I would no more expect Serena to continue living in Compton than I would expect Sharapova to move back to that village near Chernobyl. Sometimes the past is something that you let go of, even at the risk of being accused of forgetting where you came from.

Understand that I am not denying that success is often the result of privilege and opportunity, available more to some than to others. But there is also a psychology to seizing the moment, to grasping at those brass rings and not letting go, to seizing the day.

Take for example Sabine Lisicki, who when asked how she was going to celebrate her decisive victory over Serena Williams, stated that she had no plans to celebrate because there was a next match to prepare for. That is the language of a true breakthrough performer. That is the vocabulary of success. And even if she does not go on to hoist the trophy come Saturday, there is no question in anyone’s mind that Lisicki has stated her claim to future success on the tour. Carpe diem.


brian said...

Great and perceptive comment !

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