Monday, January 28, 2019

Osaka's amazing ability to recalibrate

I understand the many comparisons being made between Naomi Osaka and Jennifer Capriati.  On Saturday, Osaka became the second woman to back up her first Slam (US Open) by winning the very next Slam (Australian Open).  The last woman to do so was Jennifer Capriati, when she won the 2001 Australian Open, followed by Roland Garros that same year.  Capriati also made a number of ‘youngest ever’ lists early in her career, which has also invited comparisons with Osaka.  

But I do not want Osaka’s career to be depicted only through this single reference point.  It would be unfair to Osaka to have her career perpetually linked to Capriati’s.  Because, let’s face it, despite their youthful talent, they are profoundly different people, with remarkable disparities in both temperament and discipline. Their cultural and family heritages are also extremely distinct.  And they have a notable difference in their ability to emotionally regroup.

The ability to regroup refers to the capacity for controlling one’s emotions.  It refers to the capacity for managing one’s emotions in order to achieve desired goals, complete selected tasks, and direct one’s behavior.  It denotes the emotional skills needed to recover from a setback.  It was this ability that Naomi relied on to recoup emotionally from being up 5-3, 40-0 in the second set – only to lose it.

From that point of seeming advantage, Osaka lost 18 of the next 22 points.  She could not conceal her distress.  She yelped after making both forced and unforced errors, she pulled her visor over her eyes to conceal the fact that she was tearing up, and she eventually left the court with a towel over her face.   Clearly she spent the time off court regrouping emotionally.

That Osaka was in distress is not the focus of this article.  That only makes her human, with reminders of her youthfulness.  Her distress was also the direct result of the fact that Kvitova had turned on every ounce of her experience and expertise to claw her way back in the second set.  Osaka’s second set setback was very much the product of Kvitova’s determination, muscle, and strength.  

What matters was Osaka’s ability to regroup emotionally.  I don’t know how she did it because it all happened off court.   As a psychologist I know that regrouping requires clearing out any negative mental and emotional chatter.   It means quieting the mind and grounding the self.  It requires focusing oneself on the mission, reminding oneself of its purpose, and recommitting to one’s goals.

Osaka herself described how she came to the point of emotional self-control:  “I just felt kind of hollow, like I was a robot sort of. I was just executing my orders”.  She also grounded herself in humility and reminded herself of the bigger picture:  “I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a final. I can’t really act entitled.  To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly think that I’m so much better than her, that that isn’t a possibility”.  Such mature perspective!

In the third set, Osaka did not scream or yell.  She did not emote.  Her tennis remained focused, polished, decisive.  My wish for Osaka is that she continues to deliver on her promise and not allow herself to get sidelined by early success.

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