It goes without saying that this was one of the greatest mental battles in tennis history.
So much amazing tennis...
So many swings…
So many roundabouts…
So much pressure…
And ultimately once again the great game of tennis was able to dig to the core of the matter and reward the player who believed most that they were the better player (as painful as that is for Federer fan like me)…
For Djokovic this deep belief has developed over many years. Twice before he has come from 2 match points down to beat Federer at the US Open. In the 2014 Wimbledon final Djokovic won after Federer had a break point early in the 5th set. In the 2015 Wimbledon final, Federer converted 1 of 7 break chances, whereas Djokovic converted 4 of 10 to win a tight affair. And in the 2015 US Open final with the match tied at a set all Federer had 2 break points when leading 3-4 in the 3rd set.
All in all, Djokovic has been steadily establishing his dominance in the biggest matches over many years. So when it came to crunch time today, it was their differing levels of self-belief at times of the highest stress which mattered most.
For Federer, given his history of so many close losses to Djokovic in Slams, it was always going to become an increasing challenge the closer he got to the finish line due to an inevitable lack of self-belief. Unfortunately, combined with Djokovics deep rooted belief and brick wall defense when it counted most, on this day it was something that he again could not overcome.
First by handing Djokovic several unforced errors in a row from 5-3 up in the 1st set tiebreak. Then, after Djokovic’s mental rest in the 2nd, Fed again missed a return when he had set point in the 3rd set, followed by several uncharacteristic errors again in the tiebreak. That Federer was able to fight back again to win the 4th and come from behind when Djokovic himself got tight was an amazing effort as it looked like destiny was about to unfold as Federer found himself with 2 match points.
But unfortunately for the diehard Fed fans like me, our human brains don’t care much for destiny. Instead, our brains adapt to all types of ‘emotional implicit memories’ by continually automatically preparing us for the future based on what’s happened in the past, invisibly creating our present thoughts and feelings.
In this way our brains act like an ‘anticipation machine’, funneling and filtering incoming information through the lens of our past experiences, and influencing how we come to ‘see’ and ‘be’ in future situations.
In the case of self-belief/confidence we experience implicit memories of similar past events as outcome expectations (thoughts) and an emotional ‘sense’ of what we expect will occur next as we encounter new situations.
So as Federer stood on the doorstep of perhaps his greatest victory of all, it likely felt to him like he still had a mountain to climb. Combined with the fact that Djokovic was having flashbacks to his comeback US Open victories (as he stated in his press conference), history repeated itself with Federer failing to earn a free point on serve, then tightening on 2 short forehands to let Djokovic back in.
Given that crushing blow, it speaks to Federer’s greatness that he was able to give himself another chance...rebounding and coming back from 40-0 down on Djokovic’s serve at 11-11 to earn himself another break point and what at another time would have been a relatively straight forward forehand passing shot with Djokovic somewhat stranded on the net. But alas he tightened again and within a few minutes history had repeated (-:
A Note of Developing Self Belief/Confidence…
Unfortunately, because confidence is simply the triggering of implicit memories, it is hard to develop without powerful and specific memories of positive past experiences.
It is, however, worthwhile for players to spend time intentionally evoking past helpful memories before matches and for coaches and parents to help players frequently evoke good past outcomes through our communications. It is also a good spend of time for players to practice visualization of achieving desirable outcomes in the future as Djokovic himself has talked about doing in the last couple of days.
But when it comes to during match experiences, what is most helpful is that instead of expecting players to change the natural internal states that show up based on past experience, promote an environment in which players feel comfortable discussing difficult mental experiences, and then communicate that their lack of confidence, belief, or trust is normal based on their past experiences of similar situations.
Then encourage them to try to notice, during matches, when their actions start to be dominated by their lack of confidence, and instead, commit to helpful processes without confidence.
Or commit without trust.
So, in practice, I would say something like, "No matter what, if its the last thing you do on this earth, the goal is to be able to finish the point being able to say that you completely committed to (insert helpful process), even through you likely won't be confident at that time..."
Committing to a helpful process (for example a strategy), despite a lack of confidence/trust/belief leads to better execution/outcomes when players have committed to the process for long enough.
Better execution/outcomes then results in more confidence/trust/belief over time.
So confidence and belief in situations that previously evoked a lack of confidence come AFTER commitment to helpful actions without confidence/trust, not before.
Rather than telling players to ‘trust’ it, or ‘believe in yourself’ when the situation they’re in does not naturally create these internal states…
I believe it’s best to tell them to commit to helpful actions while recognizing that they will not have trust/confidence/belief in that moment.
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