The Psychology of Nadal vs Kyrgios: 2 Vital Lessons



Wow...what a match!

Nadal was at his incredibly tough best and my sense that Kyrgios is finally making great progress towards becoming an effective competitor to complement his crazy physical talents looks more and more likely to be the case.

Here are 2 vital lessons to take from the match:

1.) Nadal shows again that choking is usually not fatal if you can respond well to the common experience of trying to finish close matches.

In tonight’s match, when Nadal realized that the finish line was in sight when leading in the 3rd set tie-break and again when he was serving for the match at 5-4 in the 4th set he suddenly tightened…A couple of double faults and playing more tentatively, along with Kyrgios's great fighting spirit, allowed Kyrgios to win the 3rd and prolong the 4th. 

But, as usual, to Nadal's huge credit he recovered from both chokes quickly  and got the job done…

There are a few key things we want to remember when trying to help players with choking…

 a.) Normalize It…

We want to let the player know that choking is common and natural so they don’t overreact to the experience.

b.) Explain Your Admiration...

It's vital to give players an understanding that although choking isn't ideal, they're actually giving themself a much better chance of winning than if they were to give up, explode, or make excuses, and that by being able to face fear takes strength of character.

c.) Try To Become Unhooked…

The trick here is that rather than trying to reduce the nerves (which doesn’t work very well), it usually works better to try to ‘unhook’ from them

By simply noticing the physical sensations that are a part of nerves before trying to refocus on a helpful process players can become less ‘caught up’ in the nerves…

d.) Don’t Make A Difficult Situation Worse

Usually the choke itself is not fatal…

What kills players is getting caught up in the self-judgement following the choke, rather than getting back on the job ASAP..

The key here, which you can help via points a and b, is to encourage players to return to the job after the choke experience ends which will usually be when players lose the lead.

2.) It seems like Kyrgios is on the path to becoming a more effective competitor. So how is this occurring?

It's very likely that the core of Nick's traditional competitive issues have been caused by an addiction to reducing stress when on court pressure rises to its highest.

And this doesn’t occur because he didn’t care about tennis as publicly claimed. It occured because he cares so much. As Kyrgios showed last night, he is deeply competitive and driven.

When he is playing his pick up basketball games, I bet he competes hard every time, not because he wants to win more than he wants to win in tennis, but because he fears losing less.

Addictions that occur in any area of life become addictions and strengthen because the addictive action serves the purpose of reducing difficult mental/internal experiences.

For an alcoholic it’s the alcohol that reduces the fears and emotional pains of life to a tolerable level… For a drug addict the drugs do the same job. Coping with frequent emotional difficulties are the great challenge of life on and off the court.

For Kyrgios, his brain likely unconsciously learned over time that certain actions reduce the emotional challenges of competing and investing completely in tennis.

Not putting it on the line was his beer, his safety net to soften the blow of losing… Anger was his wine, reducing the fear a little more strongly… Interpersonal conflict such as abusing the umpire or his support crew was his whisky, an even more potent fear and pain reducer than general anger due to its stress reducing release of endorphins in our brain…And the big daddy, tanking, was his heroin…

When he gave up all the difficulties in that moment went away, including the anger.

Unfortunately, Tennis Addictions Like in Life Come at a Cost...

In his case it has often been the chance to win, and in my experience of getting to know players in similar situations a deep self-resentment.

The great news is that it appears he is beginning to turn the tide :-)

The way that he was willing to have (instead of control) the difficult emotions of competing throughout the Aussie Open has been great to watch.

Likely the eventual result of continued unconditional support of those who love him along with months of skilled work with sport psychologist Jonah Oliver combined with the perspective giving circumstances of the tragic Australian Bushfires and death of Kobe Bryant. 


So How Has He Begun To Turn This Habit Around?

Step 1…Understanding

The first step in the behaviour change process always comes with understanding the cause of the sub-optimal behaviour. Without understanding trying to change is a guessing game which rarely strikes the target. For Kyrgios, this has almost certainly required the development of a trusting relationship with a very skilled helper over an extended period…(in his case I believe it is terrific sport psychologist Jonah Oliver)

Step 2…Awareness

Next, the goal is to not only understand the cause of the behaviour, but also to be able to notice these causes as they occur in real time situations.

On the evidence we have seen this week, Kyrgios is strengthening this insight.

Step 3…Acceptance

Next, in cases that the behaviour is linked to unconscious control attempts, the goal is to not only recognize the function of the behaviour during present moment triggers, but also to begin to develop the ability to make room for/stay with the difficult internal experiences that arise during these times without reducing/avoiding them.

At some point, to gain more control of his behaviour under high stress, Kyrgios needed to not only understand his behaviour and have awareness of what is happening as it happens, but also practice developing more fitness in tolerating the stress much like a long distance runner needs to learn to tolerate extreme physical discomfort. This is very difficult work, but work it seems like he is completing.

Step 4…Action

Finally, the first 3 stages allow people to begin the practice of responding in ways that are more aligned with goals/values, which can then strengthen over time.

In these cases behaviour change comes last and only after all the previous steps that build towards change occur (which take months and years not days and weeks)…And so it has likely been the case for Kyrgios. 

Let's hope that his path can continue as he is a joy to watch compete when willing to tolerate the difficult internal experiences that are a big part of competing at the highest level, and act based on his deep competitiveness.