I have been a fan of Roger Federer since I first saw him interviewed in 2003. I was struck then by his poise and his grace and the way he thinks about the game. And now, at just 27 years old, with 14 Grand Slam titles to his name, he’s still as consistent as ever.
Federer’s got the whole package: great footwork, unfailing mechanics and power which help him keep his opponents on the run. But what really sets him in apart is his mental technique.
The most important psychological ability in a Tennis player is called “selective attention” or “attention management” (Source). This goes way beyond simply staying focused; it is about directing your awareness to relevant stimuli while ignoring things like a screaming crowd or someone sneezing. The mind wants to focus on anything novel or different, but you have to keep your mind engaged in the tactics of the moment. Asad Raza writes, “Concentration takes mental energy…whenever I saw Federer on the grounds, he seemed to be using as little of it as possible”.
He also saves energy by effort management. Ironically, Fed’s has become the best in the world partly by NOT always giving it his all. He stays incredibly relaxed and drives the commentators crazy by just putting in enough effort to make sure he’ll win. For example, you won’t see him come up to the net much in the early rounds.
He doesn’t get too excited. Some players try to work themselves up (think of Hewitt’s “COME ON!”). But Federer has developed a great understanding of his normal mind; he knows how he generally reacts to certain situations and is careful to keep himself level. This way he conserves energy, maintains his consistency and muscle tension and keeps his mind light.
Andre Agassi says even in the hardest match game, “there is always a way out, a way through, a way to impose your will. You’ve just got to find it.” Some players get stuck by focusing on developing an automatic, “perfect technique,” which leaves them focused on solutions that might not work. Because Roger has such a repertoire of shots to choose from and because he keeps so relaxed, he stays open to new possibilities during a point.
Finally, he’s easy on himself. In last year’s Wimbledon final, after what was probably the toughest match of his life (one of the greatest finals of all time) Roger was devastated. Nadal had broken his record of 65 consecutive match wins on grass and his chance for 5 Wimbledon titles in a row. You could see it on his face it was a hard loss for him. But I just saw him interviewed. The BBC commentator asked him, “How long did it take you to get over the loss last year against Nadal.” Roger answered, “About 2 hours.” He said it was hard during the ceremony and for the drive back to the house in London, but then he was fine. He put it in perspective and moved on.
It’s nice to see that you can be the best in the world (maybe the best of all time) without having to beat yourself up about every minor mistake. It means he can live a rich life, he can enjoy what he’s achieved.
How can we apply these sports psychology techniques to our own practice? I think the main take-away message might be the general reminder of the value of staying relaxed. If you’re stressed at your job, it’s not doing you any good and it’s not making you do a better job. I know you know this already, but isn’t it nice to hear it again?
Here’s another example: Olympic snowboarders competed while listening to their iPods, to keep them from focusing too much:
“You’re not over-thinking, and that’s the best way to perform the harder tricks and maneuvers.” That description is both hilariously incoherent and oddly spot-on. I think he’s trying to describe the sense of “flow” — being so joyously immersed in a task that the rest of the world seems to drop away: Perfect concentration without any sense of effort (from Collision Detection).