Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
By Gareth J. Mole (PSY0001372747)
As sport and performance psychologists we are very fortunate to not only be passionate followers of many well known international sporting competitions but via our consulting we also contribute to the success of a number of individuals and organisations who take part in them.
One individual we have not done any work with is Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios and it’s his press conference after his defeat in the fourth round of Wimbledon this year that is the catalyst for this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest.
First, what did Nick say after his straight sets defeat to eventual winner Andy Murray that caught our attention? Here it is, word for word, in case you missed it:
“I don’t love this sport,” said Kyrgios. “But I don’t know what else to do without it.
“One week, I’m pretty motivated to train and play. Another week, I’ll just not do anything. I don’t really know a coach who would be down for that one.
“I’m just a little soft still. I think when things get tough, I’m a little bit soft. I’ve got experience, but it comes down to laying it all out there and competing for a long time. I didn’t do that here at all.
“To be honest, I woke up this morning and played computer games. Is that the greatest preparation? I don’t know. But it was fun.”
It’s hard to know where to start with this remarkably honest set of comments, but I’ll begin in the same way I would if one of my clients said this to me during a 1-on-1 session (many have said something similar). But before that let me clear something up which I feel needs to be stated by an expert (me) after the backlash that came from the Australian media upon hearing these comments.
It’s not essential for you to love your job (what you do for a living). Having said that learning to enjoy it more is likely to have a greater impact on most “key performance indicators of success” than almost any other single mental skill (method).
I would approach Nick’s apathy for his chosen sport via three different angles (long term goals, practice vs competition mindset and pre and post point routines) but will only go into the first of these in detail during this blog. I’d want to know more about his long term life (not tennis) plans. A simply question of ‘describe where you’d like your life to be 5 years from now, when you’re about 26’ should do the trick.
I suspect the answer might be enlightening and quite possibly have nothing to do with tennis. Maybe something related to his first sporting love of basketball or some life goals related to relationships and possibly starting a family. Even if it requires some probing there will be something that excites this young man about his future.
Once these long term aspirations have been clarified then, amongst other tasks, the role of tennis, as a means to achieving them wants to discussed. Is he doing it just for the money (which again, is fine, plenty of you reading this will know what it’s like to go to work because you’re getting paid rather than how much fun you might have) and if so how much of a role do his career earnings play in his long term dreams? For example, if he wants a wife, kids and a large house (with tennis courts, I mean basketball courts) in one of the more expensive areas of Canberra without having to work, then ‘money in the bank’ will determine all of this. In Australia the tax man will take about half of your earnings after a certain amount, so what he thinks he might need to get this done – in terms of money – probably needs to be doubled in terms of earnings. Suddenly, the difference between a fourth round exit and a quarter final exit at Wimbledon takes on a very different meaning (those leaving the 2016 tournament at the 4th round – like Nick – earned just over $200,000 Australian dollars less than those who exited at the following round – the quarter finals).
It should be clarified that I am guessing what Nick might say and so we’d need to accept that money already earned may be enough for his long term aims. If this is the case, and the sport of tennis doesn’t get mentioned during discussions of long term plans, then I would be happy to help him quit the sport and instead turn his attention to whatever endeavour he, and not the collective sporting media, put at the top of his bucket list.
Those who have either formally or informally studied the research on motivation may be wondering how this all fits in. It’s actually quite simple, the science (last time we checked) says internal motivation (“loving tennis”) is more effective in the long run than external motivation (“getting paid”). While this holds true, it also shows without doubt that both types of motivators can get the job done.
Maybe it’s just an occupational habit for me to find the good in every situation but there are a couple of positives to Nick’s reduced motivation for tennis. First, in the event of a career ending injury he’s surely going to cope better than someone whose sole focus in life has been tennis since they were 4 years old. Secondly, if he were to ‘find a way’ of getting to the latter stages (semis / final) of a Grand Slam then one would have to predict he’ll experience less pressure from within than an opponent who was ‘too motivated’ (yes, that’s possible).
The general consensus here in Australia is that Nick Kyrgios just needs a coach but looking at this from a distance it would appear he might be better placed to start working with a sport and performance psychologist first (and I know some good ones).