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The Mindset of Rafael Nadal: 3 Steps to Being the Best in the World

Note from Josh: In this guest post from Jim Murphy, Jim says that I “Enjoy the fight” or the competition. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it isn’t, as I wrote here.

You might also enjoy this post on thoughts on hard work.


Raphael Nadal

Guest Post by Jim Murphy

On June 6th, 2010, Rafael Nadal clinched his fifth French Open title. At 24, the Spaniard has won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including five French Open championships, and an Olympic Gold Medal in the 2008 games in Beijing.

How does he do it?

For one, Nadal has a spinning forehand like no other. While other pros have spin rates measured at 1,800 to 1,900 revolutions per minute, Nadal’s average was measured at 3,200 rpm’s.

But talent alone has never been the deciding factor for being the best. I’ve studied world champions, World Series winning managers and GM’s, as well as extraordinary performers all over the world. They all have talent, but often they’ve beaten others with greater talent.

The key is their mindset—the combination of why they do what they do, along with how they’ve learned to think and handle adversity.

If you’ve been following World’s Strongest Librarian, you may have been inspired by Josh’s ability to hang in there when things get tough. In fact I challenge you to watch this video and not feel better about handling whatever challenges you’re facing today.

The Big Three

Three things stand out when I observe Rafael Nadal, and interestingly, I see the same things with Josh Hanagarne. Nadal is the number one ranked tennis player in the world, and like Josh, he thinks differently than the average person.

1. Have respect.
2. Enjoy the fight.
3. Detach from results.

Respect is more than admiration, it’s seeing the big picture; having an awareness of things unseen. Nadal’s Uncle and coach, Toni Nadal,talks about Rafael’s mindset:

“It’s about respect,” Toni told me. “It’s really easy for these guys to start thinking the world revolves around them. I never could have tolerated it if Rafael had become a good player and a bad example of a human being. I was at a symposium recently and a trainer said to me, ‘Look, if you ask a young player’s father which he’d rather get at the end of this process — a courteous person or the French Open champion — you know what that father is going to say.’ And I said: ‘No, that’s all wrong. Because if that player is brought up courteous, brought up as a respectful person, he’s got a better chance to reach the championship of the French Open — because it’s going to be easier for him to accomplish the hard work.’ ”

Ego and performance

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve found in performance is the ego, which is always threatened by a loss, or the possibility of being embarrassed. The ego doesn’t want to give full effort, or work harder than everyone else, because what if you do and still lose? To the ego, success should look easy.

Attributes such as awareness and gratitude, however, bring a positive energy that enables hard work and a greater ability to handle failure. Coach Nadal talks about perspective (taken from a New York Times interview):

“I don’t believe anybody’s destined to do anything in this life,” he said. He is firmly antireligioso, his term, and he also seems to take pleasure in placing the game of tennis — “being able to pass a ball back and forth over a net,” as I’ve heard him describe it — into its proper perspective in the universe.

Not “drama”

(Once when I used the word “drama” in a question about Rafa and Federer, Toni interrupted me midsentence. “This is not drama,” he said. “Drama is people in Africa who don’t have enough to eat. Drama is people no one ever smiles at. There is no drama here.”) The primary athletic goal when Rafa was little was ensuring that he had fun, Toni said.

Satisfaction in competition

The second thing I see with Nadal and Hanagarne is that they learn to live in the moment and enjoy that moment. When life gets intense, they can be in it without backing down. They enjoy the fight. That doesn’t mean they don’t get down or dejected, but that they enjoy competing.

“I love the competition, not only in tennis, but I love the competition in all aspects of life,” Nadal said. “When I compete I love to be there and fight always. Maybe I like more to fight for a win than to win.”

This brings up the third thing I observed: he detaches from results.

Nadal loves to play tennis, and he doesn’t let winning or losing get in the way of playing.

Baseball phenom Stephen Strasburg was just called up to the majors amidst more hype than perhaps any player in history. Despite all that pressure, he promptly struck out 14 batters in his debut. (This was without so much as a scouting report.)

“They didn’t really talk to me about a game plan or how to attack certain hitters,” the 21-year-old Strasburg said. “They just told me to go out there and enjoy it.”

Enjoyment is such a big part of peak performance and full engagement.

Back to Nadal. Cynthia Gorney of the New York Times writes:

“In every Rafael Nadal press conference I’ve attended since March, somebody inevitably asks him about the pressures of being No. 1. He always has the same reaction: a certain expression flickers across his face, like would you guys please just get over this, and then he says something along the lines of: “I promise you, I don’t get up in the morning thinking about being No. 1. I get up in the morning thinking that I’ve got a match, and I need to try to play as well as I possibly can.” That rendition of the I Don’t Think About It response was delivered in Spanish, to some reporters at Indian Wells, but I’ve heard it in Nadal’s less-fluid English, too, over and over: I’m fine, I don’t dwell on it, I just want to play my best tennis.”

You may think, “Sure, it’s easy to detach from results and have fun when you’re the best in the world.” But I believe a big part of how he became the best was learning to focus on what he loved, pursuing that above and beyond results. In a world where the ego rules and winning is everything, if we study those who are poised under pressure and live fulfilling lives, we can learn a lot.

Have respect. Enjoy the fight. (Be yourself and give it your best shot!) Detach from the results.

About the author:

Jim Murphy is a Performance Coach and Turnaround Specialist to elite athletes and teams as well as individuals striving to live fully and achieve greatly. He has a new book out titled Inner Excellence: Achieve Extraordinary Business Success Through Mental Toughness (McGraw-Hill). Sign up for his blog at www.innerexcellence.com/newsletter.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Todd June 21, 2010, 6:39 am

    Nice post. I would agree with most of this, but the thing about drama–I can’t get on board with. Really, starving people in Africa are drama? When it comes to Rafa and Federer, drama is far more appropriate.

  • Eduard @ People Skills Decoded June 21, 2010, 7:00 am

    The detach from results part sounds very counter-intuitive, yet I think it’s the most important. At a certain point, you need to stop focusing on the goal and just focus on the process in order to perform. And to stop focusing on the end goal, you need to stop caring about it.

    • Salta February 2, 2012, 4:14 am

      I absolutely agree with you

  • Amy Harrison June 21, 2010, 9:39 am

    I definitely agree about the detachment from results. It pulls you into the present moment and makes you more aware of working on what you can accomplish and enjoy in the here and now.

  • Randy Hauer June 21, 2010, 9:41 am

    Very Galwey-esque (“Inner Game of Tennis”) Results are just data required to make appropriate adjustments in the process of playing.

    As for enjoyment, I think the actress/acting coach Uta Haugen once said, “Stress is a privilege.”

    • Josh Hanagarne June 21, 2010, 9:44 am

      Randy, are you a tennis fan? I’ve played twice and was humbled in a hurry at how clumsy I was with a racket.

      • Randy Hauer June 21, 2010, 12:49 pm

        I love tennis and used to play fairly seriously. Great books on the fundamentals are “The Game: My 40 Years in Tennis” by tennis great Jack Kramer and Vic Braden’s “Tennis for the Future”. Galwey’s book is a real “how to” on thinking about coaching and coaching cues which carries over to most any other endeavor.
        “Average player” tennis enjoyment is 90% stroke production, 5% strategy and 5% fitness. Once you produce consistent strokes, fitness is just getting to the ball to execute a grooved stroke that executes the fundamental strategy of the game: no one can hurt you if you consistently return the ball to the middle of the court within 5 ft of the baseline.

  • jean sampson June 21, 2010, 12:14 pm

    I always tell my beginning drawing students that they will learn to draw only after they give up wanting to learn to draw. I tell them that my most important job is to make sure they enjoy the process and don’t even think about the end result. Guess what—–in the 2nd half of the 3rd week of class, they all draw as if by magic. But they have spent 3 weeks drawing, looking and not caring what the results will be. Works every time and it still surprises me!

  • Armen Shirvanian June 21, 2010, 2:49 pm

    Hi Jim.

    Your message there about Nadal doesn’t think about himself being #1 when he gets up in the morning makes sense. Some of us have the wrong focus. Some focus on selecting the right stocks to purchase and doing the right research for them, and some barely put any effort into that and instead put all their time into checking and re-checking statistics and stock value, which is a waste. We can check our rankings and value #’s all day long, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. When our focus is on the creation and effort, the rankings and other variables take care of themselves.

    This is a differentiating factor between winners and regulars.

  • Jim Murphy June 21, 2010, 3:44 pm

    Thanks. I think what Nadal’s coach was getting at is that tennis is just a game. I can see what you mean though: an intense athletic contest can be incredibly dramatic, whereas starving people in Africa is more sad and serious than dramatic.

    I believe the key to detachment is not to stop caring (because we do care, even if it’s just a game), but to rechannel the focus on outcome into being present and passionate in the moment.

    Timothy Galway’s book “Inner Game of Tennis” is a seminal book on performance for any sport or endeavor.

    Well done! I’m sure your students excel.

    It’s a constant struggle to stay in the moment and focus on the process when we live in a culture that is fixated on outcome and external results. But the key to achieve those results, as you said, is to focus on the process.

    Thanks for your thoughts everyone. 🙂

  • Benny Risanto June 26, 2010, 11:50 am

    Good personality by Nadal ;), good analysis by Jim Murphy..thanks for share