At the end of this match I was left both dumbfounded and dizzy after witnessing an incredible comeback from 2 sets and a break down, including 7 straight breaks in the 5th set, and finally an insane level of play to finish the fairytale. Watching Fognini point to his head and pump his heart as he looked to his supporters to signify his massive mental effort left chills..
John McEnroe summed up the collective feeling well when he remarked, “That was one of the greatest, most spectacular comebacks you’re ever going to see…The level of play to mount that miraculous comeback will be remembered for a long time.”
But what allowed this moment to unfold when Rafa had previously been a perfect 151-0 when leading by 2 sets in Slams?
I contend that, during the crucial 3rd set, based on these players’ combined recent histories, 2 key psychological factors consecutively unfolded to give Fognini a chance at the unbelievable; when; if faced with the same challenge 18 months ago, the match would have been in Nadal’s pocket up 2 sets and a break…
1.) The 1st Factor- Fognini’s Psychological Experience…
Throughout evolution it has increased the chance of human survival to be able to predict the outcomes of conflict, so that rather than becoming involved in a fight that can’t be won and risking death, a better choice for our ancestors was to submit early and save their life.
(To read extensively on the topic of pecking order effects any of Dr Allen Fox’s books provide excellent reviews).
The hangover of this process may be what we now experience in competition as helplessness.
Our minds naturally look forward and predict the outcomes of competition. When a player looks forward and predicts that there is nothing in his/her control that can influence the outcome he/she will experience helplessness.
The thoughts, “There’s nothing I can do” show up and his/her desire to compete is sapped. And because we tend to act based on these experiences players tend to automatically weaken when they become controlled by this ‘submission’ response.
So, if this match had have been played 18 months ago at a time when Nadal remained atop the pecking order as the ATP’s alpha male, while also owning a 4-0 career record against Fognini…at 2 sets and a break down, Fognini would have almost certainly had an expectation that nothing in his control could give him a chance to win, resulting in thoughts like, “There’s nothing I can do to beat Rafa from here, he’s too good.”
And assuming he became caught up in these thoughts (which usually occurs), his desire to compete would have been subsequently sapped..
And at that point, for all practical purposes, the match would have been over due to the psychological state of Fognini.
But a lot has changed in the last 18 months…
Rafa is no longer the king of the pack. Fognini has seen plenty of others beat Rafa, sometimes from difficult positions, and much more importantly- he has done it twice himself.
These recent experiences have taught him that Rafa is beatable and it is possible to escape against him from situations that he had previously would have thought impossible.
So how did this recent history affect his mental state?
About being down 2 sets and a break he said this, “I was saying in my mind, okay, let’s keep try, let’s keep working.”
And that’s what he did…at a quite incredible level.
2.) The 2nd Factor- Nadal’s Resulting Psychological State…
Nadal would have then sensed this subconsciously.
Traditionally, players heads are long broken by the time they go 2 sets and a break down against Rafa. He is not used to players continuing to fight at this stage, let alone considerably raising their level as Fognini did during these critical moments.
Instead, with Fognini on the rise, Nadal would have surely been experiencing a hint of doubt, a little worry, and a general sense of less confidence about getting the job done at crunch time than his traditional norm.
And it certainly looked like this unnerved him as his play tightened subtley late in the 3rd set thus opening the door and contributing further to Fognini’s surge that amazingly ended in victory…
And So What Can We Learn As Coaches?
You may think, that based on this assessment, I am suggesting that it is helpful to advise our players to recognize and change helpless thinking when it arises in similar circumstances.
And indeed…in the ideal world this is what we would do…After all, we know that it is easier for players to commit to helpful actions that increase the chance of success when experiencing helpful thoughts…
But this traditional advice tends not to work very well because it fails to take into account the most crucial matter…
We all have brains that have been designed not to perfectly navigate tennis matches, but to successfully survive in the world from which we evolved.
Therefore, difficult thoughts and feelings such as helplessness, fear, and frustration frequently and naturally arise during matches based on the match circumstances (evolutionary factors) and a player’s learning history (previous life experience) in that circumstance.
And based on the origin of these thoughts, they are very hard to influence in the moment of competition…
So, based on the circumstances of the time, just like Fognini would likely not have been able to ‘think hopefully’ if he had 18 months ago been faced with a similar situation against Nadal…
Although tempting, it’s likely NOT HELPFUL to encourage players to try to ‘control’ the difficult thoughts and feelings in such circumstances, (i.e., tell them to “Believe in yourself”, “Think positively”, etc).
Instead, it’s a player’s ability to become fitter in having these naturally occurring difficult internal experiences, and respond better to them when they frequently arise (without trying to change them) that determines long-term development of mental toughness.
This skill set improves the ability to commit to helpful actions while experiencing ‘helpless’ thoughts, which in turn increases the chance of success in that moment.