The 2016 Men’s Australian Open: The Big ‘4’ is Now the Big ‘1’

When Novak Djokovic lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final of the French Open last year, I wrote this in my post-match review:

“His (Djokovic’s) efforts strongly indicate that his march towards becoming a master competitor is complete…Quite simply, his ability to maintain consistent competitive effort throughout the challenges of both his semi-final (in which he beat Murray in 5 sets) and final was hugely impressive…With the histrionics and hitches that were a feature of his early career play becoming almost nonexistent, unless players can repeat Wawrinka’s incredible level, it looks likely to become a Slam fest for Djokovic in the coming years.”

Funnily enough, it was the way Djokovic lost that convinced me that he had overcome the final barrier (his occasional low stress tolerance) to becoming virtually unbeatable in the Slams…

And He Has Improved Since Then…

To understand how far Djokovic has raised the bar, anyone need have just watched his comeback in Murray’s 2nd set, 5-5 service game.

With Murray serving at 40-0 and looking like he had clawed his way into the match, Djokovic made an incredible 5 point run to break Murray’s serve, and the match, wide open…

During those 5 points, under the highest pressure, Djokovic simply bunkered down and refused to allow Murray an inch.

That Djokovic could ‘decide’ to render Murray powerless at such a crucial time was incredible to watch…

This few minutes highlighted the mind-boggling level that Djokovic has now reached…

Perhaps Rafael Nadal best explained it after his beat down by Djokovic in January, “Today I played against a player who did everything perfectly. I don’t know anybody who’s ever played tennis like this. Since I know this sport I’ve never seen somebody playing at this level…it’s so difficult to have chances against him playing like this. It is probably impossible.”

 Looking Forward: Hello ‘Helplessness’…

If it’s bad now for Djokovic’s closest competitors, it’s looks likely to get even worse moving forward…

Barring injury or ill health, Djokovic’s level is not dropping any time soon…

And so as the gap seemingly widens between the Alpha male and the rest of the field, that field is likely to feel increasingly helpless..

I’ve spoken about helplessness in detail in previous articles, but for a quick review:

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.

The hangover of this process may be what we now experience 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.

Because we tend to act based on these experiences players tend to automatically weaken when they become controlled by this ‘submission’ response.

And so, for Federer, Murray, and Nadal things will continue to get more challenging against Djokovic just not physically, but also mentally…

Assuming things play out as most now expect, as Djokovic’s performances continually send the message that there is nothing that can be done to beat him in Grand Slam matches, being human, even his greatest opponents will experience more helplessness over time…

This in turn increases the risk that helplessness, in addition to his physical superiority, will combine to widen the gap between the BIG 1 and the Next 3 even further during the coming year…

But What Can We Learn From This as Coaches…

Well, as I am sure you already know, some players are more at risk of ‘acting’ helpless when faced with extreme challenges than others…

Here are 2 simple steps that we can use to reduce the amount of time that our players spend ‘caught up’ in helpless tendencies when they arise during practice/competition…

1.) Promote Self-Awareness

As I have discussed in this article, even some of the greatest players of all time are experiencing helplessness against Djokovic currently, so we can be sure that it’s going to be a frequently occurring experience for our players as well.

First, it’s critical for players to practice recognising when the difficult “There’s nothing I can do” thoughts show up. This increases their choice in how they can respond to these difficulties (without self-awareness they will automatically act based on the helpless thoughts without realising).

We can do this by simply checking in with our players when they appear to be helpless and asking the question: “What thoughts are showing up right now about the match?”

 2.) Promote ‘Intentional Helpful Attentions’

Once players have recognised that the ‘helpless’ thoughts have shown up….without encouraging the player to change or reduce those thoughts (because that likely won’t work), we simply ask the player to shift his/her attention onto helpful processes that increase the chance of success (E.G., a strategy, cue) for the next point and commit actions to that process.

After all, unless they are playing Djokovic, there is almost always a process that can increase the chance of success on the next point, regardless of how they are feeling at the time…

In total, we want to help players to improve their skill in the following:

Taking Actions Based on the Intentional Helpful Attentions (Process), rather than the Unintentional Helpless Thoughts (Giving Up)

 

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