Watching Nadal and Kyrgios in the final of Beijing highlighted the contrast in 1 vital mental skill that we often fail to understand. Let’s explore it…
Nadal Is Actually Getting Better…
It’s hard to believe but Nadal is actually getting better. He is a competitive machine… Simply the greatest competitor the game has ever seen.
Last night is the best I’ve ever seen him play on a hard court. That he turned up to this rather minor tournament (for him) at this stage of his career and displayed the same desire to win as if it was a Slam is the very reason he has become so good and continues to improve.
His insanely high level had Kyrgios looking for an exit within 30mins.
Kyrgios Is Deeply Addicted to Reducing Fear and Pain…
The reasons that Nadal has become so great are many. But 1 of the most important that sets him apart from all but Federer is his consistent, career long ability to tolerate the fears that come with potential loss, and the pain that comes with actual loss.
The very reason that Nadal is able to lay it all on the line in every practice session, in every match, is not only because he is so driven to succeed, but also because he can tolerate the pain of when it doesn’t work out…and this is often overlooked.
This is something Djokovic struggled with through a large part of his early career. It is something Murray continues to struggle with but he has been tamed to a degree, and managed very well at times during his relationship with Lendl.
Unfortunately for Kyrgios, he is the opposite of Nadal in this regard…and in the depths of an addiction to reducing stress when on court pressure rises to its highest.
And This Doesn’t Occur Because He Doesn’t Care About Tennis…
It occurs because he cares so much…
I would bet a lot of money that Kyrgios is deeply competitive and driven.
When he is playing his pick up basketball games, I bet he competes hard every time, not because he wants to win more than he wants to win in tennis, but because he fears losing less.
Addictions that occur in any area of life become addictions and strengthen because the addictive action serves the purpose of reducing difficult mental/internal experiences.
For an alcoholic it’s the alcohol that reduces the fears and emotional pains of life to a tolerable level… For a drug addict the drugs do the same job. Coping with frequent emotional difficulties are the great challenge of life on and off the court.
For Kyrgios, his brain has unconsciously learned over time that certain actions reduce the emotional challenges of competing and investing completely in tennis.
Not putting it on the line is his beer, his safety net to soften the blow of losing… Anger is his wine, reducing the fear a little more strongly… Interpersonal conflict such as abusing the umpire or his support crew is his whisky, an even more potent fear and pain reducer than general anger due to its stress reducing release of endorphins in our brain…And the big daddy, tanking, is his heroin…
When he gives up all the difficulties in that moment go away, including the anger.
Unfortunately, Tennis Addictions Like in Life Come at a Cost
In this case it is the chance to win, and in my experience of getting to know players in similar situations a deep self-resentment.
And at the age of 22 his time to turn the tide is already running out, as every time he weakens the addictive grip of these behaviours gets stronger…his access to control more unconscious…and the urge to self-sabotage grows.
Similar addictions and self-delusions have put an end to any chance that Monfils will win a major…And before he knows it, Kyrgios’s Grand Slam chances could be gone as well.
He is certainly no chance of navigating his way through the level of pressure and adversities that a player must to win a major while all the greats are still hungry for titles.
While he may actually be at the point where he has the physical skill to do it, he is probably not fit enough, and there are just way to many metaphorical pubs calling his name along the way for him to avoid reaching for the bottle at this stage.
But if he was to be brave enough to confront and work through his issues, he may well still have a chance to become a dominant force in the game in time…
But from where he stands it would almost certainly take years, not weeks or months, to overcome his demons. For just as the habits that Kyrgios has formed have taken years to develop, so they almost always take to eradicate.
While it would be fantastic if Kyrgios could simply CHOOSE to change his attitude through an act of will, this hope shows a lack of understanding of how our brain works.
From a Brain Perspective,
neuroscience shows that as physical skills and psychological attitudes/responses become habitual through experience, they are housed in the same brain area, called the basal ganglia.
When our brain figures out that we’re doing something a lot, whether it’s a motor skill or a thought pattern, it decides that rather than having to put conscious effort into the process, it makes it automatic by shifting it to this deeper brain region.
You might think of this transition like the operation of a manual versus an automatic car.
Once automatic, the brain operates these processes automatically based on what we’ve done in the past, not via choice, just like an automatic car that changes gears automatically.
And because they are unseen, attitudes are in many ways harder to change than physcial skills. For example, physical skill being there for all to see gives us vital feedback whereas psychological perspectives and the desire to change is often made more difficult by disguises that develop to both deceive others and keep the person themselves feeling better.
In this way one’s attitude is not a choice but a response to thousands of memories formed and strengthened over time.
Kyrgios is already a great player… And in certain circumstances he has shown that he can compete incredibly well at times.
But when he MOST wants to win and the pressure rises, that’s when his fears creep in and the potential pain of losing become too much, and he ALWAYS reaches for the bottle.
It would be such a pity if he never does the rehab required to give himself a chance to win Grand Slams.
But just like the inevitability of Nadal continuing to improve while his body holds up, Kyrgios’s path to missing out on Grand Slam glory followed by a life with serious regrets is assured as long as he does not.