Be your own Advocate on the Court: The Role of Autonomy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences in how players handle pressure. I talk to juniors and adults all week long about their experience in the game–what holds them back, how they worry about losing when ahead, not believing in themselves enough to beat someone they believe they could beat, worry about a tournament days before it begins, playing well yet their inner voice tries to take them down anyway, etc…

Let’s face it. This game is rough. There is really no sport like it. Even, as a boxer, you have your trainer in the corner giving you a rub down between rounds. Once you are on the court in a match you are all alone. Truly. You miss a shot, nobody can fix it but you. If your mind runs away on you, you are the only one who can bring it back.

The truth is if you don’t have a good relationship with yourself (in general) or on the court you are doomed. Where can you turn? At the very least, you really need to support yourself. You mean, let go of an error even if you “should” have made it? Yes. But, that would be akin to accepting the error as if you were giving up, right? No. Acceptance of what IS doesn’t mean that you believe you will continue playing the same way. But to do any of this–let go of an error, make an adjustment, find your inner belief at a crucial point in a match, you need to be able to access this strength within yourself.

And to do that, you need something called autonomy, which is defined as self-government, independence or freedom. To manage the ups and downs out there you need to be autonomous–making choices within yourself, playing with intention, determining HOW you will deal with the stressors that come your way.

On the court, even though Rafa Nadal has his entire family on the sideleines supporting him, he has a sense of autonomy, and of course, humility. When he faces a tough moment he acts with an inner intention and is able to “self-govern.” In talking about losing points, in Rafa’s new book he says, “I learn to accept losing points against {them} with serene resignation…If you give your opponent more credit, if you accept that he played a shot you could do nothing about, if you play the part of the spectator for a moment and generously acknowledge a magnificent piece of play, there you win balance and inner calm. You take the pressure off yourself. In your head, you applaud; visibly, you shrug; and you move on to the next point, aware not that the tennis gods are ranged against you or that you are having a miserable day, but that there is every possibility next time that it will be you who hits the unplayable winner…I do think that maybe in the mental department I have develped something of an edge…I think I have a capacity to accept difficulties and overcome them that is superior to many of my rivals.”

Self-governing requires you to quiet your inner demons and nobody can do this for you. You have the resources to accept and refocus on the point at hand once you accept this responsibility.

Through my twenties I failed in this department. It wasn’t until I won the inner fight with these THOUGHTS–thoughts that wanted me to really see how stupid the last shot was. It often felt so intolerable. Letting go of an error quickly is an art and skill. It takes resolve and a belief that it will serve you in the end. I am sure that if I didn’t see how it would help me play better and win I wouldn’t have been able to quell these emotions in the same way. But, to do this, it had to come from me–an act of intention, will and a realization that I hold the cards to what will happen with the next point.

Don’t forget to let me know if there are other questions you have about how the mind and body work together in the context of technique and strategy. I want to help you integrate all of these elements in a way that speaks to your game personally. I’m sure everyone would benefit as so much of this is universal.