State anxiety. It is everywhere right now. And it’s one of the most underrated deterrents of a life well-lived, mainly because perception becomes reality. How do athletes manage the moment with routines, superstitions, and rituals that border on Rafa Nadal OCD like behavior?
I don’t think you’re human if you don’t get nervous.Sidney Crosby
Rafa Routines and Superstitions?
Estimates of the number of Rafa’s rituals range from a list of 12 “pre-serve compulsions” to 20 on-court rituals, with little overlap. Here are some of Nadal “musts”:
- Have a cold shower 45 minutes before a match;
- Wear both socks at the same height;
- Carry one racquet onto court, and five more racquets in his bag;
- Place two water bottles, one cold, one warm, in a straight line on the ground, labels facing towards the end of the court from which he is about to play;
- Sprint to the baseline after the coin spin, with a split step then a jog around the back court;
- Never walk on the sidelines – as if avoiding cracks on a pavement; and
- Bounce the ball 10 to 12 times before serving.
Rafa Nadal OCD? Or coping with state anxiety?
Perhaps the most colorful of them all is Rafael Nadal and his borderline OCD moments behind the service line. He is a laser-focused athlete with highly repetitive superstitions and rituals before performing a specific skill.
It all starts when he carefully aligns his water bottles in such a way that their corresponding sides point in the same direction. Perhaps giving him a bit more control over this controllable outcome and mental confidence before the match is even underway.
Rafa then does his usual big jumps during the toss before the match. Translation – positive body language while showcasing his determination and focus to his opponent across the net.
And as if that wasn’t enough, his pre-serve ritual is likely the one that conjures up the Rafa Nadal OCD label. From methodically touching his hips with his fingers, pulling his shorts, smelling them, and staring out across the net. He very deliberately takes his time on every point, not just the most crucial stages in a match. And such predetermined behavior likely allows him to have a mental edge at the service line when “the yips” try to undermine his performance.
And if a serve does somehow manage to come back, Rafa is ready to dictate each point in the game, set and match. Not only with his racket but also intensity-wise.
He starts each rally with a guttural grunt that reminds us of a 90s rap-rock band and again after playing each shot. Then a swift, deliberate uppercut to the skies if he wins the point.
And from there, his intensity only grows stronger. Rafa keeps digging deeper and deeper to grind his challenger down from the back of the court.
But remaining ever humble, offering the faintest of racquet claps when his opponent exceeds Rafa’s high expectations. High praise from a man so deliberate and purposeful.
Anxiety and Sports
When it comes to tennis, state anxiety is a tremendous beast of burden. With each misstep magnified through the lens of professional tennis history: the bloopers and the victors. Win or lose, tantrum or sportsman; tennis players are under a microscope they share without the benefit of teammates or coaches.
External motivation aside, the far more significant problem is that there’s a heightened sense of occasion when a player competes in front of others — a hush to calm the nerves. Then an explosion of sporting prowess.
Now imagine for a moment; you stand at the service line in Arthur Ashe stadium with 23,771 fans awaiting your next move with anticipatory excitement. Choose right – they roar. Make a mistake – and a collective groan or exhale.
Insert the 21-year-old version of yourself. How would you handle the moment when trying to make a Grand Slam breakthrough? What if Rafa Nadal stood across from you? It’s enough to give anyone the yips.
Sports Can Help Find Method out of Madness
Sidney Crosby’s steely resolve to Rafa Nadal OCD mannerisms. Athletes handle state anxiety out of performance necessity. It may even help them find flow state. The lion’s share of the attributes mentioned above are vital to coping with momentary anxiety and crucial situations.
It is only when they are a necessity of any decision that such behaviors can overwhelm a moment. When looking to handle the difficult, pressure-packed moments we all face, remember to find comfort in preparation and success in expectations
The moment is never too big when it’s been rehearsed. And that in and of itself is a talent that may take 10000 hours to learn and sometimes feels like that long to watch.