Did Nadal Choke at Wimbledon?

The Anatomy of Choking

By Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D.

Rafael Nadal, the number two player in the world today, is known for his mental toughness on the men’s pro tennis tour. He’s won several tournaments on his aggressive style of play and mental toughness including the 2011 French Open. But last week, Djokovic defeated Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 in the 2011 Wimbledon final. Did Nadal choke in the championship match against Novak Djokovic? Was Nadal’s confidence hurting because he lost four previous matches to Djokovic? In today’s article, I’ll explain why Nadal may have choked during the final match at Wimbledon and what I think constitutes choking in sports.

I don't think anyone would say Nadal is a choker... But according to Nadal himself, his confidence took a hit from four previous loses he suffered to Djokovic. Nadal stated that confidence is key especially when playing the important points of the match. “I started the final match without thinking [about the previous loses to Novak]. But when you arrive to 5-4 in the set, these [critical] moments, it probably affects you a little bit. That's what happened, and that's why,” Nadal explained after losing.

I think the previous wins was a mental advantage for Djokovic, which helped him to win the Championship in four sets. Novak said that winning the previous matches gave him more confidence to win the critical points or play well during the tough moments in the match. In addition, Novak used mental imagery to recall when he performed well against Nadal in previous matches and why. “Probably, you know, because I have won four times, consecutive times, in the finals against him this year. So I had that in the back of my mind. I was trying to take myself back to those matches and really perform the same way that I performed those days in those matches: aggressive, taking my chances, not giving him opportunity to take over the control,” said Djokovic after winning Wimbledon.

You can’t take anything away from Novak Djokovic’s performance. He played incredible during the first two sets and was playing the best tennis of his career (48-1 for 2011 so far). Could anyone beat him the way he was performing in the first two sets? When you are performing at the top of your game, you force your opponents into changing their game plan or approach…

My observation is that Djokovic’s aggressive and consistent style of play forced Nadal into playing defensive tennis and hitting more low-percentage shots, maybe stepping out of his normal attack game plan, which lead to uncharacteristic errors by Nadal and lots of winners by Novak. “I played short because I played short I think today. He's doing great. He's doing a lot of things fantastic. But I had to play better to win, and I didn't today. I played a little bit less aggressive,” conceded Nadal after he was asked if Djokovic forced him to play short.

But here’s what leads me to believe that Nadal might have choked in this match. Or maybe I should say he choked based on Nadal’s own standards of mental toughness. Everyone knows how great he is when his back is against the wall and what type of shots he can hit during the important moments or points of the match, such as break points or game points. However, Nadal conceded that he did not play the important points well in this match. He confessed that the mental part is “a little bit dangerous for me.”

“The most important thing, to win in matches here, to win tough matches like today, like two days ago, is to play well the important moments. There are a few points in the match that can change the match, and I didn't today. Probably the mental part is little bit dangerous for me, because when I arrive to the 5-4, I played a bad game with 30-Love. When I arrived to 4-3 of the fourth set, I played another bad game with my serve. That's what I say: to win these kind of matches, I have to play well in these kind of points, they can change the match. When I had the breakpoint at the first set, at the first game of the fourth set, I didn't play well that point. But these three times, that's what happened. And to change that is probably be little bit less nervous than these times, play more aggressive, and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I gonna try next time,” said Nadal after the lost.

You might question: how does not playing the big points of the match qualify as a choke? You feel pressure when you have to come through on big points or important plays -- the ones that can change the outcome of a match. You come to a point in the game when you realize you have to make a big play to turn the game or match around. Did the pressure get to Nadal in the big points and cause him to under preform? Yes, I think so, but only because of the style of tennis Djokovic played: he was controlling the match.

Let’s back up and allow me to discuss what choke really means in sports. The term “choke” comes from the concept that you feel like you can’t breath – or someone is strangling you – when under pressure; a lack of oxygen. But choking has a wider meaning to me. Choking happens when you get in your own way mentally or your mind prevents you from performing at your best. In most cases, athletes experience physical changes, such as tension, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing. Athletes also report mental changes, such as anxiety, fear, apprehension, and confusion. Athletes often change their strategy when choking.

Most athletes and coaches would agree that choking happens when you are firmly in command of your performance or the competition and you lose because of a change in your mental state or a mental meltdown. You feel pressure or suddenly lose confidence, such as when Rory McIlroy lost a big lead and shot a 43 on the back nine during the final round of the Masters tournament. Athletes who choke will lose a big lead because they are fearful of not finishing off the game or they perform tentatively or defensively and lose trust in their skills.

But I think athletes can also choke at the start of the competition. They might feel intimidated or have a lot of doubt interrupting their mental processes. They proceed to play scared or afraid to lose and thus can’t perform with trust in their skills.

Based on my definition, did Nadal choke? When I look at his comments after the tournament, I would have to say, for Rafael Nadal, this was a choke. However, I think Nadal was reacting to the quality of the play of Djokovic.  Novak put a seed of doubt into his mind prior to Wimbledon when he beat Nadal four times in a row. This became a factor for Nadal when playing the important points of the match; the ones that can determine the outcome of the match.

I also give credit to Novak for beating Nadal at his own game: an aggressive style of play and forcing Nadal to play defense, which I think lead him to make more errors. This was Djokovic’s game plan from the start. “You got to take the chances, you know. In those moments, you have to believe that you can do it, not wait for your opponent to make a mistake,” said Novak Djokovic after winning.

Nadal was able to rationalize losing and like a good champion use this lose as a springboard to improve his game. “He's in the best moment of his career. That's true, too. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still not enough for him. I have to play longer. I have to play more aggressive. I have to have less mistakes. I understand the sport is like this. When one player is better than you, at this moment the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and wait a little bit for your time,” said Nadal.

For tips on how to avoid choking, visit Peaksports Network Online Mental Training System.

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