Sporting excellence appears to be built around great shots, perfect fitness levels and making the most of your natural talents, yet training the mind may be the most important element to success.
That’s the verdict of tennis legend Novak Djokovic, who believes finding a way to neutralise his mental demons has helped him to become the greatest player of all time.
Djokovic is on course to finish his career as the ultimate king of tennis, with his 23rd Grand Slam title at the French Open in May moving him ahead of his great rival Rafael Nadal.
Now Novak has peeled back the cover on what’s separated him from the rest.
Speaking at an ASICS event in London, the 36-year-old father of two suggested one of the biggest reasons for his success has come from the power of his mind as much as his physical talent.
“Mental work is important for any sportsperson, maybe even the most important part,” began the seven-time Wimbledon champion. “This is an area people are paying more attention to and deservedly so.
“In an individual sport like tennis, you are on the court yourself and there is no one to help you when things go south. Of course, you have a team supporting you in the stands, but you have to work it out for yourself.
“I believe half of the work to do is mental, before you even set foot on the court. If you fail to prepare, it is going to be a much more difficult mountain to climb and succeed on the court.
“If you suppress a negative feeling, it will always come out at the moment when you are under most pressure, so you need to deal with the negativity, and then it can be handled.
“If there is something that makes you feel comfortable and good in life, we always want more of that. As a sportsman, you sometimes have to play a game with your brain at times and convince yourself that things are okay.
“We are all human beings, we all make mistakes. We will all make a million more mistakes until the last day of our lives and you cannot look back and think too much about a mistake that doesn’t have too much of an impact.
“Instead, you have to count your blessings. I’m so privileged, so honoured to be a successful tennis player and play the sport I fell in love with when I was four years old.
“Focus on the positive and you will have a better chance to succeed in whatever you do in your life.”
The importance of routines – Novak says
“I used to get a bit upset with myself if I didn’t do something in my routine, I started to think about what I didn’t do and think I wasn’t good enough or that I was going to lose my match. But, over time, you grow out of that mentality, you learn from your mistakes and you move on at the end of the day. We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes and we are going to make another million of them until the last day of our lives. Again, it’s just important to not be too hard on yourself. I learned that less is more sometimes”
Mental resilience – Novak says:
“In individual sports in particular, you’re by yourself on the court so you don’t have anybody to rely on. If things go south, you have no substitution. I feel that half of the work is already done before you step out on the court. If you fail to prepare, it’s going to be a much more difficult mountain to climb on the court for you to actually succeed and win a tennis match. Tennis is not a sprint, it’s a marathon as well. For one to understand that, you need to have a long term and short term strategy. For me, at this stage of my career, it’s about titles. This allows me to sustain the level of pressure, tension and intensity, be it physical, mental or emotional, throughout the entire two weeks.”
Staying present in the moment and conscious breathing – Novak says:
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about mental strength is that if you lose your focus, you’re not present, and things start to go the wrong way for you. That’s fine, accept it, and then come back. How long you stay in that emotion is what differentiates you from others. We always think about what’s going to happen, am I going to win or not. You go back and forth, but what is important is how quickly you go back. For me, conscious breathing is probably the one ingredient that is the most important.”