The Rally: Rafa's Brain, Part II

Sunday, May 26, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Here's Part II of my Rally on the mental make-up of Rafael Nadal with Alexandra Guhde, Psyd., a clinical psychologist from the Bay Area and the author of the tennis blog Extreme Western Grip. You can see Part I here.

*****

Alexandra,

It seems that you're saying the early "Oedipal Victor" can open himself up to fear later, fear of who will protect him—is that right? If so, could that account for some Nadal's famous fears? There's a litany of them in the book—from his well-known fear of the dark to a seemingly constant fear that something awful will befall his younger sister. I wonder if there are other issues that could arise from his particular upbringing as he gets older. 

One other thing that struck me in RAFA was the unique way in which his two uncles helped him believe he could be a professional, in opposing ways. To me, what separated Rafa from a thousand other talented players was (a) he already an example of a world-class athlete in his family, his uncle Miguel Angel, the soccer star, which surely made Rafa's own youthful dreams of glory seem more plausible than most kids'; and (b) the uncompromising drive of his uncle Toni to turn Rafa into a pro. Within his own family, Rafa had the expectations, from Toni, and the reality, from Miguel Angel. That's not a very common combination.

Let me finish by asking if you think there's a type of fan that relates to Nadal. Is there a psychology of fandom, of which type of player we identify with? If so, do we typically relate to people who we have similar make-ups to us?

*****

Steve,

The combined force of “expectations and reality”— nicely put. Add a measure of coincidence, such as a kid who just happens to be able to hit tennis balls as easily with his left arm as his right, and you’ve got yourself a proper Dickensian tale. Also, you’re well onto the right track when you connect Oedipal victory with fear. It’s one of psychology’s most lively paradoxes, and one that Rafa embodies particularly well: An awareness of personal strength leads to the awareness of vulnerability. 

From a developmental perspective, when a child experiences himself as “too powerful” in one way or another, it is not uncommon for him to fear the destructive capacity of own strength, or to fear retribution for his expressions of power. To use a tennis metaphor, the harder he hits the ball over the net, the harder it might come back at him. And the longer he has to wait for the counterattack, the more the tension builds. 

Of course, the origins of this experience are rarely a tennis court, or a football pitch, or the Little League field. The sporting world might become the place where the experience gets represented, repeated, or even worked through, but this is fundamentally about family relationships. It's important to remember that these types of family dynamics tend not to be a something people are aware of in the moment. “Meet little Billy, he’s the Oedipal Victor in the family.” No, this is unconscious stuff, and it mostly gets expressed unconsciously, and in displaced ways.  

Although it’s relatively safe to assume that wildly competitive professional athletes are at least partly driven by a too-early taste of power, it’s still an assumption. We cannot be sure why Rafa’s catalog of fears is so extensive. There are no doubt multiple factors involved. Still, it would not come as a surprise if at least some of the fears turned out to be compensatory. In other words, the fearful Rafa might be a protective retreat from the fearsome version. Similarly, the humble Rafa might serve to counterbalance the threatening experience of a Nadal who wants to sink his teeth into every trophy in sight. 

If this is true, if Rafa’s fears are somehow compensating for his power, which he experiences as “too much,” then the restricted dimensions of a tennis court provides a safe place for danger. Within the solid white lines, Nadal is clearly able to unleash the full measure of his competitive, even destructive impulses. The tennis court acts like a sturdy container for all that ferocity. 

In contrast, experiencing competitive desires in relation to a dearly loved younger sister might feel not just dangerous, but treacherous. By this same logic, animals–even domesticated cats and dogs—represent unfettered instinctual aggression and are therefore not to be trusted. The same is true for Nadal's 6.0-liter V12 Aston Martin DBS. The danger is perceived to be outside of the self, and therefore must be subdued and controlled—in the case of his Aston Martin, by his tendency to ride the brakes. If we continue to scroll through the fear catalog, Freudians might say Rafa’s apprehension of flying in helicopters compensates for the desire to get “too high (and mighty).” His fear of needles could represent a fear of being penetrating (hello, forehand). Jungians would link the fear of the dark to a retreat from one’s own shadow side, which usually includes traits like envy, arrogance or greed (all very human experiences). So far as I know, there are no psychological theories about the fear of cheese. 

Regardless of whether any of these theories actually apply to Rafael Nadal, it does seem like fear—including the fear of loss—drive a need to maintain control over his environment. He likes to ride the brakes, whether it’s in a sports car or between points on the tennis court. To quote Nadal’s press chief Benito Perez Barbadillo, “He is a person who needs to be in control of everything, but since this is impossible, he invests all he has in controlling the one part of his life over which he has most command, Rafa the tennis player.” 

Indeed, “Rafa the tennis player” might have felt compelled to master his sport in the first place in part because he was on a lifelong quest for control over his life. He has, after all, been on the job since he was 2 years old. (Incidentally, the desire to be in control is not synonymous with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which requires the presence of debilitating obsessions and compulsions. So far as I can tell, the shorts-tugging is working just fine, even if the shorts never stay put. Also, the symptoms must take up a significant chunk of time every day, and we’re talking hours, not 25-30 seconds between points.) 

The notion that Rafa is on a mission to regain lost control, or dominance, fits well with Nadal’s preferred counterattacking approach to tennis, as well as to his penchant for dramatic career comebacks. This might be a good time to turn to your questions about fan identifications, Steve. From what I’ve noticed, many Rafa fans seem to share a belief that an experience of vulnerability is essential, not to victory, but to a truly satisfying experience of victory—there is a preference for a virtuous victory. When, as he so often does, Nadal chooses to receive rather than serve first, he gives allows fans to relate to the experience of beginning the match at a disadvantage. From the first point it is his task to wrest control away from the powers-that-be. Was there ever a more commanding “underdog” in sports?

You also asked if certain types of people prefer certain types of players? Setting aside for the moment that studies have shown that even very young children show a marked and immediate preference for attractive people, and also setting aside overall technical quality (articles like these are rarely devoted to lesser-ranked players), all signs point to yes—our personalities and temperaments inform our tastes. How could they not? The question of whether or not we relate to players who are similar to us is more complicated. 

Speaking entirely from anecdotal evidence, I’d say people tend to relate to players they perceive as possessing a trait they value themselves, or to players who display a trait they actively seek to possess. Yet while some fans relate to projected ideals, seeing their best selves in a player—as with Rafa’s “trademark passion” or Djokovic’s refusal to give up the ghost—others identify with wounds or scars. Fernando Verdasco seems to have a lot of this type of fan, Ernests Gulbis too. There is recognition of unrealized potential, or of a possible healing experience, and a subsequent desire to nurture it along. 

Even technical and aesthetic preferences are mitigated by personality. Quirky strokes, or pure form? Big server, or big returner? All-court game, or power from the baseline? It’s no surprise that all these choices say a lot about our personalities. But psychologically speaking, there is no preference as personally revealing as the player we love to hate. Who do you like to see lose? Who drives you crazy in press? Whose fans make you want you want to tear your hair? That’s the mainline to the heart of the matter, right there.

As a general rule of thumb, the more fixed the dislike the more likely an unclaimed personal truth is bound up in the reaction; we all know of those few Nadal or Federer fans who seem more preoccupied with disliking the other guy than in cheering for their favorite. The tricky part is in understanding what that personal truth might be. 

Everybody has a shadow side, a part of their personality that’s painful to own, and mostly, we project that out onto others. The difficulty is that whatever we project, or disown, diminishes the wholeness of our selves. Carl Jung put it elegantly when he wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” In other words, it’s great to have heroes, but we can learn as much, if not more about ourselves, from who we cast as our villains. This is as true for Rafa fans as it is for Federer-fans, as it is for Nadal himself. 

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Top Ranked Players
More Rankings