The Rally: Rafa's Brain

Saturday, May 25, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

This weekend, as Roland Garros gets underway, I'm doing a two-part look inside the mind of its only seven-time men's champion, Rafael Nadal, with clinical psychologist, Alexandra Guhde, Psyd. Alexandra is also the author of the tennis blog Extreme Western Grip.

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Alexandra,

Since your last psychological study of the world's tennis players here was so well received, it seemed appropriate to come back and get a little more specific with one of the more interesting "head" cases in the ATP, Rafael Nadal. We'll probably be seeing quite a bit of him over the next couple of weeks in Paris.

When we talked at Indian Wells, you mentioned that RAFA, his autobiography, was a treasure trove of insight about his mental makeup. It's true, you learn a lot about his worldview, and its origins, in those pages. The most obvious origin is his uncle Toni, who basically implanted his Spartan philosophy of competition and life in Rafa's brain when he was a child. I'm curious: What, from a psychologist's perspective, is the significance of having an uncle, rather than a father, as the dominant figure in your career, and to an extent your life? You told me that Rafa is an "Oedipal victor," which I think means that his father never stood in his way; he never had to "conquer" him. It doesn't seem like Rafa ever tried to conquer Toni either, but he's not afraid in the book to complain at length about how tough, even cruel, his uncle was to him. In general, Rafa always seems to be concerned with doing the right thing, which in his world means sticking to his uncle's philosophy of constant self-effacement. Do you think Toni is sort of a superego for his nephew? Even Rafa's penchant for making his opponents—and the media and just about everyone else—wait for him seems to have its origins with Toni, who would arbitrarily show up later than planned for their meetings and practices.

There's much more to talk about here, obviously, including Nadal's daily transformation from a bundle of nerves off the court—he's afraid of just about everything—into one of the game's most confident competitors on it. From you point of view, Alexandra, what brain type do you think Rafa has? What sticks out at you immediately about him from a psychological perspective?

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Hi Steve,

Thanks for having me back. Did I really describe RAFA as a "treasure trove"?  I must have been well under the influence of that gold Indian Wells sun. Still, it’s not untrue. So far as psychologists are concerned, autobiographies are the mother lode. 

So, what does RAFA tell us about the forces that drive Nadal? As you say, a lot about his relationship with Toni Nadal, for starters. Is it any surprise that the most three-dimensional character in the book is Uncle Toni? Emphatically a “thinking type,” with a moral code that borders on dogma, Toni seems to be one of the ATP’s most compelling and polarizing supporting characters. The question I am most often asked by Nadal fans—after “does Rafa have OCD?”—usually goes something like, “Is Rafa’s relationship with Toni healthy?” 

It’s an important question, and not made less so by the fact that I cannot answer it! The difficulty with psychology, as it offers outlines for human behavior and experience, is that theories work with probabilities, or averages and generalizations. The moment you try to pin them to an individual, you risk assumptive error. This might be part of the reason why the role of psychology in sports remains so unsettled. It can be profoundly useful—except when it’s not. 

That said, what is unquestionably valuable about the psychological lens is the way it can expand a field of view, or, even help the explorer reflect back on him- or herself. For example, in the final chapters of RAFA, Nadal devotes some quality time to railing against his uncle’s unjust treatment. He even experiments with his own psychological theories about Toni’s approach to coaching. On one level, those passages are awkward for the reader. The material is raw and personal, and Rafa is by turns defensive and attacking. 

On the other hand like so much else in Nadal’s career, he seemed to approach the autobiography more as a process than as a finite product. And if the process gets a bit messy at times, well, that’s life. There was a way the Rafa-Toni portions of the book reminded me of one of Nadal’s more effortful tennis matches—his agonizing victory over Fernando Verdasco in Cincinnati in 2011 comes to mind— even as part of me wanted to look away, I could not but press on, all the while admiring his commitment to the endeavor. 

And on a psychological level, railing against Tito Toni was a valuable endeavor. You asked about the importance of Toni’s familial relationship to Rafa—that he is uncle and not father—and yes, I believe that is crucial, although, obviously, tennis has no shortage of successful parent coaches. Parents, as tennis fans well know, make remarkably potent coaches. The trouble is that they are often narcissistically over-involved in their charge’s success. Letting go, or providing space to grow, as the child becomes a professional adult can become all but impossible. Even if the parent-coach is able to step back, he risks leaving a player rudderless. 

At this point I am not saying much that educated tennis fans don’t already know. But what's unique about Toni Nadal as an uncle-coach is that he has access to the power of the familial bond—being in a sense free to inflict the intensity of his needs on his nephew, to infuse Rafa’s game with multiple generations worth of desire. Yet Rafa still has a psychological “way out” of the relationship. Even if his parents are at home on another continent, they provide Nadal with an emotional touchstone. 

Furthermore, Toni acts as a mentor to Nadal in ways a father simply cannot. The term mentor originates with the ancient Greek character by the same name; “Mentor” was the wise and loyal advisor assigned to protect Odysseus’ son in Homer’s Odyssey. Modern psychological study has recently proved what Athena and the ancient Greeks knew all along: It’s important to have parents and mentors! There are lots of reasons for this, but a crucial one is that mentors help deflect the deadly heat of Oedipal competition. Competitive desires can be pretty scary to kids, particularly to remarkably gifted kids who might worry about outshining their parents. It doesn’t require much stretch of the imagination to picture Rafa as one of those kids.

You mentioned the term “Oedipal victory” in reference to Rafa’s relationship with his father Sebastian. Yes, you’re right, Oedipal victory can be understood as a father not blocking his son’s way. But it also has a darker side. If the son surpasses the father at too young an age, before he is truly prepared to take on the grown-up tasks that come with triumph, the victory will come back to haunt him. Even if this victory exists primarily in the mind of the child, it can be deeply disturbing. If you’re 12 years old and you’ve already “defeated” your father, who can possibly protect you from attack?  

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that Toni Nadal, as Rafa’s mentor, functions as a guide, but also as a kind of displaced target for the ferocity of Rafa’s competitive drive—as a buffer for Rafa’s relationship with his father. In an illuminating passage in RAFA, a young Rafael is bereft over losing a tennis match he feels he ought to have won:

"On the way back home in the car I was deathly silent. My father, who’d never seen me so gloomy, tried to cheer me up. He said, “Come on. It’s not such a big deal. Don’t feel bad. You can’t always win.” I said nothing.… He insisted. “Come on, you’ve had a terrific summer. Why’s that not enough?” “Yes, Dad,” I replied, “but all the fun I had then can’t make up for the pain I’m feeling right now. I never want to feel this way again.” (p. 45)

Nadal goes on to say that his father retells that conversation to this day, and I can well imagine Sebastian Nadal, quietly driving along, wondering how the hell he got such a force of nature for a son. But because Toni Nadal is also so close to Rafa, yet not his father (and thus also not the root source of Rafa’s “deathly” Oedipal impulses), Toni is available to bear the brunt of Rafa’s competitive force. 

So all this sounds pretty good, right? And it is. From a psychologists’ perspective, there’s a lot to like about the interdependent Rafa-Toni pairing. But where there are strengths, there are also struggles; which brings us to your superego question, Steve.

Yes, for better and for worse, Toni seems to function as a kind of looming superego enforcer for Rafa. One function of the super-ego is to protect the ego (the “self”) from pain at all costs. The young Rafa says, “all the fun I had then can’t make up for the pain I’m feeling right now. I never want to feel this way again…” Well, this is essentially a superego statement. The lesson is ‘discipline will prevent pain.’ Or rather, controlled self-inflicted pain protects against the uncontrollable pain of loss. And really, in tennis, this is true! 

Toni reinforces this dictum with his insistence on humility at all costs. The message being, ‘A lack of humility will cost you everything.’ (I’d hazard a guess that thinking of himself as “the favorite” in a tournament might equate with “fun” in Rafa’s lexicon.) But before you feel too sorry for the hardworking Rafa, another task hyper-muscular superegos are really good at is cruelty. There is nothing like a dominant superego to teach a person the soul-killing power of subjugating another. RAFA tells us of a tennis training game Uncle Toni used to play with his nephew in which the first person to reach 20 points was the winner. Toni would let an excited young Rafa get all the way to 19 before stealing the game away from him. Sound familiar? 

How many times have we seen Rafa play defense for 10, 12, 19 strokes, lulling his opponent into a false sense of safety, before breaking his competitor’s spirit with an off-the-back-foot wrist-snapping forehand pass? Superego tennis at its best. 

But is it healthy? A healthy superego is psychologically protective. An overdeveloped one is self-destructive. Is what’s good for the tennis good for the man? This is a question only Rafael Nadal can answer, and probably will answer many different ways over many years time. Tennis careers are short, but the individuation process lasts a lifetime. For the rest of us, our opinions are likely say far more about our own questions and answers. But so far as Nadal’s tennis is concerned? Well, that speaks for itself. 

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