Roger Federer just won his first major in 5 years, beating his rival, Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open. Historically, Federer has struggled against Nadal, with an overall record of 13 wins to 23 losses against him.
After Federer defeated Nadal, he was asked in the interview if he felt the pressure of facing his nemesis, Nadal.
Federer said, “I focused on playing the ball and not the opponent. I know my game was at its best, I was ready. The rest was just mental.”
I love this answer. In Fed’s mind, he wasn’t playing Nadal.
Playing “the opponent, Nadal” could have been filled with baggage of the past. It could have been filled with notions of losing to Nadal yet again.
Instead, Federer simply played the ball. To me, this is another way of Federer saying “I was present. I wasn’t thinking of our past history. I let that shit go.”
This is one of the hardest things to do in sports, and in everyday life as well.
I could remember playing high school sports and being straight up intimidated by the other team. Whether it was their size or pregame warm up rituals, that shit got under my skin.
I would have been better served if I focused less on my opponent, and more on doing my job and having fun while doing it.
This can be translated to life after sports as well. When I had a business meeting with someone of importance, I used to get myself worked up. I put in too much weight into projecting what another person’s judgment was of me. Would I impress this person enough? Would she like me? This would only create more nerves and stress, and I don’t like nerves and stress.
I’m not perfect, but I think I’m improving. I learning the “play the ball” and not the “opponent.”
The opponent is not just the other person (and your notions of the other person), but it’s the mental game with yourself. It’s the mindset. It’s the self talk.
To “play the ball” is about being true to yourself, knowing you’ve done your best. Knowing you’ve prepared the best way you can, and staying focused on controlling only what you can control.
It’s letting go of all that shit you can’t control; the other team actions, the client decision making process on the other end of the phone, the reader’s interpretation on the other end of World Wide Web, or your past mistakes and history you’d like to forget. All of it is the ugly, imaginary opponent.
Are you playing the ball, or are you playing the opponent?